PROGRAM NOTES

 

RICHARD STRAUSS
Serenade in E-flat Major for Wind Instruments, Op. 7
Composed ca. 1882
Duration ca. 10 minutes
Scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, and contrabassoon

Although Mozart and Mendelssohn are music’s best-known youthful prodigies, Richard Strauss was scarcely less precocious. Born into a musical family, Strauss began piano lessons at age four and started to compose when he was six. During his adolescence he produced a string quartet, several sonatas for different instruments, a number of orchestral pieces, and some attractive songs. But perhaps the finest of his early works, and in any case the first one to gain a secure place in the concert repertory, is his Serenade, Opus 7, for wind instruments.

Strauss seems to have composed this piece in 1882, the year he turned 18, though it may have been written somewhat earlier. Its first performance took place in November 1882. While it is a youthful effort, it looks back to a venerable tradition. Serenades for bands of wind instruments had been a popular musical form in the late 18th century. Haydn and Beethoven left works of this type. Those of Mozart, especially his great Serenade for Thirteen Winds, K. 361, crown the literature for wind ensembles. As the son of a professional horn player, Strauss undoubtedly was familiar with those compositions and learned from them how to blend and contrast wind sonorities effectively. The composition that opens our program does just this, and in a manner that updates the Classical wind serenade with the harmonic palette of the 19th century.

Another way in which Strauss’s work differs from the Classical-period wind serenades from which it clearly is descended lies in its formal layout. The serenades of Haydn, Mozart, and their 18th-century contemporaries usually unfold in from three to as many as seven movements. Strauss’s contribution to the genre, however, is a single-movement composition. It presents a quite straightforward musical discourse, beginning with a stately theme given out in the opening measures. Upon the conclusion of this subject, six measures of fanfare-like music lead to a more animated second theme, introduced by clarinet and horn. A seemingly improvisational passage for oboe launches the brief development section, in which Strauss combines elements of both principal melodies. After an abbreviated reprise of the two subjects, a pleasing coda passage brings the work to a close.

 

ARNOLD SCHOENBERG former Music Academy faculty member
Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”), Op. 4
Composed 1899
Duration ca. 32 minutes
Scored for 2 violins, 2 violas, and 2 cellos

As its title suggests, Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, or “Transfigured Night,” relates through music a near miraculous transformation. Yet it is not truly the night that is altered but, rather, the emotional and spiritual state of a woman, which changes from despair to hope, from grief to joy, through an act of love.

Schoenberg is remembered in connection with one of the most important, and controversial, musical developments of the 20th century: the abandonment of traditional harmony centered on a single “home” tone, or tonic, to which other notes are related to greater or lesser degrees through a kind of sonic gravitational pull. This may sound complex, but it describes the familiar aural world of Bach, Beethoven, and every other composer of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as all our popular music, past and present. Schoenberg’s gradual move away from this well-ordered harmonic universe into the uncharted waters of what became known as “atonality” was the most revolutionary musical development in more than 300 years. It prepared the ground for the challenging work certain advanced composers produced during the 1950s and 1960s, for which reason Schoenberg is regarded as the prophet of high-modernist radicalism. Yet Schoenberg’s own musical ethos was firmly rooted in the late-Romantic tradition of Wagner, Strauss, and Mahler. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the composer’s early tone poem Verklärte Nacht. This piece, Schoenberg’s first important composition, is strongly indebted to Wagner, particularly that composer’s Tristan und Isolde, in its use of searching harmonies and rising sequences of melodic phrases to convey the welling up of emotion. There are, however, some distinctly original elements: the long phrase lengths, the thoroughly contrapuntal textures and, occasionally, the complete abandoning of traditional tone-centered harmony that foreshadows the atonal direction of Schoenberg’s later music.

Verklärte Nacht is unusual for being a piece of programmatic chamber music — that is, an instrumental composition with a narrative structure. Schoenberg composed the work in 1899 as a string sextet after a poem by the German writer Richard Dehmel. Dehmel’s verses, paraphrased below, relate an emotional story:

A couple walks through a cold, leafless grove. Above, the moon moves through the pointed branches. The sky is cloudless as the woman begins to speak. She had given up hope of true happiness, she confesses, and in an attempt to find some purpose in life sought the fulfillment of motherhood. She is with child by a man she never loved. Now life has taken its revenge, for she loves the man she walks with and is overwhelmed by guilt. As she proceeds unsteadily in the moonlight, her eyes dark with despair, her companion answers: “Don’t let these thoughts oppress you. Look at this brilliant, moonlit world. It is like a cold ocean, but there is a flame within each of us that warms the other and which will transfigure the child and make it mine also. You have brought me life and made me like a child.” He embraces her, and they kiss. Then together they walk on through the radiant night.

