Photography Godfried Maes, Illustrations to the Metamorphoses of Ovid, Jupiter and Io, disguised as a white heifer (PD)

At the heart of Schoenberg’s string sextet “Verklärte Nacht” stands a chord. In the midst of the work, an ambiguous, complex, chromatic tone poem, the chord stands out as uniquely ambiguous, complex, and chromatic. The work was controversial when it was written, its lush, shifting harmony having been too much for many early listeners, and that one chord was singled out as an eccentricity too far.

The reaction to “Verklärte Nacht” was acidic. Even Alexander von Zemlinsky, Schoenberg’s brother-in-law and nominal teacher, chastised the work for its dense harmony and its clear debt to Wagner. He told the composer, “it sounds as though you have taken a still-wet version of the ‘Tristan’ score and smeared it.” When Schoenberg submitted it to the Vienna Music Society for performance, they rejected it on the basis of its unprecedented extension of traditional harmony, and singled out that pivotal chord as “uncategorizable.” Schoenberg later quipped on their wobbly logic that it couldn’t be performed “since one cannot perform that which does not exist.” And, when it finally received its 1902 premiere, three years after its completion, the audience reportedly met it with hisses and gasps.

But let’s set aside theoretical lunacy and look at the chord itself. It’s a beauty. Even played in isolation it seems rich in possibility, suspended and strange, tense with overtones, and, more than anything, emotionally complex. It’s transitional, neither a beginning chord nor an ending one, and—importantly, given the title of the work—it’s transfigurational.

Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht; Artemis Quartet, Members of the Alban Berg Quartet. The first occurrence of the “uncategorizable” chord in this recording is at 03:25 (with the progression starting at 03:22); the second at 10:47; and the third at 26:19.

The first appearance of the “Verklärte Nacht” chord, a few minutes into the work, comes by an unexpected musical sidestep. It starts on the chord before; a dissonant one, but one that did exist in late Romantic conventions. Instead of following a usual path, though, a short silence follows, then each instrument shifts by a half-step, some up, some down, and the famous chord arrives. Just by that little tweak of its predecessor. It’s one further tweak, another half-step for each instrument in the same direction, that brings it back to tradition—not to resolution, but to somewhere new. Schoenberg has taken two chords that the audience knows and recognizes, and changed their context. Instead of any conventional tension–resolution scheme, even a “Tristan”-esque delayed resolution, the chords are given new meaning and new life by their new context. One is transfigured into the other.

There’s a game that sometimes does the rounds among young writers on the Internet: rewriting famous works of literature in six words. Commenters on give Sense and Sensibility as “Unworthy entanglements neutralized, appropriate pairings proceed”; Hamlet as “After much dithering, revenge is deadly”; Waiting for Godot as “Nothing happens, then nothing happens again” (the latter a nod to Vivian Mercier’s famous comment that Beckett had achieved the impossible by writing “a play in which nothing happens, twice”). To play a similar game with music, “Verklärte Nacht” could very nearly be reduced to just these three chords. One complex mood translated into another by an unexpected path.

The premiere of “Verklärte Nacht” was far from the first time audiences have reacted coldly to unexpected elements in a new work. “Tristan und Isolde,” whose influence on the work Zemlinsky had noted, itself opened on a previously undefined chord, just as tense and unexpected as the “Verklärte Nacht” chord. And, like the one from “Verklärte Nacht,” the “Tristan” chord can be defined through conventional means (it’s an augmented sixth; the “Verklärte Nacht” chord, by Schoenberg’s own admission, is an inverted ninth), but that definition, cool and academic, gives no hint of the extraordinary effect of the chord in the way it’s used.

Though the harmony of “Tristan und Isolde” was pioneering in its day, probably as densely chromatic to its first audiences’ ears as “Verklärte Nacht” was to those in fin de siècle Vienna, most of the critical objections came on supposed moral grounds. The sensual chromaticism was censured for its sensuality rather than its chromaticism, and several contemporary critics took against it. Their opinions didn’t matter: it became a touchstone work anyway.

