top of page


Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 (1899, arr.1917, rev.1943)

Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai

1899-1917-1943: FRAMING TIMELINE

Arnold Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) underwent several transformations. First composed in 1899 for string sextet, he arranged it for string orchestra in 1917, then final revisions in 1943. These years frame poignant moments in the history of the Hawaiian Islands. March 6, 1899, marked the death of the 24-year-old Princess Kaʻiulani, the last heir apparent to the throne of the Hawaiian Kingdom. In 1899 Kaʻiulani departed the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi for an England education. She remained abroad during the overthrow of 1893, "When the news of the Annexation came, it was bitterer than death to me," she writes. Duti-bound, Kaʻiulani returned to the Republic of Hawaii in 1897.


Bells tolled on the morning of November 11, 1917, in the Territory of Hawaii. Bells from Saint Andrews Cathedral and Kawaiahʻo Church tolled seventy-nine. Queen Liliuokalani, surrounded by her remaining distant relatives, friends, and attendants, passed away at 8:30 am at her residence, Washington Place; she was 79. Given a state funeral at Iolani palace, she was interred at Kalākaua Crypt at the Royal Mausoleum of Mauna ʻAla (where she had officiated the transfer of Kaʻiulani remains just seven years earlier).


By 1943, the Hawaiian Islands, still under rigid martial law following the Pearl Harbor bombing, began to see some government functions return to civilian command. More than 400,000 civilians were subject to the invasion of civil liberties under army control, with specific regulations aimed at the large Japanese population. The following year martial law ceased, ending the most prolonged military governance over any American civilian population. 



History remembers Arnold Schoenberg's exploration into atonality, music avoiding all association with a traditional key or any traces of tonality (major and minor chords). This led him to develop and formalize the Twelve-tone technique that based compositions on an ordering of the chromatic scale. The "serial" method became highly influential with Anton Webern and Alban Berg, who, together with Schoenberg, formed the Second Viennese School (the first being Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven). Together they embraced expressionist values defined by Edvard Munch's The Scream (1893), avoiding the conventional, classical, and impressionist depictions of beauty for strong, often tortured emotions through distortion. The concept of consonance and dissonance became obsolete in this music; Schoenberg freed dissonance from the rules governing harmony in the common practice period (1650-1900). 



Schoenberg's early works drew upon the chromaticism and organic musicality of the late Romantics, Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner. Verklärte Nacht (the poem) comes from the collected works of poet Richard Dehme’s Weib und Welt (Woman and World). Dehme's work was scandalous; twice prosecuted and acquitted for obscenity. The Transfigured poem focuses on pre-marital relations and its forgiving acceptance of infidelity, which is somewhat prophetic for the composer's relationships with women. Schoenberg discovered the volume in 1898 when he was 25 years old. He soon met his future first wife, Mathilde Zemlinsky, the sister of his teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky. Mathilde's affair with expressionist painter Richard Gerstle (who also painted Schoenberg's portrait) in 1908 marked a turn in Schoenberg's style, producing the first work without a key or center. Gerstle committed suicide when Mathilde returned to her marriage. Schoenberg's 30-minute setting of Verklärte Nacht premiered on March 1902 in the Vienna Musikevrein by the Rosé Quartet augmented with two players. Edward Clark conducted the premiere of the string orchestra version in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, in December 1924.



To mirror the poem's five sections, Schoenberg sets Verklärte Nacht programmatically with an operatic sensibility. Performed in one-continuous narrative, the music illustrates the psychological state of the female confessor and the male's reception and reaction. Refrain sections depict the journey through a D minor forest as dark and bright as the secrets and passions of the human heart. Dehme's poem serves as the ultimate program and is followed here in the English translation:


Two people are walking through a bare, cold wood;

the moon keeps pace with them and draws their gaze.

The moon moves along above tall oak trees,

there is no wisp of cloud to obscure the radiance

to which the black, jagged tips reach up.

A woman's voice speaks:


"I am carrying a child, and not by you.

I am walking here with you in a state of sin.

I have offended grievously against myself.

I despaired of happiness,

and yet I still felt a grievous longing

for life's fullness, for a mother's joys

and duties; and so I sinned,

and so I yielded, shuddering, my sex

to the embrace of a stranger,

and even thought myself blessed.

Now life has taken its revenge,

and I have met you, met you."


She walks on, stumbling.

She looks up; the moon keeps pace.

Her dark gaze drowns in light.

A man's voice speaks:


"Do not let the child you have conceived

be a burden on your soul.

Look, how brightly the universe shines!

Splendour falls on everything around,

you are voyaging with me on a cold sea,

but there is the glow of an inner warmth

from you in me, from me in you.

That warmth will transfigure the stranger's child,

and you bear it me, begot by me.

You have transfused me with splendour,

you have made a child of me."


He puts an arm about her strong hips.

Their breath embraces in the air.

Two people walk on through the high, bright night.


Arnold Schoenberg was born on September 13, 1874, in Vienna, Austria, and died in Los Angeles, California, on July 13, 1951.

bottom of page