Sunday, 9 September 2012

Alban Berg: The Second Viennese Romantic

Of the three members of the so-called Second Viennese School, Alban Berg (1885-1935) has proved to be most popular with the public. Why is that that? Well, his music tends to be far more immediately alluring. It is more conservative-sounding and the closest in spirit to most listeners' favourite kind of classical music - Romantic music. At heart a lyrical composer, Berg nearly always made sure that his music spoke straight from the heart - even when, as we now know it often was, he had constructed it with an astonishing degree of compositional rigour and an obsessive attention to detail. Moreover, his melodies - whether tonal, atonal or serial - stick in the memory more often and far more easily than those of Schoenberg and Webern and can carry you along as strongly as any wave of Romantic melody. His orchestration is also much more colourful, refined, lavish and sensuous. Furthermore, his tonal tendencies were by some margin the strongest of the three composers - paradoxically especially after he finally embraced serialism (in his own way). Finally, he is the Second Viennese composer whose music sounds most like Mahler - and who doesn't like Mahler? 

I bought a CD of the LSO and Claudio Abbado conducting the Lulu SuiteAltenberg Lieder and Three Pieces for Orchestra over twenty years ago and played it almost as obsessively as Berg measured out the sections of his pieces! It was glorious, passionate music that swept you up and made you dizzy - sometimes fierce and strange, often ravishingly beautiful. 

That Berg's roots were deeply lyrical can be heard from his early songs. Listening to his lovely early Heine setting Geliebte Schöne shows a composer already adept at writing songs. There's plenty of Brahms in it, plus a flavouring of Mahler. Schumann's influence shows up in the Theodor Storm setting Schliesse mir die Augen beide. Having (hopefully) enjoyed that particular Storm setting from around the start of the 20th Century, please next try the 1925 version of Schliesse mir die Augen beide. This was Berg's first fully serial piece and the shapes of its melody are angular, in the way of much twelve-tone melody. The phrasing, however, remains essentially lyrical and the piano accompaniment is rich and delicate in a way that is very different to either Schoenberg or Webern, being closer (in texture if not harmony) to Debussy than either. The harmony also has tonal elements (deliberately).

The best of the early songs (composed rather later than most of the others) were gathered together by Berg in 1928 as his Sieben frühe Lieder. This means that were get to hear seven of the composer's loveliest tonal songs orchestrated in the masterly and charismatic manner of his full maturity. In general terms, orchestral songs as a medium are often some of music's tastiest offerings - and these are very tasty specimens indeed. The songs are:

1. Nacht ('Night'), setting Hauptmann.
2. Schilflied ('Reed Song'), setting Lenau.
3. Die Nachtigall ('The Nightingale'), setting Storm.
4. Traumgekrönt ('Crowned with Dreams'), setting Rilke.
5. Im Zimmer ('In the Room'), setting Schlaf.
6. Liebesode ('Love's Ode'), setting Hartleben.
7. Sommertage ('Summer Days'), setting Hohenberg.

Many of the great Romantics can be heard as influences here - everyone from Schumann and Brahms to Wagner (does anyone else hear his Elsa in In Zimmer?) and Mahler. I also hear strong echoes of Richard Strauss. The loveliest passage in Schilflied (beginning at "Wenn sich dann der Busch...") shows that influence clearly, as does the superb surging phrase at "Rie Rosen aufgesprungen" in Die Nachtigall. (I suspect the apparent echo of the famous second subject of the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique symphony in Die Nachtigall might be a coincidence.) Nacht shows a chronologically closer influence, Debussy. The opening bars, depicting clouds and mists, use the whole-tone scale. There's a wonderful surge of tonality in this song at the phrase "Weites Wunderland ist aufgetan".

