One of the most striking aspects of the Central European fin de siecle in music is the dominance of nocturnal imagery. Naturally, you could trace this back to that absolutely fundamental work for the era, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, with the velvety eroticism of the great second act. In expressionist art generally, the night dominates; consider Klimt, Schnitzler, Kafka. And in music, the night rules.
I know very well that Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder ends with a magnificent sunrise, dispelling the nightmare shroud of cruel fate and uncontrollable eroticism that had pervaded this hymn to lonliness and lunacy. The piece begins with a superlative prelude depicting twilight; an invitation to the world of the night. Consider the spooky, albeit hysterical world of Verklaerte Nacht, and of course don’t forget Pierrot Lunaire, Pierrot of the moon. And indeed, lunar imagery dominates the work. Even when Schoenberg looks to a French artist for inspiration, who does he find? Why, Maurice Maeterlinck, of course. (the most iconic scene in Pelleas et Melisande takes place in the castle catacombs.) And don’t forget that most nightly of nightly works, Erwartung. It seems as if Schoenberg can’t take a step without stumbling over a corpse or something, illuminated by Pierrot’s moon.
The attentive reader will have noticed that all these works, tonal or atonal, predate Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic period. Perhaps more relevant is that they all precede World War One, the “Great War”, and scads of commentators like to find prescience in the artists of this era, as if they were a bunch of Cassandras. Maybe. I prefer to see inevitable stylistic evolution stemming from Wagner’s Tristan, as well as a new attention to interior emotitional and psychological states, as exhibited most noticeably in the writings of Sigmund Freud. Perhaps Darwin’s discoveries play a role in the existential sweepstakes as well. That night functions as a metaphor is obvious, in any case.