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Dallas Chamber Symphony Concert Features Composers on the Brink of History

Dallas Chamber Symphony’s concert on Nov. 15 proves history can be kind to emerging artists as they attempt carve out their identity in their cultural sphere.

The pieces bookending the concert, Edward Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and Arnold Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, are both early pieces that reflect a transformation in the composers’ careers.

The concert will open with Elgar’s Serenade for Strings. Written in 1892 and first performed in 1896, it is one of this British composer’s earliest surviving pieces and was written only a few years before his first great success.

“Elgar was a late bloomer. He was 35 years old before he started getting any traction. He had a very unstructured upbringing, mainly he was self-taught. He was just getting married and he condensed some of his work into this Serenade. At about the same time Schoenberg was writing Transfigured Night, Elgar was writing the Enigma Variations.” said Richard McKay, conductor and artistic director of the Dallas Chamber Symphony.

Following the 1899 premiere of the Enigma Variations, Elgar achieved international fame and he would go on to compose the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, still widely used at academic graduations. Serenade for Strings is the work of a composer still striving for recognition and financial stability.

In Vienna, Schoenberg ambitiously worked to establish himself in the music world with Transfigured Night, a piece based on the poem of the same name by Richard Dehmel.

“Schoenberg was trying figure out what his language would be, what his personal transformation would be, what his musical transformation and contribution would be, and how to elevate the current state of music,” McKay said.

Schoenberg admired both Johann Brahm’s structured work and Richard Wagner’s programmatic work.

“This piece is, in the mind of Schoenberg, a synthesis of those two competing ideas. It’s a masterpiece. It’s certainly the most important early work of Schoenberg and one of the most important early works of the time theoretically for what it meant for the trajectory of concert music at the time. It’s a pivotal work,” said McKay.

Schoenberg’s choice of poetic inspiration raised a few eyebrows.

Dehmel’s poem is about a woman who confesses to her new lover that she is expecting another man’s child. Her lover’s acceptance of this child is a practical and modern resolution, but it presented some legal issues for its writer. Dehmel was tried and acquitted for obscenity and blasphemy twice for writing the work that included this poem.

Despite the controversy, Schoenberg said he was attracted to the transformative themes of the poem.

“I think the reason he chose it was because of the poet’s emphasis on reconciling social mores and reconciling intrinsic competing dualities that encumber human beings in life. It’s all about transcending things. Transcending the dualities between male and female, life and death, light and dark. There’s a tremendous emphasis on transformation or a metamorphosis and the idea of bringing humanity or human beings to a higher level,” said McKay.

Schoenberg uses the distinct structure to illustrate and explore the poem’s story.

“The general mood of the sound pivots with the mood of the poem. When you’re dealing with programmatic music, it’s not just about having a poem that inspires your piece. It’s really about painting the poem or painting the subject matter into the piece,” said McKay.

The music community largely embraced Schoenberg for Transfigured Night, but it does not foreshadow his future work. World War I and World War II inspired a rebellion against German Romantic music and German nationalism.

“If you listen to Tranfigured Night, you would never think he is going to go crazy with atonality and serialism and totally dissemble the tonal system in the coming years,” said McKay.

Schoenberg would become famous for that musical development, but war would force him out of his homeland. In 1934, Schoenberg moved to the United States to escape the Nazi regime after being accused of composing degenerate music.

This concert is an opportunity to experience the beautiful masterworks of composers on the cusp of the most pivotal time in their careers and in history.

The performance will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 15 at 8 p.m. at the Dallas City Performance Hall. For tickets and more information, visit www.DCSymphony.org.

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