Verklärte Nacht mirrors the spiritual metamorphosis implied by this text, beginning lugubriously and becoming by turns agitated, compassionate, and rapturous, the work’s ripe harmonic idiom producing the highly emotional tone Schoenberg desired. A closing episode brings music of ineffable tenderness, with even the dirge-like theme of the opening minutes transfigured into something comforting. With this composition, Schoenberg said very nearly the last word in Romantic musical expression. Soon he would move into the uncharted realm of atonal modernism.

Richard Dehmel: Verklärte Nacht
Translation by Michael Hammond

Transfigured Night

The two walk on through barren, frigid grove.

Their eyes float to the moon above.

It runs on over high oaks reaching

Toward its light, where no cloud strays,

Their dark and jagged branches stretching.

The woman’s voice is heard. She says:

I bear a child; it is not yours.

Between us now there stands a curse.

Against myself I have offended.

I’d lost all hope for my true good,

And yet my longing was not ended---

For life, its beauty, for motherhood’s

Demands. I gave myself in shame;

With one who was a stranger, nameless,

Allowed my shuddering flesh be blended.

Thought myself blessed, my purpose clear.

Now life’s revenged upon my blood.

O you have come. You, you are here!

She staggers on with eyes upraised.

The running moon returns her gaze.

Her somber glance is drowned in light.

The other’s voice rings through the night.

The child that you are carrying now

Should give no sorrow to your soul.

See how the moon’s enveloping brightness

Illumines all and all ingathers.

You drift with me on chilling waters,

But still there flows a warmth and lightness---

Yours into me and mine to you.

The infant stranger is transfigured now:

From another’s body but from my soul:

I too a child again in your moon’s light.

I stand transfigured in its sight.

He holds her round her ample hips.

Deep kisses breathe forth from their lips:

These two, who move through shimmering,

lofty night.

 

JOHANNES BRAHMS
String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36
Composed 1866
Duration ca. 34 minutes
Scored for 2 violins, 2 violas, and 2 cellos

Schoenberg’s use of a string sextet Verklärte Nacht was unusual when he wrote that piece, but not unprecedented. Some three decades and some earlier, Johannes Brahms had composed a pair of string sextets, the first important works of their kind. Brahms wrote an initial piece for pairs of violins, violas, and cellos, his Sextet in B-flat Major, Opus 18, in 1860. Four years later, during a summer sojourn at the Austrian spa resort of Baden, he completed three movements of a companion work in the key of G major. Following his habit, the composer sent these movements to Clara Schumann, widow of the composer Robert Schumann and a trusted musical confidant. In a letter dated January 1, 1865, she replied: “I need hardly tell you of my surprise and joy at what you have sent ... The Sextet seems to me a wonderful work.” Brahms completed the composition’s finale the following summer. Ironically, in view of its subsequent success, Breitkopf & Härtl, Fritz Simrock, and several other prominent music publishers all rejected the piece. Simrock eventually reversed himself and issued it as Brahms’s Opus 36.

Brahms was famously guarded about his private life and not given to autobiographical statements in his music. It is remarkable, therefore, that the first of the G Major Sextet’s four movements makes a veiled reference to a youthful love affair that ended unhappily. The movement begins with a figure oscillating persistently between two notes. This motif runs as counterpoint to the statement of the opening subject, a theme built on a vaulting melodic gesture. Moreover, it recurs throughout much of the first movement. (The dramatic development episode, for example, dwells upon it at some length.) The second subject, a wide-stepping theme featuring handsome melodic arches, is one of Brahms’s most attractive melodies. To this idea the composer appended a five-note motif of unusual significance. Its pitches spell A-G-A-H-E — “H” being B-natural in German musical nomenclature — and thus enshrine Agathe von Siebold, the composer’s one-time fiancée. Pointing to the thrice-stated figure, Brahms later told a friend: “Here is where I tore myself from my last love.” In view of Brahms’s usual reticence, the reference to Agathe is quite exceptional. Rarely, if ever, did he give such unambiguous satisfaction to romantically inclined listeners.

Brahms calls the second movement a scherzo, but its music conveys a more wistful mood than that term usually implies. Only with the central episode, with its intimations of rustic dance music, does the composer give us something like the characteristic scherzo spirit. 

The ensuing slow movement takes the form of a theme with variations. Its subject melody, given out in the opening moments, is closely related to the initial theme of the first movement. Further evidence of the kinship of these two movements emerges during the variations, where Brahms recalls the oscillating figure that had opened the Sextet. He also works in a variant of the “Agathe” theme. 

The carefree tone of the finale belies the skill with which Brahms has crafted it. Here the initial idea, running lightly in the manner of Mendelssohn’s fairy-scherzo style, sounds repeatedly over the course of the movement. Between its recurrences, Brahms develops a pair of more lyrical subjects. The movement thus combines aspects of rondo and sonata procedures in a fascinating hybrid. But these formal intricacies need not distract us. The poetry of Brahms’s melodies and the exquisite use of string sonority, quite apart from its ingenious design, make this movement one of the glories of the chamber music literature.