From Arnold Schoenberg’s letter to the poet Richard Dehmel:
“Your poems have had a decisive influence on me as a composer. They were what first made me try to find a new tone in the lyrical mood. Or rather, I found it without even looking, simply by reflecting in music what your poems stirred up in me.”
When it comes to the music of Schoenberg, everybody seems to have an opinion – myself included. The problem is Schoenberg was so influential a figure in the history of music that we often judge him through composers that followed him. Many point to Schoenberg as a great composer because he inspired countless composers to try their hand at “serial” composing like Webern, Stravinsky, and Boulez. And for exactly the same reason, others point to Schoenberg as responsible for driving away audiences from 20th century music. While both sides have a point, neither of these reflect the actual music that Schoenberg wrote. Believe me, despite Schoenberg’s many writings about music and what he thought composers should be doing, he isn’t the first or last composer to have “said” one thing and composed something entirely different.
Here’s my personal opinion: as much as Schoenberg championed in words a very detached, cerebral way of composing (i.e. twelve-tone and serial composition), his own compositions were extremely expressive and personal. There are countless examples of Schoenberg breaking his own “rules” of composition in his works for expressive purposes. Ultimately, every great composer uses their music as a form of communication – not a way to show off “solved puzzles”. In this respect, Schoenberg is indeed one of the great composers of the 20th century.
But even if you hate Schoenberg and everything that he stands for, you still should come to the MSO’s final program in St. Josephat’s Basilica at the end of this month where I’ll be conducting the string orchestra version of Schoenberg’s early epic: Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”). I’ve been looking forward to this concert more than any other since last September and finally it is approaching! Verklärte Nacht is one of the few works that transcends the controversy of modern music. It simply is a wildly passionate journey from darkness to light, depression to joy, and death to new life.
Based on Richard Dehmel’s poem of the same name, Schoenberg’s letter above hints at his attempt to “soak in” the poem and pour it out in raw musical form. My hope is that in the beautiful setting of the Basilica and the way the sounds fill up the vaulted space, we can all experience the “transfiguration” so beautifully described by poet and composer.
Part II will take a look directly at the poem and its relation to the music…