Berg String Quartet, op. 3

performed by the Kohon Quartet (Bernard Zaslav was violist, and is a former member of the Fine Arts quartet, whose wonderful performance [and sole recording] of Babbitt’s third string quartet I recently got my hands on)

It’s always odd looking back at something you didn’t understand and being perplexed no longer at it itself but why it seemed so difficult or strange.
Thankfully this is a short piece, because it took me some time to crack into. This is only the second Berg piece we’ve done here, the first being his piano sonata. At first, to be perfectly honest, I felt the same way about this piece that I did about that one: while it was interesting or nice and truly beautiful, I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t know what it or I was trying to say, or about what.
These two pieces were premiered together in Vienna on April 24, 1911, but the quartet wasn’t published until 1920. It was completed in 1910, and is in two movements.
This piece, like the others we’ve talked about from the Second Viennese School, is not a twelve-tone piece, and while there is always controversy surrounding the label ‘atonal’, Wikipedia does describe it as ‘more freely atonal’ than the sonata. The opening theme is based on the whole-tone scale, which is readily obvious from having a look at the score.
The piece is in two roughly-equally sized movements. The first is in sonata form, and the second is a rondo (but would I know that if I hadn’t read it?) based on the theme from the first movement. But something striking about the piece is that it feels both big and small, like a teeny room with huge furniture. Each of the two movements is around ten minutes or so, which is a respectably substantial length for a movement, but it still feels small. At least in my opinion, it’s a blurred, somewhat compact (or compressed? concentrated?) sonata form, and with the second movement being
kind of squeezed out of the meat from the first movement into a new form, we get a related but recognizably different movement. The opening content does return, though, making for a very tightly knit, strong, and mature piece.
The piece was written around the time of Berg’s completion of studies with Schoenberg, and may or may not be his official graduation piece, but it is much more than that. While again, this piece was completed long before the twelve-tone system was developed, it was also written after Schoenberg’s second string quartet, the last straw on the Late Romantic Camel’s back. Schoenberg had then fully committed to working outside the bounds of traditional tonality and harmonies, but just how he would eventually continue to do so was yet undetermined. His students, then, followed suit, and picked the string quartet form for some of their early works as well. Webern’s passacaglia aside, most of the early (then-published) works of Schoenberg’s two students were chambery: piano sonatas, Lieder, quartets. And this is Berg’s contribution. He’d later write his Lyric Suite, which would be his only other work for the string quartet, but both are significant.
Something to notice in this quartet that I find fascinating is the place it holds in history for both Berg and classical music in general. While Webern’s piece last week was more unabashedly modern, Berg still holds quite tightly to Romantic expression and ideas. This piece straddles a line, and it creates tension: the direction of standard Romantic tonalities and harmonies, or of the ‘atonality’ to come.
The interesting part is this: Berg adheres neither to traditional harmonies and tonality, nor to the twelve-tone structure, as it hadn’t been invented yet. So our themes for this piece have some semblance of tonality, structure around a basic idea (whole-tone), but with plenty of room to wander. Thus, with neither dedication to a tonal center, nor to a twelve-tone row, the unifying idea of the whole piece had to be quite strong, and it is. Perhaps that was anticlimactic, but I find it fascinating and very well done. Something else about the piece is that it’s very contrapuntal. The score reveals intricate detail in the relationships between lines and instruments, where you can see the themes and how they’re treated.
The opening theme is captivating and expressive and intricate, and that’s a good thing for the piece, because it’s what the whole thing is built on. What comes next is somehow lighter, but just as intense…? I don’t know, just listen to it. It’s captivating, tense, comforting, warm, rich, and easy to grab onto. I say that with full recognition of what I said earlier about the piece being difficult to understand at first. Listen to it and decide for yourself.
The development of the themes in this string quartet are exciting and just very… well-proportioned. It’s all kind of dense and compact and strong, but also lyrical, soft, and moving. It’s very strong rhythmically. There are few really shining spots in the first movement that always catch me. The first half of the piece has some wonderful climaxes, but there’s nicely really nothing outlandish or really brash about it. And Berg has crafted a piece with a certain persistence, themes that are always nice to hear again when they reappear.
In contrast with the tidy but not so clear cut first movement, the second is much more lively from the get go. It orbits the same star; the language is similar, but used in a different style, a more rhythmic, energetic one. It has its crunchy punctuated spots and lots of forward motion. There seems to be more variation in this movement, more interpretation and widely varied development of the content. Ultimately, after some very enjoyable and really richly interesting stuff, the opening viola line returns to make a final appearance just before the curtain closes. It’s a dramatic and very satisfying end to a really fulfilling piece of music.
Why is it though, that it seems… or seemed (felt) difficult to wrap my head around? Well, perhaps it’s that it is deceivingly modern. As we’ve said before, it’s not a twelve-tone piece, and it’s not as distinctly modern as Webern’s op. 5 from last week, so perhaps there’s an inclination to approach it from a traditional, Romantic-era or just very surface kind of ‘listen to the melody’ kind of mentality. But it’s when you get into the intricate details of the piece and dig into it that it really starts showing its genius.
This is the end of our little series on the very early works of the Second Viennese School. We haven’t even gotten into the twelve-tone stuff, but we will eventually. That’s it for now, and (not even next week but) in just a few days, we’re going to return to this same city, Vienna, but about 150 years before this piece and get some history out of the way. See you then.

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