Is Schoenberg Wagner’s future ?

(New York, May 1st, 2006)


François Nicolas

(composer, professor at l’École normale supérieure de Paris)







What do they have in common?



The interval of time that separates them

Three steps

The twilight-Wagner

What is twilight?

Resistance, perfecting and prophecy in Wagner


What is it [than] a dawn?

Second string quartet as dawn

Musical dawn

The between Wagner-Schoenberg

The wagnerian references in Schoenberg

In the second string quartet



Before 1908, during “the night”…

Transfigured night?

The plot

Two nights

Romantic night

Transfigured night

The music

Small analysis

Parsifal transfigured by Schoenberg?

What transfiguration?

Music doesn’t think alone

Wagner and the drama

Schoenberg and the diagonal






french institute alliance française



Wagner, our contemporary



IV - Wagner: Visionary or Gravedigger?

Monday, May 1 at 8pm | Florence Gould Hall | In German


Enjoy a program of groundbreaking music; then decide for yourself about Wagner’s position in the subversion of tonality at the turn of the 20th century. The evening’s program includes Liszt’s Bagatelle Without Tonality and Wagner’s Dedication for Piano.


         LISZT – La lugubre gondole & Romance sans paroles, for cello and piano

         LISZT – Am Grabe Richard Wagners, for string quartet and harp

         WAGNER – Dedication, for piano (Bunte Blatter)

         SCHOENBERG – Verklärte Nacht, for string sextet

         SCHOENBERG – Quartet No. 2, for soprano and string quartet





PRE-CONCERT LECTURE Is Schoenberg Wagner’s Future?

François Nicolas, composer and professor at l’École normale supérieure de Paris

Monday, May 1, 6pm | Florence Gould Hall | In English


Beyond some shared personality traits, Wagner’s and Schoenberg’s compositions are clearly dissimilar, as are their roles in the history of music. Indeed, Debussy saw “dusk” in Wagner and Berg presented Schoenberg as “dawn.”


What is there to expect of the relationship between a crepuscular-Wagner and an aurora-Schoenberg? And how to imagine the “musical night” that have separated them?



Is Schoenberg Wagner’s future ?


What has happened between Wagner and Schoenberg ? What kind of continuation, what breach          between the two of them ?

Between Wagner and Schoenberg”? This “between” should be taken in two ways:

·                as what they could have in common,

·                as an interval of time that separates them.

Therefore two questions:

- what is it that Schoenberg and Wagner have in common?

- how does Schoenberg relate to the musical problematic unfolded by Wagner?

What do they have in common?

Let’s do a list of common traits between the two men and their two Works.


·       They have both written the libretto for their operas (see Moses and Aaron for Schoenberg).

·       They both combined composition with a theoretical activity.

·       They both made a great effort to surpass the works of their youth (see the rupture for Wagner around 1849 and for Schoenberg around 1923).

·       They both knew exile, being chased out of their countries (as a banned revolutionary in the case of Wagner, as a Jew in the case of Schoenberg).

·       They both showed a close interest in politics for some time and then stayed away from it (from 1849 to 1851 for Wagner, from 1933 to 1938 for Schoenberg).

·       They both were passionate about love, the differences between sexes and largely composed on this theme (for example Transfigured Night, which we will listen to this evening).

·       Neither of them showed any interest in the science of their time.

·       They were both emancipators of dissonance and chromatism.

·       They both bet on a renewed thematism to emancipate themselves from other musical dimensions.

·       They both set themselves up to compose “music of the future”.

·       They both have created their own musical institutions: Bayreuth for Wagner, The society for private musical performances for Schoenberg.

·       They both bet on the ratio of the music to the distinctiveness of the prose and the voice to encourage music to emancipate itself (characteristically for Schoenberg the second string quartet that we will listen to this evening).


Schoenberg is conscious of its closeness with Wagner. He declares himself as following the footsteps of Wagner:

“From Wagner [I have learned]:

1. The way to make possible treating the themes to obtain the maximum expression; the art to write to this effect.

2. The relationship between notes and chords.

3. The possibility to treat themes and motives […] in a way that would let us to superimpose them on a harmony without worrying about the dissonances that would result.”

