Fall 2022 Feature: Music of the Night Show Notes
Photo courtesy of Pixahive.
This fall, tune into the Music of the Night feature presented by Maya on Thursday evenings from 7:00-8:00 pm ET. The program will run from Thursday, October 6th to Thursday, November 17th.
We will be updating this page periodically every week with show notes, so please bookmark this if you are interested in following along with the program!
Thursday, November 17
I’m Maya, and welcome to the seventh episode of the Music of the Night feature. If you’re tuning in for the first time, the Music of the Night hopes to explore the many varying ways composers have conceived of the night in their music. Over course of the semester, we’ll look at orchestral, chamber, and solo works, compositions meant to evoke certain times or features of the night, such as sunset or the moon, and pieces that make vastly different emotional evaluations of the night, from those that see it as a somber, reflective time, to those who find joy in depicting midnight festivals.
We’ll start today with the second movement of Soviet and Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite. Completed in 1941, the piece was originally written as incidental music for the play Masquerade by Russian poet and playwright Mikhail Lemontov. The play’s premiere run, however, was cut short by the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Later, in 1944, Khaachaturian formed the music into a symphonic suite with five movements: a waltz, nocturne, mazurka, romance, and galop.
Tonight we’ll hear the Nocturne, notable for its serenity and its depiction of the night gently moving into dusk. Listen for the violin solo, particularly about two minutes into the piece when a French horn solo supports the violin and provides depth and support to the main theme.
This is the composer himself conducting the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra in a recording brought to us on a Supraphon compact disc. Nocturne, from Aram Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite.
We’ll next hear another suite: this time Sergei Prokofiev’s Summer Day Suite, a children’s suite for small orchestra. The piece is broken into seven movements, and we’ll listen to all of them tonight: first, Morning, characterized by a cheerful woodwind melody supported by quiet tremolo in the lower instruments; second, Tip and Run, the British version of Tag, a scherzo again led by the woodwinds; third, a melodic waltz in the strings; fourth, the longest and most atmospheric movement, Regrets; fifth, a parody of a militaristic march; sixth, Evening, characterized by a restless string part and brief woodwind solos representing the flitting of fireflies; and finally, seventh, a movement titled “Moonlit meadows,” which is compromised of thematic fragments that are passed among soloists in the orchestra, especially the flute and horn.
This is the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Leonid Grin. This recording comes to us from a Ondine compact disc.
Our next piece is Night in the Gardens of Spain by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, who is remembered as one of the most distinctive and important composers in the country’s history and who is often described as the musical soul of Spain. The work depicts three gardens: the first is the Generalife, the jasmine-filled gardens that surround the palace and fortress Alhambra in Andalusia; the second is an unspecified distant garden that is represented by a dramatic, dark dance; and the third is the gardens in the Sierra de Cordoba mountain range.
Originally written for solo piano, Falla ultimately decided to score the piece for both piano and full orchestra. It is one of his most lush and impressionistic works.
Tonight we’ll hear the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. This recording comes to us from a Chandos compact disc.
For our last piece tonight, we’ll hear Benjamin Britten’s Soirées Musicales, or musical evenings. This suite of five movements was inspired by music of the same name by Italian composer Gioachino Rossini and has since its composition been used as the score of multiple ballets. It is composed of a march; canzonetta; tirolese, or song in the style of a Tyrolean peasant dance; bolero; and tarantella. Listen especially for the inspirations from Rossini’s William Tell in the March and for the yodeling effect, first played by a solo trumpet, in the Tirolese.
This is the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra with conductor Neeme Järvi in a recording coming to us from an Estonian Records compact disc.
That’s all for this last episode of Music of the Night. Thanks so much for listening – I hope you enjoyed the the semester’s exploration of the night in classical music. Keep listening for a historical recording of the Beaux Arts Trio live from Sanders Theatre.
Thursday, November 10
Welcome to the sixth episode of the Music of the Night feature. If you’re tuning in for the first time, the Music of the Night hopes to explore the many varying ways composers have conceived of the night in their music. Over the next seven weeks, we’ll look at orchestral, chamber, and solo works, compositions meant to evoke certain times or features of the night, such as sunset or the moon, and pieces that make vastly different emotional evaluations of the night, from those that see it as a somber, reflective time, to those who find joy in depicting midnight festivals.
