Newly Commissioned Poem Transfigures Arnold Schoenberg’s Pivotal Chamber Music Work “Transfigured Night”

VIVO photo Derby Court CMA
VIVO Music Festival 2016 at the Columbus Museum of Art, Derby Court (Photo: Courtesy of the VIVO Music Festival)

I am greatly honored to have received a commission from the VIVO Music Festival to write a poem in response to Arnold Schoenberg’s pivotal string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), and to present my new poem in its world-premiere reading Thursday evening at the Columbus Museum of Art.

Under the creative leadership of its founders and co-artistic directors Siwoo Kim and John Stulz, the VIVO Music Festival brings world-class musicians to Columbus, Ohio, for one week each summer for performances of great chamber music repertory in venues all around the city. In its third season, the 2017 festival will feature Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht Thurs., Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. in the Columbus Museum of Art’s Derby Court.

In keeping with the theme of Thursday’s concert – “VIVO Transfigured” – Stulz asked me to write a poem that would respond to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and also update the poem of the same title by German poet Richard Dehmel that inspired Schoenberg’s work – in short, to transfigure Transfigured Night.

The task of composing my new poem was exciting and daunting. Delving into and gleaning inspiration from the rich philosophical and cultural contexts in which Dehmel and Schoenberg worked was exhilarating. At the same time, in fulfilling the commission, I was fully aware that my new poem would become, if only in a small way, still nothing less than a part of the history of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.

I will present my new poem “on a cold sea we travel” in its world-premiere reading at Thursday’s concert, as an introduction to the musicians’ performance of Schoenberg’s work. The reading and the performance will be live streamed on Facebook.

My hope is that, when heard before Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, “on a cold sea we travel” will set the stage for experiencing the philosophical and sonic richness of Schoenberg’s music in a uniquely musical way. I took the idea of traveling on a cold sea as much from my experience of hearing Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, with its dramatic waves of sound in continuous ebb and flow, as from the particular line in Dehmel’s poem that the title of my poem paraphrases. In an effort to preserve the essential philosophical resonances of Dehmel’s poem, in “on a cold sea we travel” I have aimed to convey an apotheosis that is truly universal – shared by poet and all who experience the poem. I’ve also conceived the surface music of the poem – the alliteration, assonance, and rhythms of the words – to serve as a special kind of gateway into listeners’ experience of Schoenberg’s work.

My extreme gratitude to John Stulz, Siwoo Kim, and the VIVO Music Festival for this singular honor, and to the Ohio Arts Council for funding in support of the commission.

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