More specifically, Schoenberg is often regarded as having constantly oscillated between Wagner and Brahms, between these two great figures in the music of the second half of nineteenth century.

For example, according to Boulez:

“For Schoenberg the umbilical cord with Wagner-Brahms will never be totally cut. A slow oscillation between the first and the second of these predecessors will remain the most characteristic in his long career.”

The interval of time that separates them

Let us look quickly at what covers the time that separates them.

Let us recall certain dates:

·       Parsifal is written in 1882 and Wagner dies one year later, in 1883.

·       The first significant work of Schoenberg – the Transfigured Night – dates from 1899 (this is his opus 4, preceded with three opuses consecrated to the lieder).

So, almost twenty years separates the end of the work of Wagner and the beginning of that of Schoenberg, and I suggest that you regard this as a kind of a night separating the twilight-Wagner and the dawn-Schoenberg.

In fact it was Debussy who started the idea of Wagner as a twilight, and Zemlinski (and later Berg) the idea of Schoenberg as a dawn.

There would be then between Wagner and Schoenberg a night of almost a quarter of century if one considers that dawn-Schoenberg starts with his second string quartet (1908) which we will hear this evening.

This is a hypothesis that I suggest we examine: the connection of twilight-Wagner and dawn-Schoenberg, through a night which proves itself transfigured.



Three steps

I will proceed in three steps, asking myself successively:

1.     In what way was Wagner a twilight?

2.     In what way was Schoenberg a dawn?

3.     What kind of juncture there is between such twilight and such dawn? In what way the oncoming day Schoenberg should be associated with the ending day Wagner via that night that should have been a pivot between nineteenth and twentieth centuries?

The twilight-Wagner

For Debussy, associating the image of a twilight with the Work of Wagner was a way of depreciating. For him, it was a way to suggest that the music of Wagner was without future and its destiny closed.

But in fact Debussy didn’t believe in this diagnosis: to realize that, it suffices to discover how much his music is intimately inspired by Tristan and Parsifal, especially in his masterpieces which are Pelleas and Jeux – in this respect, the book of Robin Holloway (Debussy and Wagner) explains in detail how much the writing of Debussy is closely inspired by Wagner’s.

If it’s true that Wagner was a twilight, I would like here to raise the notion of twilight, demonstrating that a twilight is not necessarily what Debussy suggests.

What is twilight?

Twilight, in fact, is not always a moment of renouncement; it’s not necessarily an instant of “no future”. On the contrary, a twilight could be regarded - should be regarded – as a moment coupled intimately with resistance, perfecting and prophecy.

·       The twilight actually is resisting the oncoming night rather than surrendering to it. According to René Char, “for a dawn, it is the oncoming day that is a disgrace; for the twilight it is the night that gobbles it up”. The twilight resists the menacing night; the twilight protects still for some moments the day that is threatened. So, the twilight is not longing for the night, because, as René Char writes, for the twilight the night is a disgrace rather than an apotheosis or an opportunity.

·       So, the twilight resists the oncoming night while protecting the ending day till the last moment. How does it protect it? By perfecting and putting the finishing touches to the day, by carrying out the given tasks to its final conclusion, so that they will not stay unfinished.

·       Finally, the twilight forecasts, not what there will be tomorrow, later – the twilight doesn’t know what will come after the new and distant dawn – but what will remain of the day that the twilight perfects; the twilight is a prophecy, not in the future tense but in the future perfect: “that day would have been worthy of posterity, as this and that would have been what this day hands down to posterity”.

Resistance, perfecting and prophecy in Wagner

Wagner is a good example of twilight because the Oeuvre-Wagner - particularly his last opus (Parsifal) - interlaces a resistance, a perfecting and a prophecy.

·       Firstly the work of Wagner resists the superficial and frivolous concept of the music of his time, be it a simple amusement or an academism that introspects on itself.