Tonight we’ll be focusing on works for piano. We’ll begin with Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, a suite of piano pieces composed in 1908. The suite has three movements, each based on a poem from the collection Gaspard de la Nuit – Fantaisies à la manière de Rembrandt et de Callot, or “fantasies in the manner of Rembrant and Callot,” a compilation of prose poems by Italian-born French poet Aloysius Betrand. “My ambition is to say with notes what a poet expresses with words,” Ravel said about the piece.
The first movement, Ondine, is the story of a water nymph singing to seduce someone into visiting her kingdom at the bottom of a lake. Ravel incorporates sounds of water falling, flowing, and cascading throughout the movement. The second movement, Le Gibet, describes the lone corpse of a hanged man in a desert as the sun sets. Meanwhile, a bell tolls from inside the walls of a far-off setting.
The third movement, Scarbo, depicts the nighttime mischief of a small fiend or goblin as it dances, pirouettes, and flits in and out of the darkness. The haunting, nightmarish scene described in the poem of the goblin scratching against the wall and creating shadows under the moonlight is represented through the repeated notes and two climaxes of the movement. Scarbo is often considered one of the most difficult solo piano pieces in the standard repertoire. “I wanted to make a caricature of romanticism. Perhaps it got the better of me,” Ravel said.
This is pianist Robert Casadesus performing Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. This recording is brought to us from a Sony compact disc.
The next piece we will hear is also meant to evoke scenes of the night. This is Robert Schumann’s Nachstücke, a set of four character pieces for piano. It has four movements: Funeral Procession, which is marked by harmonic uncertainty and rhythmic displacement; Curious Gathering, an odd movement full of mood shifts and a lack of cohesiveness in tone; Night Binge, meant to represent a night carnival scene with outbursts of energy and ecstasy interrupted by sinister and ghostly intermezzos; and finally Roundelay with Solo Voices, a final movement that transforms the original funeral march into a folk melody.
Tonight we’ll hear pianist András Schiff. This recording comes to us from a Teldec compact disc.
The final piece we’ll hear tonight is Songs of a winter Night for Piano, Op 30 by Czech composer Vitezslav Novak. Like the last piece, it is written in four movements: Song on a Moonlight Night, Song on a Stormy Night, Song on a Christmas Night, and Song on a Carnival Night. This is pianist Margaret Fingerhut and this recording is brought to us from a Chandos compact disc.
That’s all for this week’s feature on the Music of the Night. Thanks so much for listening – I hope you enjoyed today’s exploration of the night in classical music. Tune in again next Thursday at 7pm to hear more.
Thursday, November 3
I’m Maya, and welcome to the fifth episode of the Music of the Night feature. If you’re tuning in for the first time, the Music of the Night hopes to explore the many varying ways composers have conceived of the night in their music. Over course of the semester, we’ll look at orchestral, chamber, and solo works, compositions meant to evoke certain times or features of the night, such as sunset or the moon, and pieces that make vastly different emotional evaluations of the night, from those that see it as a somber, reflective time, to those who find joy in depicting midnight festivals.
Tonight we’ll hear three pieces depicting sunrise or sunset. We’ll start with Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture, Op 17, one that represents both. Nielsen wrote the piece in about a month in 1903 when he went to Athenes with his wife, Anne Marie, who had received an award to study Greek art. The sun rising and setting over the Aegean (Uh-Jee-Uhn) Sea inspired the composer to pen an overture describing its movement.
Until this composition, Nielsen had been ambivalent about program music. He told friends and colleagues that he was uneasy with the idea that instrumental music should be composed to “narrate” an already-existing literary story, as is done in symphonic poems. Instead, he thought, music should narrate its own story and the structure of a piece should always principally arise from the internal aspects of the music rather than from an external plot. That said, he did express that of course compositions often draw some degree of inspiration from external stimuli.
