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Faculty of Music

There has been disagreement among music scholars as to whether Schoenberg’s string sextet, Verklärte Nacht, tips the balance toward program music or absolute music.  Some argue for a line-by-line correspondence with the Richard Dehmel poem that inspired the work, while others argue that Verklärte Nacht, as a piece of late 19th-century chamber music, is more fruitfully understood as some sort of modification of sonata form.
In my talk, I will suggest a compromise between the programmatic and absolute views of the piece.  But I also want to go beyond those perspectives, to show that both text painting and reminiscences of sonata form serve a higher goal: the realization of what Schoenberg would eventually call a “musical idea.”  “Musical idea” is a large narrative spanning a piece that introduces a conflict, elaborates and deepens that conflict through most of the piece, and finally resolves it near the end.  The narrative of Dehmel’s poem introduces a predicament (the woman in the poem has had a child with another man, which threatens to ruin the relationship she has with her beloved).  That problem is elaborated through the first part of the poem, and then solved through a kind of synthesis in the second part (the “Verklärung”), as the beloved man reassures the woman.
Following this narrative within the frameworks provided by his adaptations of sonata form, Schoenberg creates his musical problem, elaborations and solution through an extensive web of motivic, harmonic, and rhythmic development that ties together literally hundreds of passages: my talk will describe a small but representative portion of these.  
Jack Boss is Professor of Music Theory and Composition at the University of Oregon. His research interests center on motive, harmony and long-range coherence in modern music.  His first book, Schoenberg’s Twelve-Tone Music: Symmetry and the Musical Idea, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2014; in 2015 it was given the Wallace Berry Award by the Society for Music Theory.  A companion volume, Schoenberg’s Atonal Music; Musical Idea, Basic Image, and Specters of Tonal Function, was published by Cambridge in 2019.  The third and last book in the trilogy, Schoenberg’s Tonal Music: Depictive Text Painting and the Birth of the Musical Idea, is under contract with Cambridge Press and should be completed by 2024.  Prof. Boss has published articles and book chapters on Schoenberg’s music among other topics (including a Music Theory Online article on George Walker’s piano music in 2022). He has presented his research throughout the United States, as well as in England, Ireland, Canada, South Korea, and Brazil.  In April 2020, he gave the first-ever virtual presentation at the Oxford University Seminar in Music Theory and Analysis, and was a featured speaker at MusMat 2021 (international music and mathematics conference) in Brazil.


Wednesday, 6 March, 2024 - 17:00