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Alban Berg and the New Music

Woyzeck: And don’t you ever leave your lips at home, they’re too beautiful, it would be a sin! But then I guess the wasps like to light on them, uh?

Marie: And what wasp stung you! You’re like a cow chased by hornets!

from “Woyzeck” by Georg Buechner

Charlie Berg was fortunate to live in the intellectual and cultural capital of the world. His Vienna, in 1908, brought together many of the men who would shape the new century. Freud and Einstein, Kafka and Klimt, Herzl and Schnitzler, Mahler and Webern all lived in the same city at the same time. Charlie, with utmost confidence, submitted the piano sonata of his much more timid brother, Alban, to the great teacher Arnold Schoenberg. Both sonata and student were received with great enthusiasm.

It was exciting to write music in an entirely new way. Schoenberg once remarked that in order to break the rules you must know them thoroughly. Alban Berg became the star pupil of Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School of composition. He followed his mentor’s journey into the uncharted waters of pantonality and created several interesting works that are rebellious in spirit and revolutionary in shattering the rules of conventional music theory. His string quartet (1910) was received with boos and catcalls when it was first performed but in retrospect the Viennese public was not ready for such a burst of creativity and new ideas. Undaunted, Berg pursued the new music with a great passion until he was drafted to serve in the army in World War I.

Military service proved too much for his delicate psyche and he was soon dismissed. However the experience had a profound effect on him and an even greater effect on the history of Western music. Berg wrote his first truly great work immediately upon his release from the army, the Three Pieces for Orchestra (1914). These eesays are extremely wild, powerful statements with a distinctly martial flair. They unleash the demons of a music with all of its rules shattered. Berg uses brass and percussion to represent the brutality of war and presents these horrifying images against a dissonant background free of any tonal center. The effect on the listener is one of excitement and terror and the pieces showcase a very large orchestra in a tour de force of color, timbre and dynamics. Berg’s Three Pieces, along with Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, are the cornerstone of modern orchestral music and are extremely significant in the development of the music of today. These pieces freed music from strict rules of harmony and are the forerunners of dissonant, free-modulating rock music from Jimi Hendrix to Lee Rinaldo and Thurston Moore. They also foreshadow the style of Berg’s masterpiece, the opera Wozzeck.

Wozzeck tells the story of a soldier who is driven mad by poverty and societal pressure. The music cascades into a nightmare world in Scene 1 as Wozzeck shaves his captain. The captain’s voice is inhumanly high and shrill and the music (as well as a good set designer) tells us that we are not hearing the sounds of the world as it really is, but as Wozzeck’s paranoid, delusional mind perceives it (cf. Chief Bromden in Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest). Scene 2 finds Wozzeck and his friend, Andres, out gathering sticks at sunset. Wozzeck sees hedgehogs where there are none and is terrified of some nameless horror. In Scene 3 we are introduced to Marie, Wozzeck’s prostitute girlfriend. She is watching a parade of soldiers and her friend Margret taunts her that she is taking too ardent an interest in them. Here the music is more straightforward and is a contrast to the surrealistic music which surrounds Wozzeck whenever he is onstage. Scene 4 shows Wozzeck at the doctor’s office. He is so poor that he has sold himself for medical experiments. In a chilling foreshadowing of the Nazis, the doctor allows Wozzeck to eat only peas, so that he can observe the devastating physical and mental effects on his unfortunate patient. The doctor is a magnificent character sketch of a ranting pseudo-intellectual. Scene 5 introduces Wozzeck’s nemesis, the Drum-Major, who flirts with Marie and then takes her inside.

In an effort to tame the beast of free “atonality” (music with no tonal center), Berg arranges the music of the opera using strict classical principles. Each of the three acts has five scenes of roughly the same duration and each act is a different musical form, Act I being a series of five character sketches. This organization creates a stability for the ear in an otherwise phantasmagoric musical world.

Act II is a symphony in five movements. Scene 1 (Sonata movement) finds Wozzeck and Marie at Marie’s house. Marie is wearing new earrings. Wozzeck asks her where she got them. She says that she found them. Wozzeck sings movingly about his lack of money and then gives what coins he has to Marie, saying pathetically that “…this is from captain and this is from doctor.” The second scene (Fantasy and Fugue) has the captain and the doctor taunting Wozzeck in the street about Marie’s unfaithfulness. Scene 3 (Largo for chamber orchestra) finds Wozzeck confronting Marie on her infidelity. He goes to strike her. She attacks him with the words “…better a knife in my heart than a hand on me!” He recoils, muttering “…better a knife, my head is spinning.” as the chillingly thin music reflects his confused state. Scene 4 (Scherzo) takes place at a beer garden. By this time the music surrounding Wozzeck had reached a supernatural feeling of terror. People around him no longer speak, they wail, shriek or emit other sounds not of this earth. At the beer garden a fool approaches Wozzeck. His voice is abnormally high (he is played by the same singer as plays the captain) and he tells Wozzeck, in a device borrowed from Moussorgsky’s Boris Godounov (another opera about a madman), that he smells blood on Wozzeck. This is the final blow to the soldier’s sanity. Scene 5 (Introduction and Rondo marziale) finds Wozzeck at the barracks. All of the men are asleep and their snoring is a chorus of ghostly wails and the cries of banshees (the opera is worth hearing just for this). Wozzeck of course is awake. He cries for Andres. The Drum-Major enters and proceeds to torment his favorite victim and then to assault him.