Helios, which some critics believe counts as a symphonic poem, shows Nielsen’s exploration into the genre. He never called it a symphonic poem, and did not like that others did, but he did recognize that he had written a piece in which non-musical ideas provided the general inspiration while the music did the rest. As he composed, he wrote to a friend “Now it is scorchingly hot. Helios burns all day and I am writing away at my new solar system: a long introduction with sunrise and morning song is finished, and I have begun on the allegro”
The piece opens with the cellists playing an almost-inaudible bass line, representing the darkness before the first appearance of the sun. The violas come in with a slightly higher, more hopeful line before the first horns enter, representing the first slivers of sun on the horizon. As the sun rises, strings play tremolo of increasing volume. We eventually arrive at the introduction of the triumphant full orchestra, in which fanfare trumpets play a victorious theme depicting the arrival of the day. There is a brief, playful interlude with a series of woodwind, brass, and violin melodies representing the antics of the day and the sea before the sun begins to set: the trumpet theme comes back and the strings once again begin their tremolo, this time decreasing in volume as the sun sets. In the final measures, only the cellists are left as the sun sinks quietly into the sea.
Nielsen wrote a few short lines to be included with the finished piece: “Silence and darkness, / The sun rises with a joyous song of praise, / It wanders its golden way / and sinks quietly into the sea”
This is the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky. This recording is brought to us on a Chandos compact disc.
That was Carl Nielsen’s Helios Overture, Op 17, performed by the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky. It was brought to us on a Chandos compact disc.
We’ll be right back after this PSA.
You’re listening to 95.3 FM WHRB Cambridge.
We’ll next hear a piece that depicts both the night and the sunrise, but does not make it back around for sunset. This is Jean Sibelius’s Night Ride and Sunrise, a single-movement tone poem for orchestra written in 1908. One of Sibelius’s lesser-performed works, it received negative reviews at its first performance, although that was likely in large part because the conductor, Alexander Siloti, made drastic cuts and ignored Sibelius’s directions about the tempo.
The piece is certainly unconventional in its structure. It begins with a burst of brass and percussion before the strings launch into a galloping section that is both harmonically unstable and harsh. This brisk figure in the strings is interrupted periodically by sustained chords from the low winds and horns. Notably, there is no melody for about the first 3 minutes of the piece, and when the melody does first arise in the woodwinds, it is bleak and melancholy.
About a third of the way into the 15 minute piece, there is a big orchestral outburst, after which the strings take up the melody that has been percolating the winds. Now, there is a dramatic transition in mood that happens over the space of only a few bars: the strings play the principal melody, but in reverse, giving the line a far more intense feel. The string part becomes increasingly similar to a chorale, and a brief interlude is passed between solo oboe and flute. This short section effectively transitions the piece from melancholy to warmth and familiarity
The piece ends with a continuation of this brighter mood. The brass and strings alternate chorales, while the woodwinds cycle through shimmering variations on arpeggios. Instead of building to a final climax, though, the piece draws back in its last measures – the strings abruptly end a crescendo to leave a simple E-flat major triad held quietly by bass clarinet, bassoons, and horns until it fades out
Sibelius gave different accounts of the inspiration for this piece – he told one friend it was inspired by his first visit to the Roman Colosseum, and another that the inspiration came from a sleigh ride from Helsinki to Kerava during which he saw a striking sunrise.
Tonight we’ll hear Neeme (NAME) Jarvi and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in a recording from a BIS compact disc.
This is Jean Sibelius’s Night Ride and Sunrise.
The last thing we’ll hear tonight is movements from the Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofé.
In 1916, Ferde Grofe drove across the Arizona desert to watch the sun rise over the Grand Canyon. _"_I first saw the dawn because we got there the night before and camped. I was spellbound in the silence, you know, because as it got lighter and brighter then you could hear the birds chirping and nature coming to life. All of a sudden, bingo! There it was, the sun. I couldn't hardly describe it in words because words would be inadequate." he told NPR four decades later after writing a musical suite based on what he saw.
His Grand Canyon Suite is written in five movements: Sunrise, the Painted Desert, On the Trail, Sunset, and Cloudburst. Throughout, there are musical features meant to evoke the setting of the Grand Canyon – woodwinds sound like birds, trumpets represent crickets, and percussion devices to represent the sounds of people climbing around the movements. The cloudburst movement makes innovating use of a wind machine and thunder sheet
Tonight, we’ll hear three movements from the suite: Sunrise, Sunset, and Cloudburst. This is the Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz, and this recording comes to us from a Naxos compact disc.
