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Object #71 / When the storm is highest

Arnold Schönberg: Seraphita
Text: Ernest Dowson/Stefan George

Universal Edition, Wien

Come not before me now, O visionary face!
Me tempest-tost, and borne along life’s passionate sea;
Troublous and dark and stormy though my passage be;
Not here and now may we commingle or embrace,
Lest the loud anguish of the waters should efface
The bright illumination of thy memory,
Which dominates the night; rest, far away from me,
In the serenity of thine abiding place!

But when the storm is highest, and the thunders blare,
And sea and sky are riven, O moon of all my night!
Stoop down but once in pity of my great despair,
And let thine hand, though over late to help, alight
But once upon my pale eyes and my drowning hair,
Before the great waves conquer in the last vain fight.

“‘Passionate sea,’ ‘passage,’ ‘dark storm,’ ‘woe’: these are words whose pictorial quality almost every composer from Bach to Strauss could not have resisted, words that one could not have glided past without having reflected them with a musical symbol. And yet this place is a very telling example of a new way to respond to such images. I can claim to have been the first who proceeded in this manner: the others, who imitated it under a misperception, have, for the most part, concealed my role, [and] yet, thanks to their misunderstandings, I will happily give them my consent. Apparently people thought that I took no notice of the text whatsoever because my music no longer sounded like a storm or clanging swords or derisive laughter, and this was exaggerated to the point that music was being composed to no text or, at best, to a different text than even the one that was being sung. My music, however, recognized the pictorial words in the same way as the abstract ones: it furthered the obvious presentation of the whole and its details, according to its meaning within the whole. Now, if a performer speaks about a passionate sea in a different tone of voice than he uses for a calm one, my music does nothing else but provide an opportunity to do so, and supports this. The music will not be as agitated as the sea; rather, it will be differently so, as the performer will be. Even a painting does not reproduce its subject matter entirely: it presents merely a motionless state; a word [merely] describes the subject matter and its state; a film reproduces it without color; and a color film would reproduce it without organic life. But only music can give organic life, and that is why in this regard music may impose a limit on the capacity to imitate: through performance it places the object and its being before the mind’s eye.”
(Arnold Schönberg, Analysis of the Four Orchestral Songs, op. 22, 1932)

See Schoenberg’s Program Notes and Musical Analyses. Edited by J. Daniel Jenkins. Oxford University Press 2016

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