Alban Berg: piano sonata in Bm, op. 1

performed by Glenn Gould
(also, don’t watch this… just listen to it)
Welcome to part two of three of our music-I-enjoy-and-appreciate-but-don’t-really-understand-so-can’t-say-anything-terribly-constructive-or-educational-or-useful-about-so-take-this-with-a-grain-of-salt series. The first in this series a few weeks ago was Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, which thankfully had a program to it, even though the composer rejected it later in life. I got to a point where I could appreciate and distinguish and understand the sections and such, and do love it as a half-hour chamber piece, but as we will see with this week’s piece, I couldn’t talk about it musically (modulations, key, tonality and whatever they symbolize or represent) in an educated way. That being said, let’s jump down a generation to one of Schoenberg’s students, Alban Berg’s opus no. 1, his piano sonata in one movement in the key of B minor.
I was kind of taken with this piece from the beginning. I remember going and looking it up sometime last year when my piano teacher mentioned in passing that she was thinking about learning it for a recital sometime next semester (at the time, now this semester). I believe I’d heard it before but was only vaguely familiar with it. I have Gould’s thirteen-minute version from the “Great Pianists of the 20th Century” box set, but was annoyed by his ever-present humming, so spent more time listening to Murray Perahia’s version, which garnered enough praise on Youtube to make me think it was definitive enough to enjoy and get to know. As many have said, it’s interesting that someone so well-known for Bach and Classical-era repertoire jumps out with this and does it so well.
In trying to get my head around this piece (I enjoyed it almost from the get-go, but didn’t really know why or how, or even what it evoked), I listened to a few other versions: Hamelin is a proponent of lots of the more obscure repertoire, and although this isn’t as obscure in nearly the manner that

Roslavets or Mosolov or Feinberg or whomever, it’s no Chopin either. I found his playing of it to be rushed in less than a good way. There are places where Gould really pushes, and I haven’t looked at the score to see where agitato (or whatever the German for that) or rasch or whatever may be written, but I tend to like Gould’s performance more, even with his added commentary in a few places. Grimaud’s performance on Youtube in Japan is rather nice, and I quite liked Brendel’s.

That having been said, I started preparing the writeup for this piece months ago. After comparing different versions and listening at various times intently and passively, when I was doing other things, it was clear to me that the piece is moving, but I just didn’t get it. I had no idea what to say about it or how to proceed with it or what emotion it evoked. I really have a fondness for this piece because it is moving; I’m just not sure in what way. Again, this is nothing definitive or a matter of right or wrong, I just don’t know how the piece made me feel.
Last month, I (finally, for the first time in way too long) had piano class, and my teacher shared with me some pieces she’s preparing for a recital. There’s a Chopin barcarolle, Scarbo from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, a Beethoven sonata, Schumann’s Humoreske, some Bach, and this sonata, among perhaps something else. It’s a big program, and it reminded me to ask her about this piece (I want to have featured or guest writers at some point, and would like to do a translated version of a writeup she does in Chinese, perhaps even post the original Chinese, too). I told her I really like it but that I don’t understand it. She said “Me either.” Oh, okay then. Before the subjective, let’s get some facts out of the way.
This is undoubtedly an impressive op. 1. It sounds mature and well-developed and structured. I am curious what the other never-realized movements of this sonata would have been like. The story goes that Berg had (at least mostly) finished this movement, and had fully intended to write a multi-movement sonata in the traditional three- or four-movement form, but said to Schoenberg that he had lost inspiration and just didn’t know where else to go or what to write next. Schoenberg told him that this meant he had ‘said all there was to say.’ With that resolved simply, Berg published the single-movement, very chromatic work, written in sonata form, centered in the key of B minor, in 1910, but it is suspected to have been written a bit earlier than that, perhaps started around 1908 but more likely in 1909.
It carries an expression, a passion or emotion that has a noticeably polished, matured restraint, as if looking back in old age and telling a story about one’s youth. It may be because of the simplicity at the beginning and end, the return to that simple motif and the chaos and tension and development and struggle in the middle, much like life, and that’s it.
Something perhaps that makes me feel this way about it is what I feel (hear?) to be the persistence of a few particular chords and themes, obviously one of which being the opening theme. I cannot speak to the musical reasons or relationships that make it seem this way, but I hear close interrelationships between a lot of what’s going on, and a struggle and a persistence.
As distant and foreign and “modern” as this piece may seem to a newcomer, it actually follows the rules of sonata form, actually IS in B minor, and plays by most of the “rules” in music theory (or so I’ve read. These pieces, again, are really hard to talk about for me, since so much of the depth or ingenuity is in areas [harmony and tonality, for example] that I can’t really analyze).
As with Schoenberg’s piece a few weeks ago, let’s pick out a few critical areas that stick out to me as points of interest and go from there.

 

From the opening out to about the 0:24 mark is kind of the statement of the main theme in its simplest form. In my little baseless preconceived idea about life and death, it’s the purest, simplest, most unadulterated moment in the piece.
Right after a minute, at about 1:07 or so, (when Gould makes this fantastic gesture cueing himself in), things start to develop and get complicated. The part starting at 1:50 also seems important, and there is a long pause at 3:07 before something else comes along that is also beautiful, but it begins to build and complicate. Just before the four minute mark, it starts to get lively, and I love the sixteenth note rhythms that show up at around 4:22. They sound busy and chatty. There’s a quieter passage that follows, but toward the six minute mark, there’s a bass line that comes out that I love, and shortly thereafter, our opening theme reappears, but in a rushed, kind of blown-through manner very different from the beginning. As we reach the eighth minute, I feel like we are beginning to hear the end of much of the ‘action’, the tension and struggle and everything that was going on in the mid-section of the piece, and it’s nearly peaceful. A decisive, if not a bit defeated, resolution, a recognition. There still resound some echoes in the background of the past, as the piece slows down into a much more peaceful, but haunting, solemn, almost spiritual kind of sacred moment of reflection, and it’s because of Gould’s fantastic, dramatic yet tasteful conclusion that I chose this video (and, unlike the recording I have, he doesn’t sing throughout the piece, or it’s not audible). Those last few minutes are the most powerful, and they put the entire piece in perspective; it gives fantastic closure to the entire unstable, nervous energy of the earlier 80% of the piece, and it’s this that makes the whole thing, in retrospect, so enjoyable.
I’m also fascinated by the spontaneity and evanescent nature of music. (not like I’ve written much of it and know from my years of experience, but) To hear people talk about how the composition of a piece was a journey in itself, how it grew from something (or nothing) and was more or less than or something entirely different from what they had expected or intended, as with Berg’s unrealized other movements of this piece. Would I be curious to hear, in some alternate universe where he did finish them, what they sounded like? Yes. Does this single-movement work need extra movements to support it or give it more depth or completeness? No.
I am intrigued (I wanted to say fascinated, but I said that once already and it’s actually more than fascination, but along those lines) by the fact that a piece of music like this is just a collection of decisions, and one more or less decision could have changed any piece to a disproportionately great amount. Think of Mahler with his removed movement from the first symphony, or Bruckner with his incessant revisions and changes, or Grieg with his 300 changes to the piano concerto everyone knows (and mostly) loves. What it is then, and what I feel like this piece is, is a snapshot of a thought, an idea captured in a bottle and corked, there to remain and be analyzed, viewed, pondered over and experienced by future generations, and any tweaking before the final product was captured would have changed it, for better or worse. Not being much for change, I’m glad the pieces I enjoy made it through the process the way they did, and I’m grateful for what we have, and us adapting to understand it rather than change it. For some reason, that is what this piece makes me think of.
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