That’s all for this week’s feature on the Music of the Night. Thanks so much for listening – I hope you enjoyed the today’s exploration of the night in classical music. Tune in again next Thursday at 7pm to hear more.
Thursday, October 27
I’m Maya, and welcome to the fourth episode of the Music of the Night feature. If you’re tuning in for the first time, the Music of the Night hopes to explore the many varying ways composers have conceived of the night in their music. Over course of the semester, we’ll look at orchestral, chamber, and solo works, compositions meant to evoke certain times or features of the night, such as sunset or the moon, and pieces that make vastly different emotional evaluations of the night, from those that see it as a somber, reflective time, to those who find joy in depicting midnight festivals.
Tonight we will hear a few orchestral works invoking the night. We’ll begin with Felix Mendelssohn’s Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Op 21 and the Scherzo from the Incidental Music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Though the two selections go together and are both based on the Shakespeare play on the same name, the were written at opposite ends of the composer’s career – the overture was written in 1826, when Mendelssohn was only 17 years old, and the incidental music was composed only a few years before his death in 1842.
Felix Mendelssohn grew up in a household that put a lot of importance into the children’s education and learning – he and his sisters Fanny and Rebecca were tutored in English, French, and German and loved reading Shakespeare plays aloud and acting them out. When the family acquired a copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream translated into German in 1826, Fliex noted the play’s musical potential and started composing what would soon become the overture.
The overture was not originally performed in connection with any performance of the play, but it is notable for its clear inspirations from the text. The exposition begins with a theme in e minor played by the violins, which represents the dancing and darting of the fairies. After a transition reminiscent of the royal music of the court of Athens, the full orchestra comes in for the second theme, that of the noble lovers. The music moves into a representation of the character Bottom’s braying after Puck’s magic transforms him into a donkey, with his hee-hawing evoked by the strings. The exposition’s final group of themes are reminiscent of craftsmen and hunting calls.
The fairy theme dominates the development theme, while the lover theme is featured in a minor key. It is back to major for the recap before the fairies return and have the final word in the coda of the piece, just as in the play.
The piece was well-received at its premiere, at which Mendelssohn was only 18 years old. It was his first public appearance. Contemporary music scholar George Grove calls the piece “the greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music”
16 years later, Mendelssohn was a famous and established composer, and the incidental music was commissioned. It is 14 numbers, opening with the earlier overture, and is arguably the most famous incidental music ever written. Though some of the movements have vocal sections, the one we’ll hear today is the Scherzo and is only instrumental. It is a short and sprightly movement characterized by chattering winds and dancing strings, and signified a transition between the overture and the rest of the piece in the larger work.
This is Wilhelm Furtwangler conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, and this recording is brought to us on an Audite compact disc.
We’ll now hear German composer Walter Braunfels’ Day and Night Pieces for Orchestra with Piano Obbligato, Op. 44. According to repotrs, Hitler personally came to Braunfels in 1923 and asked him to write an anthem for the Nazi party. Braunfels, who was half Jewish – which Hitler did not know at the time – responded by throwing him out.
For the next few years, Braunfels served as director of the German Academy of Music in Cologne, but in 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor of Germany, he was expelled for having written what the Nazi party considered “degenerate music” and for being half-Jewish. Though Braunfels was forced to end his public life as a musician, he continued composing, even after the Reich Music Association banned him entirely from all public music engagements in 1938.
Though Braunfels’ music is largely unknown today, he is starting to get some new recognition. Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, has been making a point to play a new piece from the composer nearly every year. “It astonished me that we could still discover such a great composer,” Honeck told the Times in 2019. “Since 2001 I’ve done a new Braunfels piece every season. I’m so impressed by the honesty of his music. He never does anything without a purpose. Everything comes from his heart but also shows such an extraordinary intelligence. When people hear it, they love it. The world should absolutely get to know the whole spectrum of his music.”
