Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) from 1899 is his earliest big success and in this piece the inventor of the twelve-tone technique is lusciously tonal.
The Dutch-born principal dancer of the Stuttgart Ballet and the Dutch National Ballet, Marijn Rademaker, has made a dance film, using Schoenberg’s score, for Ballett Dortmund that will be streamed free of charge on Saturday 17 April 2021 at 19.30 CET.
I asked Rademaker why he chose Schoenberg’s music.
I didn’t – Gabriel Feltz, the chief conductor at the Dortmund Philharmonic had the idea to do a video production with Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night to keep both the orchestra and Ballett Dortmund working and to give something to their public in these difficult times.
I listened to Schoenberg’s music a lot when I was younger, and I had an LP of Verklärte Nacht and loved the music. It’s heaven and it has a story to it that I never knew it had.
Schoenberg was inspired by Richard Dehmel’s poem of the same name from 1896. Although it doesn’t use the poem’s words, it does use its structure, being in five parts, and evokes its themes. Rademaker chose not to follow the poem’s story, though the minor scandal at the premiere in 1901 is worth telling. Dehmel had been on trial three times for obscenity and blasphemy in his writing, and the Viennese public wasn’t ready for Transfigured Night’s tale concerning premarital sex, coupled with Schoenberg’s sensual score. The poem tells of a man and woman walking at night through a forest when she tells him that she is pregnant by another man, and his reaction is “Do not let the child you have conceived, be a burden on your soul. Look, how brightly the universe shines!” Surprisingly liberal even today.
One of my challenges was to see if I would follow [the poem] or not, and I decided not to, but tried to get to the essence of the piece. The poem for instance doesn’t talk about the inner feelings of the man. I found it interesting to show his feelings and struggle. And to show that there needs to be struggle to overcome things.
Is the piece connected to the lockdown experience?
In a way yes. It was created in the middle of corona times. Ballett Dortmund called me a week before the first rehearsal and asked me if I would be interested in this project and to come up with a concept: 41 musicians and dancers to make a dance film.
My brain started going and thought about possibilities. On stage, or maybe on location, the stage design, costumes, light. It turned out to be a very big project with a lot of logistics and corona rules to respect for everyone’s safety.
Since it’s a co-production I really wanted the orchestra to be on stage with the dancers. They were all so willing to do that. They believed in my concept and I am so thankful for that. But it was a hell of a challenge with all the corona rules. I can’t believe this actually happened in these times… I’m so grateful to all involved and to Dortmund Theatre to keep giving their employers and their audiences art.
Although first performed as a string sextet, Schoenberg’s arrangement for string orchestra (premiered in Newcastle upon Tyne in England in 1924) is the best-known version. The Dortmund Philharmonic play both versions.
I focussed on the psychology of the two main characters in the first part I thought it would be good to use the sextet for this because the sextet is more direct, more personal. For the second part, where the music goes from minor to major, and Dehmel talks about a different perspective, I used all the 41 musicians.
Rademaker says that he aimed to take the public on a journey.
I think art is life, and life is a journey. Dehmel talks about a journey of two people overcoming something. He talks about perspective. At least that is how I see it. I would like to take the viewers on this journey and identify themselves in it so they can reflect on their own life.
My wish is that people might be touched by the beauty of this journey, life itself, and by that art and maybe even get a different perspective of life.
How has your own outlook on life developed?
I think this is life and how we evolve. Over the years we get more perspective and hopefully get wiser. I am much more aware of things now than when I was 25. Some people say ignorance is bliss, I say being aware is awesome!
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.