·       Secondly the work of Wagner perfects: it achieves what Wagner called “opera as a drama”, that means an affirmation that the music can talk to the world and with the world, that it can be autonomic without being autarchic.

·       Finally the work of Wagner forecasts: it foretells not the coming of chromatism (therefore Schoenberg) but it foretells that what counts in his work will remain and stay able to question the composers and creative artists of the next century (which means the twentieth century). On this idea I have given a course of lectures (in École Normale Supérieure on Ulm street in Paris) which explains in what way Parsifal is a work of music for today and not for the museums.

To see in twilight-Wagner not a museum piece but a musical chance to hope, is, in a nutshell, what Charlie Chaplin tells us in his film The great dictator: he indicates that one should tear Wagner away from the hands of Hitler, and that there is hope for a free future if following the directive “Listen to Wagner!” (in this instant: “Listen to the prelude of Lohengrin and what comes after!”)



It’s important to remark that this prelude from Lohengrin that concludes the film in a tonality of hope has previously accompanied the famous dance of the dictator, playing with the balloon-globe, what underlines that Charlie Chaplin wanted to take over the music of Wagner that Hitler wanted to monopolize.


In what way, now, was Schoenberg a dawn?

What is it [than] a dawn?

A dawn – what is it exactly?

This is what the french theatre tells us:

[The woman Narsès:] “What is it called, when a day gets up, like today, when everything is a mess, everything is confused, but one still breathes the air, when everything is lost, when the city burns, when the innocents kill each other, but when the guilty agonize, in a corner of a day that gets up?”

[Electra:] “Ask the beggar, he knows”.

[The beggar:] “It has a very beautiful name, woman Narsès. It is called the dawn.”

Giraudoux (Electra, II.10)

The dawn, it’s an announcement that something is coming after the dark, deaf and brutal night.

And a dawn, subjectively, is this:

“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,

Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.”

Walt Whitman (Song of the Open Road; 1856 - Leaves of grass)

A dawn, it’s an enthusiasm of a new jump, it’s an exaltation of appropriating a new territory in big stride.

Second string quartet as dawn

The second string quartet, that you are going to hear this evening, is clearly a such dawn, and more precisely, this type of dawn that reveals itself since the fourth movement – Transport [Entrückung] - from what constitutes at the beginning a classical string quartet, witnesses a soaring soprano that sings the following words:

 “I feel the air of another planet.


I see the hazy vapors lifting

Above a sunlit, vast and clear expanse

That stretches far below the mountain crags.”

Moreover, this dawn that declares the fourth movement follows a third movement that is put clearly, by the poem Litany, under the sign of a desolate night:

 “Deep is the sadness that overclouds me.


Long was the journey, weak is my body,


Empty my hands, and feverish my mouth.


Lend me thy coolness […] send forth the light!”

Musical dawn

How does the fourth movement carry out musically the dawn that the poem declares?

·       First of all, by unexpected irruption of a soprano in a string quartet that in itself suffices to “illuminate” the whole work.

·       Than, by atonality: this is the first piece of music - first important piece because the ‘Bagatelle without tonality’ of Liszt that we will hear this evening is a little one, without true ambition, a curiosity, not a masterpiece, as the second quartet of Schoenberg - to be without signature, that means without sharps and flats at the clef, in other words without a defined tonality. So, dawn takes here a form of a leave given to tonality.


What does or doesn’t this dawn owe to Wagner? Would it be, like the dawn that was equally declared to be Debussy, a dawn separated from the former twilight-Wagner, a new youth of the day oblivious of the former day that is already definitely buried?

Shortly, between twilight-Wagner and dawn-Schoenberg, is there a bridge lanced over the night that is separating them?

The between Wagner-Schoenberg

This opens two questions:

·       Are the musical resources that Wagner has enclosed in Parsifal in a certain way reactivated by Schoenberg?

·       And in return, are the resources mobilized by Schoenberg for his new day related to those that Wagner has mobilized in his Work?

Let us begin by the second one.