Tonight we’ll hear his Day and Night Pieces for Orchestra with Piano Obbligato, Op. 44. This is pianist Markus Becker and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Constantin Trinks. This recording comes to us from a Hyperion compact disc.
Thursday, October 20
Tonight we will focus on Frederic Chopin’s nocturnes for piano, listening to 11 out of the 21 total. Composed between 1827 and 1846, the nocturnes are generally considered some of the most notable short solo works for the instrument.
Chopin popularized and expanded on the form of the nocturne, but he did not invent it – that distinction goes to Irish composer John Field, who wrote 18 nocturnes characterized by ostinato patterns and pedal points. Chopin was a strong admirer of these works and, in his youth, was often told that he sounded like Field. While Chopin respected and admired Field’s compositions, that admiration was not necessarily mutual. Upon meeting Chopin and hearing his nocturnes in 1832, Field is said to have described the composer as a “sickroom talent”
Chopin used several of the principal features of Field’s nocturnes. One is the inclusion of a song-like melody in the right hand. Listen tonight to the way the right hand often mimics a vocal line. Another is the use of broken chords in the left hand as the rhythm under the higher, voice-like melody. Both composer’s nocturnes also make extensive use of the pedal, which is used in Chopin's nocturnes to increase emotional weight and drama through sustained notes.
Chopin expanded on Field’s form as well. In contrast to Field, he used a more expansive, freely flowing rhythm. He also developed the structure of the nocturne more fully, using inspiration from Italian and French opera arias and sonata form. Additionally, Chopin’s nocturnes demonstrate the use of counterpoint to build tension and drama.
There are 21 Chopin nocturnes, 18 of which were published during the composer’s lifetime. Though the first nocturnes were met with mixed critical reactions upon publication, they grew in popularity throughout Chopins’ life and after his death.
Tonight we’ll hear 11 out of the 21 presented in order of publication. We’ll begin with the Nocturne Op 9 no 2 in E flat major, the second one published and arguably one of the most enduringly popular of all o Chopin’s works. This is pianist Tamás Vásáry, and this recording is brought to us from a DG compact disc
We’ll next hear three performances by Polish-American pianist Arthur Rubinstein, widely regarded as one of the greatest pianists and Chopin interpreters of his time. His New York Times obituary read “Chopin was his speciality … it was [as] a Chopinist that he was considered by many without peer,” and he recorded and performed almost every work of Chopin, including a famous all-Chopin concert in Moscow during the height of the Cold War. This is Rubinstein performing Nocturne Op 15 No 1 in F, No 2 in G-sharp, and No 3 in g. These recordings come to us from an RCA compact disc.
There was a four year gap between the last of the opus 15s in 1833 and the opus 27s and 32s, which were all published in 1837. We’ll now hear Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini playing the Nocturne Op 27 No 1 in c-sharp from a an EMI compact disc before going back to another recording by Tamás Vásary of the Nocturne Op 32 No 2 in A flat from a DG compact disc.
The next nocturne we’ll hear is Nocturne Op 48 No 1 in c and is often called one of the most emotional of the works. It is often read as an exploration of grief with intensity coming from variations in the textural background, crescendos, and octaves rather than through ornamentation. The middle section, a chorale in C major, offers a brief ray of hope before the initial melody in c minor is reprised, this time accompanied by a fast chordal accompaniment. This is Israeli pianist Aviram Reichert performing Chopin’s Nocturne Op 48 No 1 in c minor. This recording is brought to us from a Harmonia Mundi compact disc.
We’ll now hear two recordings by Russian-American pianist Vladimir Horowitz, from RCA and Sony compact discs. Known for his interpretations of Romantic piano repertoire, Horowitz won five grammy awards throughout his lifetime, including for recordings of Chopin. Tonight we’ll hear him perform the two opus 55 nocturnes, Nocturne Op 55 No 1 in f and Nocturne Op 55 No 2 in E flat, both published in 1844. Though we will not hear a recording of this performance tonight, it’s interesting to note that Horowitz performed Op 55 No 1 in his television debut concert at Carnegie Hall in 1968. This Vladimir Horowitz playing Chopin’s Nocturne Op 55 numbers 1 and 2.