Of course, another influence was entering Berg's life as he was writing these songs - his teacher Schoenberg, whose First Chamber Symphony was to help shape the pupils first published work, the Piano Sonata, Op.1. The Schoenberg piece is a heady single-movement work notable for its chromatic extending of tonality, its teeming interweaving of themes, its use of sonata form and its hyper-Romantic gestures. It also makes thoroughgoing melodic and harmonic use of intervals of the fourth (perfect fourth, augmented fourth, diminished fourth). All of these features are also found in the Berg Sonata - though, as a Scriabin enthusiast, I would also note that such fourths-based writing was something which the famous Russian was also exploring in a thoroughgoing fashion at this time and that Berg's Sonata actually sounds as much like Scriabin as it does like Schoenberg.  There was something in the air. Both Berg and Scriabin certainly knew how to flood the keyboard with sonority. The opening melodic notes consist of a rising perfect fourth followed by a rising augmented fourth (tritone). This theme's companion features a falling tritone. There's an exposition, an exposition repeat, a development section, a recapitulation and a coda. There's a big climax in the development section but the work's harmonic conflict is only resolved in the coda, where the tritone turns into a perfect fifth. The work is sort-of in B minor, but the extended tonality is already beginning to extend itself beyond tonality. Berg was 21-years old when he wrote it.

In his Vier Lieder, op.2 inhabit a somewhat similar world of extended tonality. The final song is often said to mark the point where Berg crossed over into atonality. Even though it abandons key signatures (unlike its three companions), I have to say it doesn't sound any more or any less atonal than the other songs in the set. The songs (the first setting Friedrich Hebbel, the other three setting Alfred Mombert) are primarily focused on the idea of sleep ("Schlafen") - except for that final song.   The first, Schlafen, Schlafen, is particularly beautiful. It reminds me somewhat of Strauss's Ruhe, meine Seele! but is considerably more chromatic. Listen out for the superb setting of the words "keinen Traum". The second song, Schlaffend trägt man mich, is richly romantic but even more chromatic. Listen out here for the ending, where the closing line "in mein Heimatland" is particularly lovely. The voice holds the first syllable of "Heimatland" before falling, with the piano, over strange, chromatic harmonies. Nun ich der Riesen Stärksten, the short third song, breaks out of Strauss-Schoenberg-style chromaticisim for a passage of diatonic radiance at "an einer weissen Marchenhand". That 'atonal' final song, Warm die Lüfte, is more notable for its word-painting, with "the nightingale" and "the cold snow" that "melts and glitters" being directly evoked. It is the most dramatic song of the set, anticipating the opera composer to come.

Helene Berg

The real move into atonality came with the two-movement String Quartet, Op.3 (Mvt.2). Here the Schoenberg influence, including the score's complex thematic part-writing, is put at the service of heightened drama and there are some intensely involving passages that predict the composer of Wozzeck to come. According to the account of Helene Berg, the piece dates from a period before her marriage to Alban when they were forbidden to see each other. Alban's feelings of frustration, were, she said, channelled into this Quartet. That is easy to believe as the piece feels like an outpouring of intense feeling. I would say, however, that this piece is the one that those of you who struggle with the Second Viennese School's non-tonal music might find a difficult part of Berg's output to come to terms with. The tonal leanings of earlier and later Berg are least clear here. Still, it is a glorious score and becomes ever more fascinating with each listen. The first movement is in sonata form, while the second movement approximates to rondo form.  The scoring of the Quartet is masterly. Berg was, as ever, an expert colourist here.