The wagnerian references in Schoenberg

In the second string quartet

We begin by examining the references to Wagner in the second string quartet of Schoenberg.


It’s true that in this quartet there is a whole part of dawn-Schoenberg that doesn’t owe anything to twilight-Wagner.

·       So, the way Schoenberg progressively refines his material – it’s enough to compare the means gigantic (precisely wagnerian) of Gurrelieder with those of the string quartet – doesn’t derive at all from a wagnerian gesture: Schoenberg needs this kind of economy of means to press hard the new type of musical discourse that he will invent, keeping distance from the security that until than was offered by tonality.

·       The desire itself for atonality, for music free, liberated from the tonal stress, doesn’t come from Wagner, always solidly camped on the tonal architecture..


However this quartet stays pregnant with a wagnerian harmonic perfume. Let me give two examples.

·       One can notice that the quartet starts under the sign of sequential work that Wagner has carried on a large scale: thus all the first measures of the quartet repeat the same phrase, first in F sharp minor, then in A major via a unison on C natural (to exploit the minor thirds stacked up); in short, Wagner has never done differently at the beginning of Tristan (A minor, then C minor…)


Schoenberg : beginning of the second quartet

Wagner : beginning of Tristan

·       Later, in the quartet, Schoenberg puts his themes under a treatment that one could call leitmotivic since not only the first theme of the first movement is taken again, varied like theme of the third movement – cyclical logic - but it reappears superposed on its second part – logic equally wagnerian, this time of weaving a polyphony from a thematic network.

Example (2° quartet)

the beginning of the third movement is build by counterpoint of precedents themes :


So it’s true that the shadow of Wagner continues to hang over the gesture of dawn.

But what had been of Wagner’s influence on Schoenberg before his second string quartet? What had there been during the “night” separating the twilight 1882 and dawn 1908?

Before 1908, during “the night”…

It’s striking that one more time Schoenberg responds to it very explicitly since he composes a work that reveals itself being a transfigured night!

So the program of today’s evening is intelligently conceived since it will allow us to hear two works of Schoenberg that not only illuminate musically the connection of Schonberg to Wagner but, more so, they tell exactly what they do – two works that we could call “performative”: telling what they do and doing what they tell – since one (the opus 4 of 1899) declares to transfigure the night (meaning, as we will see, to liberate from the post-romantic obscurity) and the other (the opus 10 of 1908) declares passing from a night, hollow and weary (Litany), to a new day, open for the new horizons (Transport).

Transfigured night?

 For Schoenberg, what is it than a transfigured night, what is it his Transfigured Night [Verklärte Nacht] ?

The plot

Let us start off with the plot of this work, however with no words to be sung, nevertheless very much referred to a poem by Richard Dehmel.

This poem speaks of the night encounter of two lovers. The heartbroken woman tells the man that she bears a child that is not his. The man declares that his love will make this child of a stranger his own.

Two nights



                          Romantic night

One can see how this condensed little drama escapes the logic of a romantic night (of which Tristan sets an eternal model) where two lovers unite under the horizon of professed death: the romantic night was in an exemplary fashion without dawn.

                          Transfigured night

The transfigured night surmounts this romantic night since love is precisely not what unites a pair of lovers but what makes true of its disjunction at the mercy of a child that circulates from one to the other.

So the transfigured night is at the same time an emancipation of love from its romantic fusing figure and an emancipation from a romantic vision of the night like alpha and omega of the day that precedes it. It’s the transfigured night that carries the child conceived by the passed day towards the light of a new day that announces itself.

Why not to regard all of this as a transparent allegory, especially as for Wagner the music was precisely a woman, a woman impregnable by the poet? Why not regard the child born by a woman and adopted by the lover as a work handed down by romantism – wagnerian work, to be precise – that the music transmits into the new century?

The music

In what way the musical piece named Transfigured night accomplishes this program? What is it that it’s transfiguring, particularly of Wagner’s music? In what way does it enter the retroactive composition with the second string quartet and singularly with the dawn that constitutes the fourth movement?

