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Chapter Five—Verklärte Nacht , op. 4 (1899)
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Form in Verklärte Nacht

Cast in a single movement, and lasting just under half an hour, Verklärte Nacht is the most extensive, ambitious instrumental structure completed by Schoenberg up to this point. Its formal disposition has prompted divergent analytical perspectives. Webern, probably the earliest commentator, described Verklärte Nacht as simply "frei phantasierend" (Webern 1912, 23). Schoenberg's own discussion, written for record liner notes in 1950, seems to take a similar tack in that he does not explicitly treat the larger form, but rather associates certain specific musical


themes with portions of the poem.[6] In 1921, Wellesz proposed a more intimate relationship between the overall structure of the sextet and the Dehmel poem:

The structure of Verklärte Nacht, in accordance with the poem, is made up of five sections, in which the first, third, and fifth are of more epic nature and so portray the deep feelings of the people wandering about in the cold moonlit night. The second contains the passionate plaint of the woman, the fourth the sustained answer of the man, which shows much depth and warmth of understanding.

WELLESZ 1925, 67

In more schematic terms, what Wellesz proposes as the larger musical form of Verklärte Nacht is something corresponding to the five poetic stanzas as ABA'CA". A, A', and A" represent the more "epic" or narrative segments; B and C, the direct speeches of the protagonists. Wellesz's plan is persuasive, although the actual unfolding of the sextet is, of course, considerably more complex than the rondo-like scheme implied by the letter designations. As Carl Dahlhaus has suggested, "the rondo ground-plan, which gives the work formal support, is as it were covered with a web of thematic and motivic relationships, a web which becomes tighter and thicker as the work proceeds" (Dahlhaus 1987, 97). In other words, the different segments of Verklärte Nacht are closely related by motivic variation, and toward the end of the work earlier themes are recalled.[7]

The Wellesz-Dahlhaus analytical stance toward Verklärte Nacht is, I believe, the most reasonable one to assume, since it grants to the sextet a form that is musically coherent and yet at the same time reflective of the broader structure of the poem. Several commentators, however, including Wilhelm Pfannkuch and Richard Swift, have gone further in according to Verklärte Nacht a more purely musical shape, that of sonata form. In this respect, the sextet is seen implicitly as the successor of the forms of the D-Major Quartet and explicitly as the direct precursor of the large one-movement instrumental works Schoenberg composed in 1902–6, including Pelleas und Melisande, op. 5; the First Quartet, op. 7; and the First Chamber Symphony, op. 9.

In 1963, Pfannkuch suggested that Verklärte Nacht represents, if only "vorstufenhaft," Schoenberg's first attempt to blend sonata form with a larger structure resembling the standard four-movement format. According to Pfannkuch, the sextet consists of two principal themes (mm. 1–49); a transition (50–104); a sec-


ondary theme (105–31); a "development" (132–80); a brief "reprise" (181–87); a transition, further reprise, and more transition (188–228); an inserted "adagio" movement (229–369); and a reprise/coda (370–418) (Pfannkuch 1963, 269–70). (The exact measure numbers, although not given in Pfannkuch's analysis, have been added here.)

In 1977, Swift argued that Verklärte Nacht consists of a pair of sonata forms, preceded by an introduction, linked by a transition, and followed by a coda (Swift 1977, 7). In this plan, the A, A', and A" segments of the Wellesz-Dahlhaus scheme constitute, respectively, the introduction, transition, and coda; the B and C portions become the two sonata forms. Swift's analysis remains highly problematic on the detailed level, essentially because it employs the traditional labels of sonata form without arguing effectively for their applicability. Rather than being passed over quickly, however, his analysis should be dealt with at some length because it raises issues of formal structure important to an understanding not only of Schoenberg's early music, but of much of the post-Wagnerian instrumental repertory.

There are three major problems with Swift's approach. First, as even he admits, Schoenberg's sextet is lacking in much of the tonal polarity that lies at the basis of sonata form even late into the nineteenth century. Not only is there "an astonishing absence of emphasis upon the dominant as a large-scale tonal area" (Swift 1977, 9), but there is no consistent dominant substitute. (As will be suggested below, the dominant does play a significant role in the latter part of the sextet, but not as a large-scale key area.) Second, as Klaus Kropfinger has observed, it seems misleading for Swift to relegate what is really the primary thematic material of the sextet—material that returns prominently in the first violin of the "second group" of Sonata II—to an "introduction," "transition," and "coda," terms that imply secondary status (Kropfinger 1984, 142). Third, the proportions of the various sections in Swift's "sonatas" are suspiciously unbalanced, and his partitioning tends to obscure other more plausible interior formal arrangements. For example, the "bridge" of his Sonata I lasts 42 measures, longer than either the first or second groups, and its supposed boundaries override or obscure a clear A (mm. 50–62) B (63–68) A' (69–74) thematic-formal structure (involving what I call themes 3a and 3b; see below, ex. 5.1), which is followed by a new theme (4a) at m. 75. In Swift's analysis, theme 3a appears in the "first group," while the contrasting 3b (stepwise and chromatic) and the return of 3a are relegated to the bridge.

