As there are no words in non-vocal classical music, composers often need to use their imagination to tell a story. This can be achieved by using word-painting, which is a technique where music reflects moods and characters. Viennese composer Arnold Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) showcases a perfect example of the art of word painting, for it skillfully depicts a poem written by Richard Dehmel of the same name.
Originally composed for a string sextet, Verklärte Nacht was also arranged for a piano trio by Eduard Steurmann, which was the version that Ensemble Virama presented on the 16th of June in the Le Quadri Ballroom at the North Wing of UCSI University’s Institute of Music.
Ensemble Virama comes together for four weeks in a year to present concerts, lecture-recitals, masterclasses and outreach performances. As part of their third production Vienna, Vienna, Vienna, Asst. Prof. Yong Sue Yi, Bernice Ooi Khai Ern, James Ng and Kenneth Teh of Ensemble Virama came to UCSI to treat us to a lecture-recital on the piano trio version of Arnold Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht.
To start off the lecture-recital, Asst. Prof. Yong gave us some background behind the character and history of Arnold Schönberg. We learnt how his idols, Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner influenced him, as he strived to unite Brahms’ mastery of structure and Wagner’s romantic chromaticism.
Following this, she told us the story of Richard Dehmel’s Verklärte Nacht. The poem is about a woman who hastened to get married for the sake of getting married and was not in love with her husband. However, she only realised it when she met another man whom she fell in love with, though she was unfortunately already carrying her husband’s child. One night, during the two lover’s walk in the woods, she gains the courage to confess her pregnancy to the man. She laments that she is already carrying another man’s child but her lover replies that despite it being another’s, her child will be transfigured by his love for her.
Next, Asst. Prof. Yong broke down Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht for us. Mr Teh demonstrated how the opening unison ‘D’ notes on the piano represented two people gazing at the moon while walking through the cold, bare woods. Ms Ooi then showed us how the violin part revealed the woman’s unhappiness and doubt, but Mr Ng played a chord on the cello that represented an action of the man that gave the lady the courage to confess her love for him.
As the music progressed, we heard a horrifying chord, created by unresolved tensions, that represented the lady’s sadness because she is carrying the child of another man. These tensions remained unresolved throughout the first part and added to the suspense of the scene, almost tangible in the concert hall. It was only in the second part of the piece, after a staggering 351 bars of music, that there came a reminder that despite the forays into unresolved tensions, this is still tonal music, and in the fifth stanza the tensions are finally resolved.
Before Ensemble Virama began the piece, Mr Lim Soon Heng, an actor and presenter, gave a dramatic reading of the poem that helped to create the atmosphere and ready us for our musical walk through the woods.
As the rays of moonlight shone down throughout Verklärte Nacht, Ms Ooi, Mr Ng and Mr Teh painted every word of the poem for us with their attention to detail and expressive playing. There is a correlating musical motive for every theme in the poem, such as the recurring sadness theme in the violin, or the lady’s clumsy and awkward walking depicted by the alternating chords in the piano. These motives were brought out and rendered so greatly that the poem was indeed brought to life to the effect that you felt that you were walking along with the two lovers.
As Ensemble Virama took us on the two lover’s journey through the woods, the titular transfiguration of the night happened before our eyes, allowing our imagination to take over as we saw two people “walking on in the high, bright night”.
This article was written by Andrea Sim, 1st year IMus Scholar reading the Bachelor of Classical Music (Hons.)