                          Small analysis

Schoenberg himself guides us on this path when he writes:

“My Transfigured night brings forward Wagner in its thematic treatment of a cell developed on a changing harmony”.

This harmony was so new that the piece was refused to be presented because of a chord not classified, a dissonance “not cataloged”!:

Thus in 1898 Schoenberg strayed away quite a bit from the paths guided by tonality. But, as indicated, it’s in 1908 when he crosses over the Rubicon.

It’s easy to see that Schoenberg in fact has just extended what Wagner has largely deployed in Tristan and equally in his Parsifal (what is less noticed), for example in the second scene of the transformation, in the middle of the third act, where the chromatism gets wild.

The musical transfiguration of Transfigured night is associated with the clearing brought by D major in the fourth part of the piece, in the moment when the poem underlying the piece puts these words in the mouth of the man:

“The child that you conceived,

let it be no burden to your soul;

oh, look, how clear the universe glitters!

There is a radiance about everything;


a special warmth glimmers from you


It will transfigure the strange child.


you have brought the radiance into me.”

In a certain way, one should recognize that this piece announces rather a transfiguration than executes it musically: a modulation from minor to major is in fact too conventional to be able to constitute by itself a transfiguration, that means an appearance by transparence of a new musical figure. This kind of modulation declares a transfiguration without realizing musically what it’s talking about.

So one needs to wait for the second string quartet of Schoenberg to succeed to transfigure Wagner.

Parsifal transfigured by Schoenberg?

In a way, one could in fact hear the last movement of the second string quartet - the one where the soprano soars emerging from the bosom of quartet for strings - as a transfiguration of Parsifal.

In fact, the absolute contrast of the forces between the big wagnerian orchestra and a diagram of a string quartet constitutes a frame adjusted to the principle of a reappearing idea under the new day, the musical idea transfigured by its trimming to a new body.

What transfiguration?

What idea, inherited from Parsifal, is transfigured by the quartet of Schoenberg?

What is this musical idea accomplished to perfection by twilight-Wagner and now spurts up transfigured by dawn-Schoenberg?

Music doesn’t think alone

It seems to me that music doesn’t think alone; music wouldn’t know to think lastingly all by itself. Music thinks with the others thoughts, singularly with the poetic thought, especially when it comes for the music to cross over to a new stage of its unfolding.

For the music, the way of thinking with the poem happens through the voice.

In fact a force of the synthesis of which the music disposes happens through the voice, because in the music it’s the same voice which sings and which talks simultaneously.

So, the specific point that binds Schoenberg to Wagner has to do here with using the voice and the text that it sings when it comes for the music to reach the new laws.

When it comes to make a step to cross over the void, either to take up a new world (what did J.-S. Bach with his Well tempered keyboard) or to open a door towards what will become a new world, when it comes to move the musical frontier, to win for the music new sound territories – like an american image of a “new frontier” that moves incorporating new land -, there the musical treatment of a voice supported by the text can become a crucial agent.

Wagner and the drama

Wagner made the voice his principal agent of the synthesis, particularly his dramatic agent since the word “drama” for Wagner describes a synthesis of music, poem and theatre. To make this synthesis work by the voice and around the voice, Wagner had broken down the old logic of the aria and of the pretty melody and has invented “the unending melody”. Parsifal achieves this new musical logic to perfection.

Schoenberg and the diagonal

In Transport Schoenberg transfigures this idea of the voice as an agent of the new synthesis. He realizes this idea, and I would like to conclude on this remark not under the form of an unending melody but under the one that I suggest to call diagonal since the soprano voice traverses inside the quartet, its harmony, its motives and its rhythm.

Thus Schoenberg creates a new agent of synthesis – the diagonal - that revives, “transfigures” the operations materialized at Wagner by the melody “without end”.

And here is an example.

Fourth movement (exposition : transition between the two themes)

Far away, we can see that the twist of voice results of quartet’s meshes

(see the big notes in this example) :

I let you try to eventually recognize it during the concert of this evening.

I will break now in this stage, waiting for the concert this evening.