One Night’s Chord | VAN

My latest piece for VAN magazine dives deep on the strange chord at the centre of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht:

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.

For Tennis Season

Wimbledon’s on, so here’s a video I found through a piece in the Guardian. Gershwin and Schoenberg were neighbours in California in the 1930s, and often played tennis together.

I found it a great surprise when I first learnt that Schoenberg and Gershwin had been close friends when they lived in California, but then maybe I shouldn’t have. Schoenberg, for all that his music could be austere and ascetic, was a very conservative kind of radical, and clearly appreciated Gershwin’s extraordinary melodic capacity. Gershwin even asked Schoenberg for composition lessons, but the latter refused, saying “I would only make you a bad Schoenberg, and you’re such a good Gershwin already.”

Perhaps more surprising is that Gershwin and Copland, the two most famous American composers of the early- and mid-twentieth century, had in Copland’s words “nothing to say to each other.”