Transfiguring the Night

CityArts Online
Publication Date

SEATTLE (November 7, 2014) - Music of Remembrance (MOR) commemorates a grim event this Sunday at Benaroya Hall: the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” during which the Nazis fomented a wave of violent pogroms targeting Jews across Germany and the recently annexed Austria and Sudetenland. But MOR’s focus has always been on the triumphant creativity of the human spirit that defies oppression and hatred—against the most terrifying odds.

The organization remembers the work of composers silenced by the Holocaust by presenting their music and by commissioning modern artists, to build what founder and artistic director Mina Miller calls “ a living bridge between Holocaust artists and artists today.” Sunday's lineup features the world premiere of work from Seattle-based choreographer and Spectrum Dance Theater artistic director Donald Byrd, set to Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”).

Schoenberg, a pivotal figure in the evolution of modern music, was banned by the Nazis as a “degenerate,” as were other Jewish composers. He joined the first wave of émigrés to the United States from Nazi Germany and lived out the rest of his life in Los Angeles. Yet even from a distance, Schoenberg was closely involved with the plight of the Third Reich’s victims.

“But what is anti-Semitism to lead to if not to acts of violence?” wrote Schoenberg in 1923, a letter rebuking his friend, the visionary painter Vasily Kandinsky, for expressing trendy anti-Semitic sentiments. Schoenberg already foresaw the threat of the genocide, and became a passionate political activist during his first American decade, attempting to raise awareness of the dangers faced by European Jews. Although he converted to Christianity as a young man (in 1899, the year before he composed Transfigured Night), he returned to the Jewish faith in 1933, in part as a public protest against the rising Nazi tide.

“I knew Verklärte Nacht from the piece Antony Tudor choreographed, called Pillar of Fire [for American Ballet Theater in 1942],” says Byrd. “Tudor used the later version for string orchestra, not the original version Schoenberg wrote for string sextet, which is the one being performed here.”

The composer was still at the beginning of his career as a largely self-taught composer when he wrote Transfigured Night at the turn of the century, inspired by a work from the controversial German poet Richard Dehmel (1863-1920).

Dehmel’s poem Transfigured Night describes a moonlit encounter between a woman and her lover. She confesses that she is pregnant by her husband rather than by the man she truly loves, and for that reason finds herself “in a state of sin.” The lover reassures the woman by accepting “the stranger’s child” as his own. Transfigured Night represents a rare example of programmatic chamber music. Schoenberg’s harmonic experiments, on top of the poem’s ironic reversal of conventional morality, caused scandal when the piece was premiered in 1902.

“I’ve been working with the imagery of the poem and the period in which the music was written and introduced,” explains Byrd. “So much was happening in the theatre world at that time and I want to create something that is suggestive of the world of Expressionist theatre, with its visuals of dark and light and shadow. The woman in the poem is holding a secret that she shares with her lover, and he is accepting of the news that she is having child by another man. The last line, ‘Two people walk on through the high bright night,’ is wonderful and depicts how there is a radiance over everything. It’s about acceptance and love as the antidote to judgment.”

While the poem suggests a narrative arc, Byrd’s choreography for three Spectrum dancers is “more about mood than trying to tell a story. Expressionism is not just about narrative storytelling, which would be boring anyway in dance, but about heightened emotions and representations of expression.” After the world premiere this Sunday, Transfigured Night will again be performed as part of Spectrum’s Studio Series the following weekend.

There’s a bonus treat on MOR’s program as well: the premiere of Byrd's tap dance choreography to a short piece for dancer and four hands piano by Dick Kattenburg (1919-44), a Dutch Jew who was murdered at the age of 24 in Auschwitz. Mina Miller has programmed works by Kattenburg and Leo Smit to represent the lesser-known legacy of Dutch Holocaust composers.

“We know so much now about the composers who were sent to the Terezin concentration camp because there’s been an important music foundation actively supporting that work,” Miller explains. “But there’s still far too little known about what happened to Dutch composers who were silenced by the Holocaust.”

Kattenburg’s tap dance piece, she adds, “is so full of joy and life—and it’s a wonderful gift to have an artist like Donald bring it back to life today with his choreography.”

By Thomas May

Read the original online publication here.