Talking of colour, the next piece he composed, the Altenberg Lieder, Op.4, marks his first venture into writing for the orchestra. The songs, written for mezzo-soprano, set poems written on postcards by the Viennese poet Peter Altenberg and, though small-scale time-wise, they're large-scale in terms of scoring and expressive impact. The language is atonal but still manages to sound rather Mahlerian and, at times, like the Strauss of Elektra. The first song, Schneesturm ('Soul, how much more beautiful are you'), opens with a magical orchestral tone-poem (built from interlocking ostinati that blow here and there harmonically) depicting a snowstorm. A lovely rocking woodwind figure leads to the singer's entry - a beautiful phrase floated over rich harmonies. The second song, Gewitterregen ('Did you see the forest after the rainstorm'), is lovely. The singer enters unaccompanied, then gradually the orchestra joins her - a poetic passage of chamber music-like refinement that 'glitters and is quiet'. Note the wonderful melisma on "schöner" and the soft gong-stroke at its close. The third song, Über die Grenzen des All ('Beyond the boundaries of the universe'), is haunting and an Expressionist masterpiece. Over an abyss of dissonant cluster-harmonies the singer traces a slow, chromatic line, falling onto a low B. At the end the same line is traced but for the final note the singer leaps a tenth to land on a high C - a great moment to end a fine song, especially as the harmonic cluster beneath has been coloured by tiny gems of percussion. Nichts ist gekommen ('Nothing has come') is expressive of a depressive state of mind, with wan woodwinds, yearning strings and (for pleasure's sake) dainty flecks of percussion. Listen out for a harmonic shift of Mahlerian provenance. The final song, Hier ist Friede ('Here is Peace'), is the longest - and, in my opinion, the best, bringing out the most beautiful side of Berg's writing. The delicate orchestral prelude is particularly ravishing and moving and prepares us for the singer's - and the string section's - rich, emotive writing, looking on longingly towards the great operas and the late violin concerto. There's also an unforgettable moment, where a terrifying climax magically dissolves before our ears into a harp-blessed new world of harmony, and the singer's ecstatically high "Siehe" leads us into heavenly late-Romantic string writing before the delicacy of the opening returns for the haunting prelude. Gorgeous.

A set of atonal miniatures for clarinet and piano may sound more like the sort of thing Webern would have written but Berg's Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, Op.5 are typical Berg in their Romantic gestures and have, to my ears, a lyrical warmth to some of their passages that recalls the autumnal late miniatures of Brahms. The lyrical impulse, always so strong with this composer, is countered (kept in check) by the use of drier figures (ostinati) and by occasional passages of puckishness. After one such cheeky phrase, the opening piece unfurls a dreamy strain of clarinet melody against countermelodies in the piano, almost lifting off into a waltz at one stage before a whimsical, absent-minded-sounding ending. The wintry, introspective second piece features a sad melody for the clarinet over soft bell-like piano chords. The melody sinks down at the end into the instrument's lowest registers, as if giving up in dejection. There's more introspection in the central passage of the third piece but its mood is challenged by the capricious scherzo-like outer sections. The final piece returns to the spirit of the second piece and uses rather similar methods, setting a wintry clarinet melody over bell-like piano chords, but being a little more expansive it has time for an ascent into the higher registers, a dramatic outburst and a wistful coda. These are wonderful little pieces and should be better known. Schoenberg seems to have found them too lyrical, too song-like and told the composer off, provoking his obedient pupil to look to larger-scale writing. The result was the Three Orchestral Pieces and Wozzeck.

Critical accounts will tell you that the now legendary complexity of thought that underpins so much of mature Berg was already strongly at play in the Three Orchestral Pieces, Op.6 but, as so often, the listener is barely aware of that and is much more likely to be swept along on a rich wave of melody, ever-changing textures, exciting dramatic ebbs and flows, captivating orchestral colours and unpredictable but right-sounding harmony.