We have two more nocturnes tonight. First, we’ll hear Harvey “Van” Cliburn play Nocturne Op 62 No 1 on a recording from an RCA compact disc. And then we’ll close out with the Nocturne Op 72 No 1, which was the first one Chopin wrote but was not published until after his death. That will be Arthur Rubinstein once again on a recording coming from an RCA compact disc.
Thursday, October 13
This week we’ll hear two chamber works: Luigi Boccherini’s Quintet for Strings in C and Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Both are programmatic works that depict the night but that do so using very different moods and techniques.
First is Boccherini’s string quintet in C major, titled “La musica notturna delle strade di Madrid,” or “Night Music of the Streets of Madrid.” This was one of only two programmatic works Boccherini wrote, and was meant to describe the bustling streets of nighttime Madrid. Critic Jamie Tortella explains: “Taking its inspiration from nocturnal street scenes of Madrid, [the composition] seems to look back nostalgically to the gaiety and bustle of Spain’s capital, recalling the sound of the city’s church bells ringing for evening prayer, the popular dances that were the delight of its young people, and the blind beggars singing their typical viellas de rueda until the soldiers from the local garrison sound the midnight curfew with their Retreat”
Though the piece was well-known in Spain during Boccherini’s life, it was not published more widely until years after his death because he did not think it would work outside of the country, telling his publisher “The piece is absolutely useless, even ridiculous, outside Spain because the audience cannot hope to understand its significance nor the performers to play it as it should be played.” Though he was not actually Spanish - Boccherni was born in Italy - he moved to Spain early in his career and was employed with the Spanish royal family until his death.
The quintet is written for two violins, a viola, and two cellos, and is in seven parts: first is the Ave Maria Bell, in which each instrument except the first violin imitates the tolling of a church bell through quiet pizzicato chords. Then comes “The Soldiers' drum,” featuring the first violin playing a series of quick, percussive rhythms on the note C.
All five instruments play together for the first time in the third movement, “Minuet of the Blind Beggars.” To better reflect the sounds of Madrid, Boccherini instructed the two cellists to put their cellos on their knees and strum them, imitating a guitar.
This movement is followed by “The Rosary,” a slow section not meant to be played strictly in time that begins with a slightly thinner, more open melody expressed by just the outer voices - the first violin and first cello - before filled in with the other instrumentalists, creating a richer, fuller color.
The fifth section is sarcastically titled “The Passacaglia of the Street Singers” and references the street singers, also called “Los Manolos,” who sang in a style called passacalle, literally “to pass along the street.” This movement oscillates between two principal parts: one featuring the violins accompanying a playful cello melody with bouncy pizzicato chords and one featuring quick arpeggios in the second violin.
The seventh and last movement is preceded by a return of the drum theme, which is again represented through percussive Cs.
The piece concludes with “The retreat of the military night watch of Madrid,” a movement meant to imitate the comings and goings of the military night watch bringing the curfew and closing down the streets. In his program notes for the piece, Boccherini wrote about the last movement: “One must imagine sitting next to the window on a summer’s night in a Madrid flat and that the band can only be heard in the far-off distance in some other part of the city, so at first it must be played quite softly. Slowly the music grows louder and louder until it is very loud, indicating the Night Watch are passing directly under the listener’s window. Then gradually the volume decreases and again becomes faint as the band moves off down the street into the distance”
Note that this movement is the first and only time in the piece in which each of the five instrumentalists plays a different part, giving the movement the richest, most complex sound.
Tonight, we’ll hear musicians from Le Concert des Nations, a group known for consisting primarily of musicians who originate from Latin countries, including Spain, and for playing on period instruments. This recording is brought to us on a AliaVox compact disc. This is Luigi Boccherini’s Quintet for Strings in C, “Night Music on the Streets of Madrid.”
The second piece we’ll hear tonight is also programmatic, but while Boccherini’s quintet centered around the celebrations and everyday sounds of night in a busy city, this next piece describes the experience of two people having a difficult conversation cloaked by the night in a quiet wood. This is Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, or “Transfigured Night,” which was written in only three weeks in 1899 and is often considered his earliest important work.