Act III (6 Inventions) is a masterpiece within a masterpiece. Berg was a great admirer of Italian opera (he always referred respectfully to his favorite contemporary opera composer as Signor Puccini) and in this act he borrows several scenes from Verdi’s Otello. Scene 1 of Act III is Marie’s “Willow Song”. She sings to her child about the goodness of Jesus, bemoans her fate and, like Desdemona, has a premonition of her destiny. She is in her way as innocent as Shakespeare’s heroine and will pay just as dearly. As in the Verdi, this scene of Marie’s tragedy is exceptionally moving.

Scene 2 finds Wozzeck and Marie by a pond. It is now Wozzeck who sounds like a creature from another realm. He talks to Marie, but is really talking to himself. Marie notices this change of voice and is frightened. With music whose repetitive beat sounds as if quoted directly from Otello, Wozzeck stabs her repeatedly. He drops the knife and runs.

There follows an orchestral stroke of genius. Two huge crescendi, as long and drawn out as good intonation will allow, burst into silent movie piano music played at a brisk pace. We are in a tavern where people move to the jerky rhythms of early cinema in a claustrophobic setting. Wozzeck dances with Margret and when she sees real blood on him what emanates from chorus and orchestra is no longer music but the sounds heard by a maniac as he descends into the lowest circle of Hell.

Wozzeck returns to the pond in Scene 4, desperately looking for the knife. He notices the moon and wails that it is made of blood. In a death scene that is the envy of any great singer, he wanders into the water and thinks that it is blood. The music and the water bubble over him.

The oft-excerpted orchestral interlude follows. This invention on a key (D minor) is a truly great piece which can stand alone in the concert hall. Besides its power it serves to bring some order to the chaos that we have just experienced, but its musical resolutions are uniformly dark and grim.

The last scene finds Marie’s child playing near a group of older children. One tells him that his mother is dead. He pretends to ride a horse as he sings “hop, hop”. The other children go to see the dead body. Marie’s child continues to ride his imaginary horse. After a moment he leaves the stage and the music ends in a soft quavering pattern suggesting the first innocent snowflakes of a new, impending blizzard.

Wozzeck, premiered in 1925 and conducted by the eminent Erich Kleiber, was an immediate critical success. It was performed no less than 150 times during Berg’s remaining 10 years. The composer toured with the opera, lecturing beforehand in an effort to explain this totally new music. Wozzeck was even performed in the United States in Berg’s lifetime, in Philadelphia in 1931. In 1922, Berg had written a concert suite, Three Excerpts from Wozzeck for soprano and orchestra, which was used to introduce the strange new music to the listening public. The opera has become a staple of the basic repertoire, commonly performed around the world and, except for the works of Richard Strauss, has probably been produced more than any other work of the modern lyric theater.

During the years that Berg spent on Wozzeck, his teacher Schoenberg wrote no music, but rather developed a system of composition using all twelve tones of the chromatic scale. Berg embraced the new system, as it imposed order on the free use of pantonality, not unlike Berg’s own imposition of classical forms on Wozzeck. Schoenberg begins his treatise, the Theory of Harmony, by saying that he learned this book from his students. Alban Berg was his most prized disciple.

Berg wrote several works in the next few years using Schoenberg’s new twelve-tone system: the Chamber Concerto in 1925, Der Wein in 1929, and the Lyric Suite for String Quartet in 1926. In the latter, Berg experimented in yet a new way. He took the poetry of the revolutionary symbolist Stephane Mallarme and set its meters to music, imposing an extra layer of free form on otherwise highly disciplined music. Berg wrote a string orchestra version of movements two, three and four of this suite as well.

Between the years 1928 and 1935 Berg wrote another masterful opera, the unfinished Lulu. Taking two plays by Franz Wedekind, he fashioned a scandalous libretto about a woman who destroys all the men in her world and is eventually murdered by Jack the Ripper. A popular subject of its day, there is also a film of Lulu starring Louise Brooks. Lulu has a female lover (Berg’s sister Smaragda was a militant lesbian) and may also be romantically involved with her father. The opera has several innovative features, including the use of a filmstrip to fast-forward the action and the use of jazz as a backdrop. There is a wonderful scene where Lulu is appearing at a cabaret. She is in her dressing room and every time that someone opens the door the jazz from outside mixes with the strict twelve-tone music within. Berg died before he could orchestrate the third act and so the opera is performed in two different versions, one with a reconstructed third act and one without. Lulu has gained considerable place in the modern operatic repertoire.