The first movement, Präludium, begins in a magical haze of unpitched percussion. Out of the haze winds emerge before being blown away by a gargantuan clenched first of brass. The movement's debt to Mahler is repaid in the following pages as a march-haunted stream of fine melody surges in, climaxing thrillingly (with percussion to the fore). Following this catastrophe the hidden march emerges - a great snatch of melody - but dies away into a mysterious passage that surely recalls the 'cowbells episode' from the opening movement of Mahler's Sixth Symphony. A short lament follows, sighing into the closing return of the unpitched percussion. The central movement, Reigen (the title of this section means 'Round dance'), begins with more echoes of the 'cowbells episode' before presenting us with an intricate skein of themes and colours which, despite its pastoral-sounding moments, has a haunted feel too, ending in a tense but deeply beautiful shiver. Schoenberg's way of weaving themes into a complex polyphony is at work but Berg is far too much his own man to make it sound like Schoenberg. You'll hear everything that matters without having to tax your ears. As well as that opening, I listen out each time for the lyrical violin solo, the arrival of waltzing rhythms, the extraordinary harmonies, the magical celesta (shades of Holst's The Planets), the harps, the ferocious brass attacks, the great terraced climaxes....So much to enjoy. The closing Marsch is the longest movement and even more Mahler-like than its companions, though it's orchestrated in ways that even Mahler might have gasped at. The movement is full of suffering and dark violence, with such a sense of dramatic pacing that a concealed programme might be suspected.

Suffering and dark violence pervade both of Berg's operas and the Marsch finale of the Three Orchestral Pieces in particular leads us neatly into the world of Wozzeck, Op.7. Berg himself encouraged interest in the opera by preparing a taster score, his Drei Bruchstücke aus "Wozzeck" - a highly successful gambit that led to the opera becoming very widely performed. If you do not know the opera you might also like to try the Three Fragments first (twenty minutes-worth of music drawing on a scene from the first act and two scenes from the third act (including the opera's closing scene) to get a sense of the rich world you are about to enter.

Wozzeck is scrupulously planned, with its three acts being hung on the following scaffolding:
Act 1: Suite, march, lullaby, passacaglia, rondo
Act 2 (Symphony): Sonata movement, fantasia & fugue, largo, scherzo, rondo
Act 3: Six 'Inventions'.
...which information, duly (and dutifully) imparted, will mean very little to you as you acquaint yourself with the continuously-flowing invention and emotional pull of Berg's tragedy (the synopsis of which you can read here). The technical underpinnings may be stupendously elaborate but the music that results sounds anything but dry or over-thought.

Instead of talking about leitmotifs and other such technical details, I'd like to select a few scenes from Wozzeck instead, beginning with Act 1/ii, where you can hear how naturally Berg uses Sprechsgesang (musically-inflected speech) alongside conventionally-sung melody (including a folksong). This scene ends with Wozzeck's haunted vision of the whole world being on fire (due to the setting sun turning the horizon read) and shows how Berg's orchestral writing is as vital as Wagner's in conjuring up the spirit of the drama. Act 1/iii introduces Marie to the music of a march, to whose strains she sings along happily, and features the indelible beauty of her lullaby - a lyrical passage that lingers long in the memory. The central confrontation of Act 2/iii is the slow movement of Berg's operatic 'symphony', while the following scene shows the composer's uncanny ability to use tonal music as an ingredient in his atonal score - of course for good dramatic reasons, but this knack was to recur in later works, most wonderfully in the Violin Concerto. Another especially haunting passage of the opera comes with the opening scene of Act 3, where Marie reads the story of Mary Magdalen in sprechsgesang then breaks into sung melody when then describing what she has read. A solo viola plays a memorable role here. Act 3/ii, the scene where Wozzeck murders Marie, is followed by a remarkable interlude featuring a long crescendo on a single note, rising from a quiet solo horn through the entire orchestra until, after some violent thuds, a second crescendo sweeps up the percussion section too. Suddenly an out-of-tune piano enters, banging out a polka and we are carried off to an inn. The interlude leading to the incredibly moving closing scene is a deeply beautiful lament for Wozzeck, recalling many of the earlier themes of the opera (those leitmotifs) in a manner that has its roots in Wagner. It is one of the most glorious things in music.