The piece was directly inspired by German writer Richard Dehmel’s poem of the same name. Though it is technically written in only one movement, the piece can be broken into five sections that parallel the five stanzas of the poem.
The poem describes a miraculous transformation in the night in the relationship between a man and a woman. The first line, “Two people walk through a bare, cold wood” transforms through the course of the poem into the last one, “Two people walk on through the high, bright night.”
In the first stanza, a man and a woman walk through a dark forest on a moonlit night. “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” Dehmel writes.
In the second, the woman tells her lover a secret: “I am carrying a child, and not by you,” she says. “I am walking here with you in a state of sin …. Now life has taken its revenge, and I have met you, met you”
In the third stanza, the man reflects on her confession before responding, in the fourth stanza,
“Do not let the child you have conceived be a burden on your soul. Look, how brightly the universe shines! Splendor falls on everything around, you are voyaging with me on a cold sea, but there is the flow of an inner warmth, from you in me, from me in you.”
The fifth and final stanza is only three lines, reading: “He puts an arm about her strong hips. Their breath embraces in the air. Two people walk on through the high, bright night.”
Schoenberg’s music reflects the emotions of the storyline. The piece opens in D minor with the woman’s sadness reflected through melodies largely in the lower ranges of the instruments. The tentative mood is built upon a repeated falling phrase that is first heard in the lower strings and then reappears in the higher strings. The phrases are restless and border on dissonant, culminating in a prolonged, regretful viola solo depicting the woman’s confession.
The music winds into a more neutral interlude mirroring the man’s reflection on her secret before arriving at a bright, joyous D major section reflecting his acceptance of her. The major section begins with a triumphant D major chord played in unison by all instrumentalists and ends with shimmering arpeggios and harmonics in the upper strings.
The piece received a mixed reception at its 1902 premiere. Though it is one of the more tonal of Schoenberg’s works, it is still more chromatic than was typical at the time and often ventured far from the home key of D minor to the edge of atonality, predicting Schoenberg’s later experimentation with twelve-tone and serial music. The piece was rejected by the Vienna Music Society because of the inclusion of a “nonexistent” chord – an inverted ninth chord that was uncategorized and therefore unpermitted. Schoenberg responded to the snub by remarking ironically, “and thus the work cannot be performed since one cannot perform that which does not exist”
The piece was also controversial in part because of its source material, with some listeners being skeptical about the redemption of the woman in the story and what they saw as glorification of her actions. The poet himself, though, was impressed by the piece, writing to Schoenberg after the premiere, “I had intended to follow the motives of my text in your composition, but soon forgot to do so, I was so enthralled by the music”
The piece was originally written for string sextet, but Schoenberg arranged it for string orchestra in 1917, which is the version we’ll hear today. This is the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan. This recording is brought to us from a DG compact disc. Arnold Schoenberg’s Verkäarte Nacht.
Thursday, October 6
Welcome to the first episode of the Music of the Night feature. My name’s Maya and over the next eight weeks, we’ll explore the many varying ways composers have conceived of the night in their music. We’ll look at orchestral, chamber, and solo works, compositions meant to evoke certain times or features of the night, such as sunset or the moon, and pieces that make vastly different emotional evaluations of the night, from those that see it as a somber, reflective time, to those who find joy in depicting midnight festivals.
We’ll start off today with three orchestral works, by Haydn, Debussy, and Mussorgsky. The first one we’ll hear is Joseph Haydn’s eighth symphony, nicknamed “Le Soir,” or “The Night.” It is the third part of “The Day” trilogy, a set of three symphonies that Prince Paul II Anton Esterházy commissioned Haydn to write in 1761, the other two being his sixth symphony, “Morning,” and his seventh, “Noon.”
Listen for programmatic references to the time of day, such as the violin’s octave leaps and strings’ descending figures in the fourth movement, which is meant to depict a sunset thunderstorm.
This is the Philharmonia Hungarica conducted by Antal Doráti performing Haydn’s Symphony 8, Le Soir. This recording is from a London compact disc.
