I was back at the Cadogan Hall last week, this time as a presenter. The subject: ‘Transfigured Night’ by ‘Arnie’ Schoenberg, to be explained from the piano to 12-17 year olds after an interview with Pinchas Zukerman. Before I got to my opening question though, Maestro Zukerman was already in full flow, berating the assembled students for not practising their scales enough. He still practises them every day, apparently. All this was done in very good nature: a gentle chiding rather than a tirade. He’s a great racconteur and we managed to cover Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Strauss and Schoenberg in 10 minutes (just).
Then came my bit, which started with a question: what does ‘Verklärte Nacht’ actually mean? ‘Transfiguration’ doesn’t mean much to a teenager. I think the German cognates ‘klar’ (clear), ‘erklären’ (explain)and ‘Aufklärung’ (E/enlightenment) help here. You have the sense that the ‘true meaning’ of the Night will be made clear, transforming the situation and all involved. I told the story from the Dehmel poem. Good to see that the merest mention of the woman sleeping with a stranger still prompts an embarrassed giggle amongst younger listeners. It’s that universal Freudian release, despite increased exposure. They enjoyed my pointing out the ‘naughty bits’ to the poem as well. Kisses meeting in the air as hips are clutched – all racy stuff for the 1890s.
In musical terms, I explained we were going from the D minor of the ‘kohlen, kalten Hain’ to the D major of the ‘hohe helle Nacht’. Sounds great in German, doesn’t it? Harsh, bitter consonants dissolve – are transfigured – into soft aspirates. Correspondingly, the music goes from the heavy tread of bass notes accompanied by mournfully descending scales to ethereal, glowing major upward arpeggii. Don’t worry, this is not the space to give you a blow-by-blow account of the presentation. I was just interested to see if I could explain the journey from diatonic music into total chromaticism in a way that teenagers could understand. I think it worked, with the help of a very chromatic Bossa Nova (‘How Insensitive’) and, of course, Wagner’s ‘Tristan’ prelude.
It was great to hear the RPO play this marvellous music with such utter commitment. It’s one of the pieces that will not stand anything less, each stave crammed with polyphonic richness and detail (imagine Mahler after several stiff coffees or Strauss after a sherry or two). There are so many crisis points and climaxes that everybody has to be fully charged to deliver them with the right conviction. Without that, it could sag quickly and meander from poetry into prose.
In my research, I was intrigued to find out quite how inventive ‘Arnie’ had been. (People in music circles like to call him ‘Arnie’, as if he were some benign Elder who, bless, was always tinkering away.) He had one of those minds that must have made him exhausting to live with. Rather than sink into the sofa with a brandy, Arnie would be off designing traffic systems, four-sided chess boards and systems for coding tennis games. His mind seemed drawn to systems, to making sense of myriad connections and somehow wrestling movement that would be otherwise wilfully random into some new, more ordered way of being. ‘Verklärte Nacht’ belongs to that Expressionist phase in his writing before such systems would be imposed on the process. Behind its fervent outpouring is artful construction (the ‘perpetual development’ of 19 motives), but we experience it as a touching, free-flowing musical poem – an intense half hour that would point the way for Strauss to follow with his equally heartfelt ‘Metamorphosen’ for 23 string soloists.