The opera begins with a prologue which seems to be taken almost verbatim from the 1934 film “Freaks” directed by the German Tod Browning. A ringmaster beckons us the audience to witness a story of the animal kingdom, with Lulu as the snake. Act I Scene I (Introduction, Canon and Coda) introduces Lulu as she sits for her portrait, a portrait which will remain unchanged (a variation on Oscar Wilde) in every scene of the opera as Lulu’s fortunes rise and fall. Her husband comes in and, finding that she is romantically involved with the painter, collapses and dies. Scene II (Sonata: Exposition) shows Lulu, now married to the painter, also enjoying the patronage of the wealthy Dr. Schoen (the oedipal connections to Berg’s mentor are simply delicious) and his son Alwa. A mysterious stranger appears. He is Schigolch, a seedy old vagabond that is probably Lulu’s father and certainly an ex-lover. The painter, realizing her infidelities, kills himself. Scene III ( Sonata: Development and Recapitulation) is the great dressing room scene where Lulu humiliates Dr. Schoen and forces him to renounce his socially prominent fiancee (echoes of Heinrich Mann’s and Josef von Sternberg’s variations on the “blue angel” theme). Lulu is unrepentant throughout. The act ends with the “fate” motif: four grim repeated chords.

Act II Scene I (Rondo: Exposition) is a wonderfully inventive parody of a scene in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, formerly the toast of Berg’s Vienna in Mahler and Roller’s scandalous production. Dr. Schoen is now the ill-fated husband and he discovers a whole group of lovers hiding in Lulu’s boudoir. There is an acrobat, a schoolboy, and his own son, Alwa, hiding under the bed and in the closet. Opera buffa turns to opera seria when Schoen gives Lulu a gun to kill herself. She shoots him instead. There follows the great orchestral interlude (Ostinato), reminiscent of Wozzeck. This is the music that introduces the Lulu Suite, designed to be performed in orchestral concerts, and while it is playing we see the filmstrip (or silent movie) which shows Lulu’s arrest, imprisonment and escape. This device is a triumph of mixed media and was written at the same time as Schoenberg was writing his own Accompaniment to a Film Scene. Act II Scene II (Rondo: Recapitulation) shows all of her surviving lovers, including Countess Geschwitz, her lesbian lover, arguing about who will have Lulu now that she has escaped from prison. The dubious honor goes to Alwa, who plans to take her to Paris. The bleak music of the fate motif returns and the act ends.

Berg had written most of the music for the third act before his death. His widow, Helene, asked Schoenberg and then Webern or Zemlinsky to finish the act in time for the premiere the next year in Zurich. All three composers demurred and Frau Berg refused to show any of the incomplete manuscript to anyone for the rest of her life. Finally in 1979 the Paris Opera under Pierre Boulez and Patrice Chereau produced the complete opera with a reconstruction by Friedrich Cerha. In Scene I (12 Variations) Alwa and Lulu are living in luxury in Paris. They receive news that they have lost all of their money in a stock collapse and Lulu flees with Alwa and her most loyal admirer, the Countess. The painting as always is on stage for the audience to contemplate. Scene II (Melodrama and Variations) finds Lulu in London. Reduced to prostitution, she meets Jack. Alwa has already been murdered by one of her clients. While Lulu is with Jack in the next room, Geschwitz vows to dedicate her life to the cause of women’s rights. Suddenly a blood-curdling scream is heard (the highlight of the orchestral suite as well) and Geschwitz discovers the body of her lover. She collapses over Lulu and we hear for the last time the unrelenting fate motif. Unlike Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, there is no redemption here, only darkness.

Berg’s final piece is the hauntingly beautiful Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, subtitled “To the Memory of an Angel”. He wrote the work as a requiem for Manon Gropius, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius. Manon was the darling of Vienna’s intellectual community and when she died so young Berg was deeply moved. He includes a quotation from a Bach chorale in the second movement as a moment of comfort for his grieving audience. The Berg Violin Concerto is unquestionably the most beautiful piece written in the twelve-tone style and is a standard concerto for every serious modern violinist. It poignantly serves as a requiem for Berg as well for he died freakishly at the age of fifty from blood poisoning incurred by a wasp bite.

In a radio interview, the great Romantic pianist Artur Rubinstein was once asked what he thought of modern German music. He replied that he really didn’t listen to it very often, but that Wozzeck and the Violin Concerto were both masterpieces of the first order. These pieces are essential to any real understanding of the music of the twentieth century and both are tremendously moving listening experiences.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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