Swift acknowledges that the second sonata incorporates thematic material from the first, but his diagram does not adequately reflect the way or the places in which earlier themes are brought in. All of mm. 229–44 is lumped in the "first group," although an important articulation point is surely provided in m. 236 by the entrance of the theme from m. 29 (2a). The "bridge" of the second sonata is


surprisingly brief—only five measures—by comparison with the earlier bridge. While the broad theme in  image major (7a), which is given substantial preparation, might be reasonably said to have the feel of a "second theme," the continuation from m. 266 is distinctly different and less stable.

At issue here is the necessity of invoking sonata form at all, when so many distortions are required to make it fit. A brief comparison may be appropriate between Verklärte Nacht and a roughly contemporary programmatic work, Strauss's Don Juan (1889). Though the medium and the mood differ, both works are in a single movement of about the same length. In both works the poetic source is printed at the front of the score and could be said to bear a similar relationship to the musical form.[8] Yet Don Juan is much more closely tied to principles of sonata form (see Hepokoski 1992, 192ff.). The first 148 measures form a clear "exposition." The bold E-major theme of m. 9 functions as a first theme, and the first group closes with a firm cadence on the tonic at m. 40 (rehearsal letter B ). This is followed by a transition based on the first theme and some new material, leading up to the strong preparation of a contrasting key beginning at m. 71 (D ). The preparation involves an extended V/V pedal ( image), which at last resolves to the dominant, B, at m. 90, whence arrives a broad new lyrical melody. This archetypical "feminine" second theme is spun out at great length until the deceptive cadence onto E minor at m. 149, which can be heard to mark either the beginning of a "development" or a transition to a development that begins with the return of the first theme in C major at m. 169 (H).

In fact, Strauss provides no development as traditional in design as the preceding exposition. Instead, he moves to a stable G (minor, then major) and introduces three new themes (m. 199, K; m. 236, L; m. 299, N). The G then serves as dominant to the bold horn theme presented in C (actually, first on G as dominant) at m. 316. Only after this are earlier themes combined and fragmented in the manner of a classical-romantic development section. This section concludes with an extremely long dominant pedal (mm. 425–49, 459–75) that clearly suggests "retransition." The recapitulation, beginning at m. 476 (W ), is truncated but unmistakable: it incorporates the first theme and the horn theme, both in the tonic.

Even allowing for Strauss's imaginative reworkings of the standard form from


the "development" on, Don Juan is much more clearly shaped by sonata principles than is Verklärte Nacht. (It is not surprising that Strauss presents a very traditional exposition before beginning to deviate from the formal model.) For one thing, the fashion in which Strauss lays out broad diatonic key areas and sustains them—at least in the background—for long periods is characteristic of sonata form, as are the prominent tonic-dominant relationships. The surface of Schoenberg's sextet is much more chromatic and—pace Swift—any diatonic background is less audible. Schoenberg also annexes (as will be seen) a greater number of key regions, and they tend to be more remote from the tonic than Strauss's keys (even than his G-C harmonic axis).

Another important difference involves the number of themes. Strauss's exposition is normative (even restrictive) in this regard: one main theme for the first "group," one for the second. Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht is, as we shall see below, characterized by a relative profusion of themes, most of them very brief. There are no fewer than five theme groups in the first part, some comprising two or more distinct ideas. To pigeonhole some of these into a "first group," others into a "bridge," others into a "second group," is fundamentally to falsify the thematic and formal processes of the sextet.

There is no question, however, that Verklärte Nacht employs certain techniques and has certain sections that are reminiscent of sonata form (as Pfannkuch suggests). The presentation and unfolding of themes up to m. 132 fulfills an "expository" function. The broad theme in E major at m. 105 (5a) can be heard to resemble a "second theme" because it is preceded both by more agitated developmental (transitional) material characteristic of a "bridge" and by dominant preparation. Even though there is considerable motivic variation and development, the portion of the sextet up to m. 132 is clearly different in nature from what follows, up to m. 180. This latter part functions and sounds like a "development," because of an almost schematic use of modulation, sequence, thematic fragmentation, and contrapuntal combination. The segment from m. 370 on, in which various earlier themes are combined in the tonic major, clearly acts as a kind of reprise or "recapitulation." But to try to force Verklärte Nacht into a sonata form (or two) is to create a Procrustean bed (or twin beds) that the material simply will not fit.

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