Road to Night: Notes on the History of the Music

NOVA Chamber Music Series presents Road to Night on October 14, 2018. Visit the concert page for more information and to purchase tickets.

You shall know me by my inspirations. Certainly, nobody ever said that, but it is true that an exploration of direct influences and other important precursor materials can bring a greater understanding of a composer’s work. It is especially useful for reckoning with the early endeavors of our most legendary creators. Known now variously as one of the great artistic minds of the 20th century and the man who murdered music as we knew it, Arnold Schoenberg at 25 years of age was still far from the revolutions that would define his status and re-define our understanding of creativity and its limits. 

The string sextet Verklärte Nacht was composed in 1899 and, as his first work of importance, it presents us with a sort of proto-Schoenberg who was looking back as much as forward. The fingerprints of Brahms, Wagner, Schubert, and others are all over the score and, in terms of tonality, counterpoint, and formal innovation, Schoenberg’s sextet seemed a perfect embodiment of its evolutionary place, as if fully aware of the many roads that had been leading to it. It was a completely new intersection of programmatic music and chamber ensemble writing, based on a poem by Richard Dehmel. The words tell a story that still might raise prudish eyebrows today. Two lovers walk in a moonlit wood, and she admits to carrying the child of another man. After some meditative soul-searching, they decide that their profound love will make the child theirs by magic. Schoenberg later fell out with the poem itself, finding it rather ridiculous, but believed the music stood on its own as an abstract depiction of nature and emotional transformation. 

Of the many inspirations Schoenberg likely found in the music of Franz Schubert, his mastery of string writing must have been paramount. Schubert’s Quartettsatz was composed in 1820 as the potential first movement of a new quartet which, though incomplete, was listed as No. 12 upon publication. No one knows why he never finished the quartet, but all acknowledge the magnificent single movement as a worthy companion to the “Unfinished” Symphony in terms of its abandoned brilliance. Johannes Brahms once owned the manuscript.

Speaking of Brahms, no composer’s work had a bigger lifelong impact on Schoenberg. Schoenberg regularly defended Brahms’ reputation against the charge of stubborn classicism and, in fact, argued that he was no less a progressive than Wagner. Brahms himself probably would not have agreed. He published the Zwei Gesänge in 1884. Based on words by Friedrich Rückert and Emanuel Geibel, these songs were dedicated to Brahms’ great friend Joseph Joachim and his wife Amalie.

Schoenberg’s teacher and eventual brother-in-law Alexander von Zemlinsky found familiar literary inspiration for his Fantasien über Gedichte von Richard Dehmel. Zemlinsky had met his hero, Johannes Brahms, just before the master’s death and had taken the advice he received very seriously. Brahms had urged the younger man to carry the standard of Romanticism and resist the temptations of modernity. By 1900, however, Zemlinsky was more inclined to stand with his student and lean into the wind of the coming century.

It can be hard to imagine how the inventor of 12-tone serialism could have possibly been influenced by Mozart, but if Schoenberg’s own words on the matter are to be trusted, he definitely was. As with Schubert, it was Mozart’s genius as a string quartet composer that taught Schoenberg so much. No doubt he was also moved by Mozart’s ability to deliver drama without sacrificing economy. Mozart’s Sonata for Piano and Violin, K. 304 dates from 1778 and intersects with the trip to Paris during which he lost his beloved mother. The music carries the emotional weight of the tragedy with great grace and sadness.

- Jeff Counts

Copyright © 2018 Jeff Counts. Reprinted by permission.