Even Beethoven’s revolutionary Symphony No. 3 came in for similar treatment, not for an unexpected chord, but for a melody that seemed to appear ex nihilo in the middle of the first movement. Again, contemporary critics took against it (with notable exceptions, including Haydn), asserting with superficial sophistication that the melody simply didn’t belong there. Melodies, you see, are supposed to be announced at the beginning; that is the way things are done. Analysts later discovered, through reading the score and Beethoven’s notebooks, that the melody had its roots in the first theme of the work.

Like Beethoven writing that new theme into the middle of the Eroica’s first movement, Schoenberg didn’t need the connection between the bones of his work and the contentious chord to be explicit; he just needed it to exist. Schoenberg thought in motifs. In his book, Fundamentals of Musical Composition, he made a compelling case that the beautiful melody to the second movement from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 3 is made from just two two-note motifs. The melody is made by taking these pairs of notes and recombining them, inverting them, rearranging them, altering their rhythm. It’s fascinating to see—musical microbiology, the notes as cells splitting and merging and multiplying.

Godfried Maes, Illustrations to the Metamorphoses of Ovid, Mercury Rescuing Io from Argus (PD)
Godfried Maes, Illustrations to the Metamorphoses of Ovid, Mercury Rescuing Io from Argus (PD)

“Verklärte Nacht” does not open with strange or unexpected harmony, but with a simple six-note scale descending in D minor. It’s broken into two halves, like a tense breath: three notes in, three notes out. It’s not long before Schoenberg starts contracting these groups of three notes, tightening the harmony as the steps reduce to half-steps. By the time the music gets going, it’s flooded with these collections of notes, three at a time, a half-step apart.

When the chord finally arrives, it’s this motif writ large, chorale-like, for the whole group. It’s the first time all six instruments play in rhythmic unison, and they play, together, the same three-note motif that Schoenberg has been developing since the beginning of the work.

Three is an interesting number in the work, even besides that motif. Schoenberg said that though the piece was in D (first minor, then major), the two neighboring keys of E-flat and D-flat (again, half-steps away) were important to its structure. And the chord itself is heard three times: once, near the start of the work as the mood begins to intensify; once, about halfway through, not long before the transition to D major, and once near the end. It stands, in other words, at the introduction, the transfiguration, and the resolution. Perhaps bizarrely, then, it’s a figure of transformation, but one that doesn’t itself change.

Except of course it does change—the notes persist but the context changes. The first time we hear the chord, it’s in the midst of the dark, anxious, troubled mood of the early part of the work; the second, as the work builds to a pained, almost aggressive climax; the third at peace. The emotional ambiguity of the chord, and its wealth of musical and psychological implications, work to its advantage, as it can mean whatever the music needs it to mean at these points.

It’s easy to point to the chord of “Verklärte Nacht” as an early presage of Schoenberg’s later revolutions, his discarding of diatonic harmony in favor of the twelve-tone system he would invent, but I don’t see it that way. Schoenberg was always a very conservative sort of revolutionary, and even in his later years would demonstrate the tonal roots of his music by writing alternative harmonizations for them in D minor (that key always seemed to hold a particular attraction for him). He was interested in melody and motif, and other concerns—harmony, timbre, even the rules of his own system—were consequences and secondary concerns. Schoenberg wrote music from notes and notes alone; hence what Boulez would later call the “tyranny” of twelve. Schoenberg never made any attempt to serialize other aspects of music as later composers did. The “Verklärte Nacht” chord, if it presaged anything, presaged Schoenberg’s ability to sit at the very limit of tradition, to bend boundaries to breaking point, but never to break them.

More than that, it represents a type of late Romantic tonality too fragile to last long. Composers were seeking new harmonic ground as the 20th century loomed. It happened that Schoenberg would provide that to some of them. But the fin de siècle promised change, and change would have come, sooner or later. The chord hangs in the midst of the work, not of the future; not of the past; but of itself, for an ambiguous moment, suspended between the 19th and 20th centuries. ¶