We are still not in the world of twelve-tone music. We are moving in that direction though and the Schoenberg-Berg-Webern triangle so closely associated with it was the subject of the next piece in Berg's output - the Kammerkonzert for violin, piano and winds. If you listen to its opening you will hear three themes presented one after the other. The one on piano  represents Schoenberg, the one on violin Webern and the one on horn Berg himself. (They were formed out of the musical letters of each composer's name, in the time-honoured tradition of BACH and DSCH).

The first movement is a set of variations for piano and orchestra, the second an Adagio for violin and orchestra and the third a Rondo (with introduction) featuring both piano and violin. Not wishing to put you off, but the Chamber Concerto has never been popular with Bergians and it's never been popular with me. The good cheer of its outer movements doesn't feel quite right with this composer, and it's the one time where the academic aspects of the Schoenberg School's project actualy come to the surface in Berg's music. The central movement, however, is a beautiful (if long) piece of music and is often performed alone. Please judge for yourselves though.

With the Lyric Suite for string quartet we return to the heights. Like Bartok, Berg had a highly developed sense of what string players could do and was not afraid to tax them with advanced playing techniques. Also like Bartok (but unlike certain other composers), this was done purely for expressive effect. The Lyric Suite (partly named because it quotes from Zemlimsky's Lyric Symphony, but also because it is unquestionably deeply lyrical) is full of fresh sounds as a result. We now know that, along with its intense structuring and obsessive attention to detail, the score also contains (Schumann-like) hidden codes through which the composer poured out his extra-marital love for another woman, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (pictured below). So, we are dealing with a deeply personal piece of music here - albeit one with a strong musical backbone.

Following his first foray into twelve-tone serialism with the second setting of Schliesse mir die Augen beide (an experiment comparable to Wagner's preparatory studies - the Wesendonck Songs - for Tristan and Isolde), Berg used that song's tone-row as the starting point for his Lyric Suite. As Berg never took a doctrinaire approach to Schoenberg's Big Idea, he didn't stick to applying that row and only some of the Lyric Suite's movements bother to embrace it. Typically, the row itself contains tonal elements - two minor triads easily arise out of it, which on inversion become two major triads. That's Berg for you!

There are six movements (whose markings convey a good sense of their characters):
1. Allegretto gioviale
2. Andante amoroso
3. Allegro misterioso...Trio estatico
4. Adagio appassionato
5. Presto delirando...Tenebroso
6. Largo desolato
The odd-numbered ones are fast and get ever faster. The even-numbered ones are slow are get ever slower. Which ones are twelve-tone? Movements 1 and 6, plus the outer sections of Movement 3 and the Tenebroso of Movement 5. The others are atonal (in the Bergian sense of 'atonal'). The movements project an array of contrasting moods, often within themselves. The warmth of the extremely lyrical Andante amoroso, for example, speaks for itself and the Tenebroso whispers to us strangely, while the closing movement's "desolato" marking accurately conveys its depth of sadness.

Berg later took the second, third and fourth movements and arranged them for orchestra as his Drei Sätze aus der Lyrischen Suite. Though I'd stick with the string quartet version as the best medium for conveying the composer's vision, these orchestrations are a treat that might tempt in listeners who find the twelve-tone parts of the original a little too daunting on first hearing. (They aren't really very daunting at all).

A twelve-tone concert aria followed. Der Wein (concerning my favourite tipple, wine), based on translations of Baudelaire. 'The soul of wine', 'Lover's wine' and 'The solitary's wine' are its three linked sections. Does it sound any more twelve-tone than its simply 'atonal' predecessors? Not really; indeed, there are plenty of tonal touches arising from its row's strong gravitation towards D minor. Though it's not a favourite of mine, Der Wein's use of popular, tonal idioms mentioned in my description of Wozzeck reappear here and you will surely note the appearance of a saxophone - something to bear in mind for Lulu.

Ah yes, Lulu. Berg didn't complete it before he died. Acts I and II were complete. Small parts of Act III were fully sketched, some less than fully sketched. Act III has since been 'completed' (magnificently) by the Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha.

