Berg: Vier Stücke, op. 5

for clarinet and piano

performed by Sabine Meyer and Oleg Maisenberg

But I must thank you for your censure just as much as for everything you ever gave me, in the full knowledge that it is meant well—and for my own good.  I need not tell you, my dear Mr. Schoenberg, that the great pain it has caused me is a guarantee that I have taken your criticism to heart.

Alban Berg, to Arnold Schoenberg

Of the Second Viennese School, I’d say Alban Berg is the softest, most supple, easily approachable of the three. Schoenberg was their fearless leader, but Webern later came to push the envelope even further than the father of the 12-tone system. Webern was known for his miniature pieces, almost acerbic in their brevity and raw straightforwardness. Even Schoenberg, in pieces like his op. 11 or 19, doesn’t reach the kind of bare-bones extremeness of many of Webern’s works.

But in today’s feature, we have one of Berg’s earliest published compositions, and one of his only real tries at the miniature form. The quote at the top of the article comes from a letter Berg wrote to his former teacher, thanking him for his…. straightforward feedback about the piece.

Chris Darwin, in these program notes for the work, says:

Schoenberg, perhaps feeling threatened by the talented pupil now composing outside his guidance, gave Berg, who was visiting him in Berlin, a blistering criticism of the ‘insignificance and worthlessness of his recent compositions’.

Ouch.

Darwin puts that in the context of Schoenberg’s mentoring of the young Berg, who, when he first came to Schoenberg, was, as the 12-tone inventor says, “absolutely incapable of writing an instrumental movement or inventing an instrumental theme.” This apparently changed as Berg studied under Schoenberg, a kind of liberation, with atonality and all the rest, but maintaining Berg’s own sense of lyricism, which we hear in this work.

It’s interesting that Schoenberg lashes out at Berg for miniatures, but not Webern. Perhaps he felt it suited one, but not the other. In any case, Berg quickly moved on from this form to bigger, other things, like Wozzeck.

In any case, what we have here is four little pieces, as the title suggests, and not four movements of one work. This ‘miniature’ idea, like with Schoenberg’s. op. 19 or any number of works from Webern, is to take the kernel, the very essence, of a musical concept, and present it complete and unadorned, like haute cuisine that gives two slices of beautiful sushi-grade tuna on an otherwise empty plate, or naked, unadulterated beef, no accoutrements, not decorated with sides and garnishes, but standing complete, wholly on its own.

The first of these pieces begins with a figure that can sound almost bouncy if taken a little faster, as in this recording, which I find blazes and bounces through without any sense of the angles and turns and texture of the music. Carol McGonnell’s copyright-free recording of this work is what I use for the intro music to my podcast, also called Fugue for Thought. But Meyer’s take on this line is even slower, a languorous but still propelled figure, with the piano providing a lush foundation on which the clarinet floats, then soars, ending quietly with a repeated A.

The second piece presents us with a slow, muffled heartbeat-like pulse from the piano as the clarinet ascends and descends in one slow, expressive melodic line. The music seems… straightforward, even boring maybe, but the score is full of direction, to slow down, speed up, dynamic changes and attacks, and all of this is essential to making this single, brief clarinet line come to life. If you’re familiar with Erik Satie’s famous piano sketches, his ‘furniture music’, you might be inclined to appreciate these pieces as simple little morsels, expressive of single ideas, explorations into the depth of simplicity, at the risk of sounding cliché.

The third piece in the set is a lively, or even nervously chaotic, scherzo-like piece, with a slower middle section. It’s chirpy, anxious sounding in contrast with the slow, broad textures and sounds in which the first two pieces languished. It feels like a scherzo because the slower, more relaxed section acts somewhat like a trio, and one can’t help but feel like this is the third-movement scherzo in a layout of a four-movement sonata or other multi-movement form. In any case, it’s quickly over, leading to the finale.

The fourth and final piece is the longest (about double the playing time of the others) and most complicated, by far, with all kinds of tuplets and more complex figures in both the piano and clarinet parts. The piece is marked langsam, or ‘slow’, but as it goes on, the density of notes increases dramatically, giving the impression of an increase of tempo. It reaches an ominous thickness of texture as the clarinet buzzes with greater frenzy, like a bird flapping its wings trying to escape the confines of a cage. The piano part calls for pitches in the right hand to be depressed but not sounded, “unhörbar niederdrücken“, and its last thunderous chords in the lowest range of the piano ring out as the clarinet returns. The piano finally sounds those depressed keys, and the piece ends quietly.

So that’s the music… and while it’s short and straightforward, compared to the miniatures of Schoenberg or Webern, it’s positively lavish and Romantic. What we don’t have here is 12-tone music. It sounds not tonal because Berg favors the use of whole tones and quartal harmonies, as in his gorgeous, expressive string quartet.

What’s interesting, if you look at the score, is that while the music might sound just kind of intuitively… expressive and straightforward, the indications of tempo, attack, dynamic, etc., are, again, constantly changing, and Meyer is faithful to these. Alexander Carpenter at AllMusic describes the works by saying “The Four Pieces are very brief and complex; Berg abandons motivic connections in favor of deep structural relationships beneath a perpetually moving surface.” There’s probably lots to be said about the differences or contrasts between Carpenter’s “motivic connections” and “structural relationships”, but a look at the score shows that certain figures echo between the piano and clarinet, but that these aren’t developed or brought to life in any way beyond their initial presentation. Are they?

There’s also this paper by James Perone that claims “that the Berg Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Opus 5, No. 2, is a veiled tonal piece, with its background tonal center of Bb generated by a five‐note set,” mentioning hexachords and the use of “Schenker‐style reductive technique and Forte‐style pitch‐class set theory.” You have to sign up somewhere to get access to that article, but the abstract was enough to tell me it’s beyond the scope of what I’m willing to try to understand or present. Suffice it to say Berg’s ‘miniatures’ are easily enjoyed as small little bite-sized bits of sound, but also have their own share of complexity. They also sit as a bit of an outlier in the composer’s output, his only venture into the conciseness of his other Second Viennese Compatriots.

While this isn’t vocal music, the piece of his we’ll be addressing tomorrow is, and it’s also another of his earliest works. We’ll see how Berg’s penchant for lyricism and melody work out in a vocal setting, so do stay tuned.

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