Next we’ll hear Claude Debussy’s Three Nocturnes. Composed in 1899, this impressionist orchestral composition is based on Henri de Regnier’s 10 old and romantic poems, published in 1890. Régnier was a symbolist poet and his works were notable for their vivid imagery and dreamlike associations of ideas. Following this concept, Debussy included a descriptive title and note for each of the Nocturnes’ three movements.
The first, titled Clouds, explains that the movement “renders the immutable aspect of the sky and the slow, solemn motion of the clouds, fading away in grey tones lightly tinged with white”. The second movement is called Festivals and, in Debussy’s words, includes a “vibrating, dancing rhythm,” “a dazzling fantastic vision,” and a background sense of a “festival with its blending of music and luminous dust participating in the cosmic rhythm”
The third movement is the only one to include voice and is titled “Sirens.” It seeks to depict the sea and, as Debussy wrote, “amongst the waves silvered by the moonlight, is heard the mysterious song of the Sirens as they laugh and pass on”
This is Stéphane Denéve conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. It is brought to us on a Chandos compact disc.
The last piece we’ll listen to tonight is undoubtedly the most famous of the three. Whereas Haydn took a mostly gentle view of the night – even the fourth movement’s thunderstorm was brief and light – and Debussy’s work was principally contemplative and haunting, the next piece takes a much more violent, dangerous view of the nighttime.
Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain was written about the midsummer Slavic holiday associated with the summer solstice and meant to bring to mind fire, water, and the gathering of witches, spirits, and demons. The four sequences are titled “Assembly of the witches, their chatter and gossip,” “Satan’s cortege,” “Black mass,” and “Sabbath.”
Though the piece is widely-known today – largely due to its inclusion in Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia – Mussorgsky never heard it performed. Today we’ll hear Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement and orchestration of the piece, which is the first one that was published.
We’ll now hear the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev performing Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. This recording comes to us from a Philips compact disc.
That’s all for this week’s feature on the Music of the Night. Thanks so much for listening – I hope you enjoyed the beginning of our exploration of the night in classical music. Tune in again next Thursday at 7pm to hear more.
We caught up with Maya to hear some more about putting this show together, and you can read more about Maya here.
WHRB: What inspired you to create this feature about the night?
Maya: Last year for HRO we played Verklärte Nacht, which translates to Transfigured Night, by Arnold Schoenberg as one of our smaller pieces. It’s beautiful, and the first half is especially dark and moody, almost ominous, before it finally shifts to a major key. I absolutely loved that piece, and I realized that there are just so many pieces that are inspired by the night with such different moods associated with each and every one — from Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 to Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
WHRB: After programming this feature, what would you say your definition of the “night” is?
Maya: I associate night music with darker music — music like Boccherini’s Quintet for Strings, nicknamed “Night on the Streets of Madrid” and which we’ll hear in the second week of the future – is beautiful, but it isn’t what I think of as the night. It’s cheerful and festive, but when I consider the night, I lean more towards something like a Chopin Nocturne.
WHRB: It is a huge effort to put together a feature and provide listeners with all the appropriate context. What would you say the research process was like?
Maya: First, I listed every piece I could think of off the top of my head that I knew was about the night. Then, I considered pieces that were inspired by the sunrise, sunset, and night that I might be able to find on the Internet. I then realized I had this huge list of pieces, when I only have eight hours of music I can play for a feature. At that point, I organized them so that some weeks have themes and others don’t. There’s one on sunsets, sunrises, the moon, and dreams etc.
WHRB: Throughout this process, were there any pieces that became favorites?
Maya: I really like Debussy’s Nocturnes. Actually, I had played this piece in the sophomore year of my high school orchestra, but I had strongly disliked it at that point. Now, however, it’s become one of my favorites. I’m also not the biggest fan of Chopin’s Nocturnes, but that may be because I am not a pianist.
WHRB: What do you hope listeners will take away from your feature?
Maya: I hope people get to experience all different perspectives of listening to the same piece and get to broaden their musical tastes, too. There are a few composers in this playlist who I didn’t even know about, and there are many who are modern composers and not Western, so I have not had as much exposure to them — and I can’t wait for people to meet them!
// Felicia Ho ‘23 is a producer for the Classical Music Department and the Director of Online Content for Classical Music.