As I said earlier, I first got to know Lulu through the 5 Symphonische Stücke aus der Oper ‘Lulu’ (Lulu-Suite). I found that 'symphony' intoxicating. There are six movements (in certain versions, as many omit the Hymne): Rondo, Ostinato, Lied der Lulu, Hymne, Variations and Adagio. If you are unfamiliar with the opera, please give it a try first. The Rondo is a Mahlerian slow movement (with saxophone) with memorable melodies to die for. The exciting Ostinato is meant to evoke a silent film score. The Lied der Lulu is another of the highlights of the opera - Lulu's beautiful song-like self-defence. The closing Adagio (an arrangement of the opera's ending) also sets the orchestra singing.

Lulu is glorious, its lyrical pages (often associated with the Berg-like character of Alwa) among the composer's most beautiful music. The synopsis may make it sound tawdry, decadent even (as the Nazis might have put it), but Lulu is full of humanity, for good and for ill. The score can be vulgar-sounding (but far from vulgar in reality) and is frequently ultra-voluptuous, underpinned (yet again) by symmetries and formulas yet sounding as fresh, natural and complex as Lulu herself. If you have four hours to spare I would recommend you give them to Lulu.

Berg failed to complete Lulu because he broke off to write his Violin Concerto. It is, of course, a great shame that he failed to finish his opera but if he had we might have been without his final orchestral masterpiece - a violin concerto that I place as my second favourite of all time, behind the Brahms'.

The piece is twelve-tone, for sure; however, Berg's row, as before, brings tonality back by consisting of strings of major-and-minor-forming chains of thirds topped off with a Debussyan touch of the whole-tone scale. Webern and Schoenberg never countenanced such a tone-row, which is why their music sounds so much tougher than Berg's. This infusion of tonality allows the composer to import an Austrian folksong in the first of the work's two movements and to quote - and work variations on - the old choral Es ist genug in the second movement (a chorale whose first four notes are those of that whole-tone scale fragment from the tone-row. A Corinthian folksong, a famous chorale, the swing of a Viennese waltz and succulent tunes, what's not to like about Berg's Violin Concerto?

It was written "to the memory of an angel," namely Alma Mahler's young daughter Manon Gropius (pictured below). Manon died in her mid-teens. Tragically, Alban was to die a mere year later, albeit at the age of 50. Still far too young though.

The concerto begins dreamily with a play of fifths-based arpeggios drawn from the tone-row. They are then scrunched into harmonies, out of which the soloist ascends singing the whole series as if it were (because it is) a melody, complete with its inbuilt sigh. Then Berg inverts his theme in a moment of great beauty. The approach in this first movement is symphonic and it continues by developing this initial material. A scherzando section follows an abridged reprise and introduces a lighter-hearted theme plus its very Viennese-y waltzing companion. These row-derived delights are marvels of the imagination and Berg revels in them. A rustic-sounding theme of equal beauty joins them and, at the section's height, the Corinthian folktune is introduced (on brass) in counterpoint to fragments of the themes we've already heard - a magical passage. The coda follows, exuberantly and briefly. After this idyll comes the tragedy. The concerto's second movement opens to a vicious-sounding cry - a pile-up of the row's notes on brass and timpani, pursued by an accompanied cadenza. This is powerfully dramatic stuff. A brutalised waltz theme enters, but with it flows a sweet vein of Bergian lyricism too. Alas, sweet memories amidst horror. This magnificent section culminates in music powerfully evoking the tragic death of young Manon.Then enters Es ist genug ('It is enough'). Berg presents it as an alternation of phrases between violin and orchestra. The chorale variations that follow comprise a complex yet immediately affecting lament and culminate eventually in the beautifully-staged return of the Corinthian folksong. The coda turns ethereal and ends enchantingly, as if the girl has been sublimated. It is warm and touching...

...and fitting also to commemorate the early death of the composer of so many life-enhancing scores - Alban Berg.

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