#SundaySoundtrack - Lee Armstrong

Marion Tait Pillar Of Fire

Lee is Birmingham Royal Ballet's Senior Design Executive.

Today is composer Arnold Schoenberg's birthday. Schoenberg's music is comparatively rare on the ballet stage and there is only one ballet Birmingham Royal Ballet has ever danced to his music, Anthony Tudor's 1942 work, Pillar of Fire, set to his Transfigured Night (Verklärte Nacht) Op.4. This work was brought into the repertory by Peter Wright in the early 1990s, both as part of the Company's Towards the Millennium programming, and as a vehicle for the extraordinary Marion Tait to showcase her skills as a dance actress (something I wish I had seen).

You may wonder why someone from the Marketing team is writing about this particular playlist, and why it is all Schoenberg. Well, his birthday aside - a good excuse in my opinion - I volunteered. Schoenberg's music is regarded with some trepidation by many people, particularly in the amateur musical circles I find myself enjoying regularly (pandemics excepted). Some of his music is very difficult to listen to; he was, after all, the father of Serialism - the dreaded 12-tone music. However, he wrote a great deal of very tonal and very beautiful music too, both before and after Serialism. For me, were I to find myself in the unlikely situation of being on Desert Island Discs, of my eight choices, the original string sextet version of Verklärte Nacht is the one piece I would save from the waves when asked at the end of the programme. I find it stunningly beautiful and deeply moving. I have been lucky enough to conduct the string orchestra version (used by Tudor for his ballet) with a fine group of amateur players and it was an experience I will never forget.

Tudor's ballet follows the plot of Schoenberg's string sextet pretty closely. It is based on a poem by Richard Dehmel and is a work in two distinct halves. We meet the lovers, who are the central and only characters (unless you count the moon!) on a moonlit night. Briefly, the woman is pregnant by another man and is trying to tell her true love of her situation. The first half is dominated by turbulent harmonies which are only broken at the moment in the work (and the poem) where the man 'speaks' for the first time. He says to his lover, 'let the child you bear be no burden on your soul', and the radiant theme that the cello plays at that moment must be one of the most moving in all music. From here on in, the music is warm, breathy, ecstatic and beautiful. The themes used in the tempestuous first half are literally musically transfigured by Schoenberg into closely related themes that express the couple's love for one another.  

Unfortunately, my favourite recording of the sextet (the Raphael Ensemble on Chandos/Helios) isn't on Spotify, but I have done my best to find a substitute. The Raphael Ensemble recording is paired with Korngold's wonderful string sextet and is well worth looking out for. As for the rest of the play list, I have taken it as an opportunity to demonstrate that Arnold Schoenberg was the composer of some lovely and very approachable music as well as the more modernist (if you can call century-old music 'modernist') works for which he is better known.

Whether you just listen to Transfigured Night, which I would strongly urge you to do, or the whole playlist, I hope you enjoy it. It's probably not a relaxing Sunday morning listen more, perhaps, something to dip into, or for an evening by a fire with a nice cup of tea, which, since autumn is perhaps already in the air, could well be this evening!