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Mullova Ensemble: Transfigured Night

Viktoria Mullova playing her violin

Tonight’s concert from the Mullova Ensemble has been some quarter century in the making; it offers a typically provocative rethinking of Schoenberg’s great Romantic sextet Verklärte Nacht, heard in an entirely fresh setting.

Playing this piece with my wife Viktoria Mullova has been in the pipeline for a good 25 years – a dream come true – but it had to wait a long time for the right context; more of that in a moment. When Richard Dehmel wrote his poem Verklärte Nacht (‘Transfigured Night’) in 1896, a youthful and passionate Arnold Schoenberg – still only in his early twenties – was moved to compose a response in the form of a string sextet that has become one of the iconic works of the repertoire. In the words of Schoenberg’s biographer, the plot of the poem goes like this:

‘A man and a woman walk in the woods at night; she confesses that in her desire to have a child she had sinned by giving herself to a stranger whom she didn’t love;
now she is pregnant but, having found you”, the man she is with and whom she loves, she is full of remorse. Her lover, however, generously tells her that their
love will “transfigure” the child, which will be his as well as hers. The idea in the poem was considered scandalous in the dying days of 19th-century Vienna.’

Verklärte Nacht is beloved by so many string players (a combination of its wonderful string writing and the infectious freedom of expression; the abandon that maybe only a young genius could find) and it has been a favourite of Viktoria’s and mine since we were both in our twenties, before we met.

After the pandemic I began to dream about this piece again, wondering how to present it in a way that would feel satisfying – I wanted it to be the culmination of an evening, something presented to an audience who were already in a changed state from the bustle of normal life outside the concert hall. My thoughts turned to finding a way to transport the audience … maybe going down the avenue of something semi-theatrical, using lighting and projections to take the audience into the forest at night with its full moon … something (after all the craziness of Covid) that was comforting, consoling, with love at its centre.

So the idea formed of a sequence of small pieces before the Schoenberg, with a seventh performer to represent the force of love, the transfiguring power from the poem – a character like a spirit who would move around the stage and open the space for the mysticism of the transfigured night. We had been completely blown away by dancer Ching-Ying Chien’s award-winning virtuosity and depth of expression in Akram Kahn’s epic Until the Lions, so were thrilled when she agreed to take part, dancing a new choreography by Joshua Junker, a rising star of the Royal Ballet.

I had been impressed by the music of young Japanese/British composer Jasmine Morris and commissioned five short pieces for electronics that would follow the five stanzas of the poem, acting as structural columns in the first part of the concert. In between these we could then programme music that reflected some aspect of either Dehmel’s poem or of Schoenberg’s response to it.

We start with Bach on solo violin, representing the veiled purity of the moonlit night; Debussy’s classic Clair de lune (‘Moonlight’), performed by our two virtuosic viola players under the projection of the rising full moon; then an arrangement of Richard Strauss’s Waldseligkeit (‘Woodland rapture’), an intimate love song set in a nocturnal forest; more solo Bach; then violin duos arranged from songs collected by Bartók in the villages of Hungary and Ruthenia, presenting another kind of music made in close connection with nature; some free improvisation illuminating how the performers feel onstage in the moment they play with Ching-Ying; and a movement from Janáček’s extraordinary Second Quartet, Intimate Letters, a piece that matches Verklärte Nacht in its wild expression of ecstatic love.

We have been joined in this project by some outstanding artists: my long-time collaborator Nick Hillel, director of the fabulous Yeast Culture, creators of very high-class visuals for theatre, dance and concerts; and renowned lighting designer Sander Loonen. The set-up costs have been considerable, so enormous thanks are due to the Marchus, Coln, Fidelio, Backstage and Leigh Family Trusts, as well as an anonymous donor, for making this project possible. We are also indebted to Alicia Carey and Hawkwood College in Stroud for their generosity in providing a residency where the ideas were developed in 2022.

© Matthew Barley

Programme and performers

Jasmine Morris
Transfigured Night
1. Two People Walk
Johann Sebastian Bach ‘Double’ (from the Allemande) from Partita No 1 in B minor for solo violin
Claude Debussy Clair de lune (arr Kang for two violas)
Richard Strauss Waldeseligkeit Op 49 No 1 (arr Barley for quartet)
Jasmine Morris
Transfigured Night
2. A Woman’s Voice Speaks
Johann Sebastian Bach ‘Adagio’ from Sonata No 1 in G minor for solo violin
Béla Bartók ‘Ruthenian Song’, ‘Cradle Song’, ‘Teasing Song’, ‘Sorrow’ and ‘Ruthenian Round Dance’ from 44 Duos for Two Violins
Jasmine Morris
Transfigured Night
3. A Man’s Voice Speaks
Improvisation cello
Improvisation viola and cello
Jasmine Morris
Transfigured Night
4. Dark Gaze
Leoš Janáček ‘Moderato’ from String Quartet No 2, Intimate Letters
Jasmine Morris
Transfigured Night
5. There’s a Glow Around Everything
Arnold Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht

Mullova Ensemble:
Viktoria Mullova violin
Lisa Rieder violin
Nils Mönkemeyer viola
Kinga Wojdalska viola
Matthew Barley director/cello
Peteris Sokolovskis cello

Ching-Ying Chien dancer
Joshua Junker choreographer
Nick Hillel, Yeast Culture projections
Sander Loonen lighting designer/technician


Richard Dehmel (1863–1920)
Verklärte Nacht (1896)

(Transfigured Night)

In 1899 Arnold Schoenberg, inspired by this poem, wrote his eponymous masterpiece for string sextet . The subject matter shocked conservative Vienna, but its message, of tolerance and the power of love to transform and dissolve obstacles and barriers, is as important today as it was then.

 Two people walk through a bare, cold grove; 
the moon glides above them, they gaze upward.
The moon glides over tall oaks; not a wisp of cloud dims the heavenly radiance
into which the black points of the branches reach

A woman’s voice speaks:

I bear a child, and it is not yours,
I walk in sin beside you,
I have gravely offended against myself.
I no longer believed in happiness,
yet still yearned painfully
for a full life, for a mother’s joy,
for duty; and so I grew reckless,
and shuddering, I yielded myself
to a stranger, embraced him
and even blessed myself for doing so.
Now life has taken its revenge:
now I have met you – ah you.
She stumbles on her way.
She looks up; the moon glides above.
Her dark gaze drowns in light.

A man’s voice speaks:

The child that you conceived –
let it not burden your soul,
oh, look how bright the universe gleams!
There is a radiance all around;
you drift with me on a cold sea,
but an inner warmth glimmers
from you in me, from me in you.
The warmth will transfigure the stranger’s child,

you will bear the child, as if it were mine;
you have filled me with the radiance,
you have made me a child myself.’
He holds her around her strong hips.
Their breath mingles in the air.
Two people walk through the soaring, clear night.

Translation © Richard Stokes

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