8. Nacht

Malevolent pitch-black moths

Slaughtered the sunlight.

A sealed spellbook,

The horizon is empty, silenced.

The power of “Nacht” – the coup de theâtre it manages – depends on context. It’s always disheartening, therefore, to see it, a stump of a work, in the Norton Anthology of Western Music, Vol. 3, longing for its roots and branches. To have heard the solo flute in “Der kranke Mond” in the previous movement is the essential history of “Nacht,” where, for the first time in the entire cycle, there is no flute or piccolo – no moon-flute-light. We are dropped into the dark that the movement’s title promises. But the world has also gotten larger. In “Der kranke Mond,” we had dwindled away, abandoned by the other instruments. However massive its sick moon, it shone on us alone. Now we are out in some strange world – the upside-down? Mothra vs. Godzilla? – but a world, a vision that sights a void writ in the vastness of heaven.

Moth wing detail (Photo by author)

I’m tempted beyond that which I can bear: as a teacher, I must return to the Norton Anthology. I could do no better – could I? – given my choice of movements than to anthologize “Nacht” and “Enthauptung” (Pierrot’s “beheading” in No. 13). They show Schoenberg exploring two radically different approaches to pitch organization within the same larger work. Moreover, “Nacht” adumbrates, through its motivic games, the serial procedures that Schoenberg would eventually develop, inevitably functioning in the anthology as a kind of stylistic prophecy, I guess. But the thing that strikes me again is the timbral shock: from solo flute in its middle register to bass clarinet, cello, piano, in their lowest. Timbral light is extinguished. And in its absence, Schoenberg draws the circling figure of the mammoth mutant moths – through the three-note repeating figures, through fugal entries, through chromatic descent – circumscribing light and snuffing it out with night-black wings. Ever closing and closing again, closing within closing until a muffled hailstorm of wings fills the skies. No moon. No light.

The cell, the fugal entries, the chromatic descent, “Nacht,” mm. 1-5.

I’m reminded of another piece in the same volume of the Norton Anthology: Ligeti’s Etude No. 9 for piano, “Vertigo.” The way those figures plunge and plunge, cascading over each other to suggest falling infinitely downward, couldn’t have a clearer precedent than in the final passage, tumbling headlong over itself, of “Nacht.” Or sometimes I think the closing page is a ladder, a sort of inverse of Jacob’s, or a journey through Dante’s nine circles, with the batlike level boss roaring and fuming at the center. Whirlpool, tunnel, ladder, or circle, we land in the pit, the bottom of the well. And, now plunged into these dark, unfathomable reaches, what unearthly voices will speak to us?

Infinite descent by ladder, circle? “Nacht,” mm. 22-23.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.