Berg: Sieben frühe Lieder

performed by Anne Sofie von Otter and the Vienna Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado

or, because she’s an outstanding performer and it’s a (somewhat unclear) video of a live performance, Jessye Norman and the London Symphony under Pierre Boulez

If you’ve read the post from a few days ago on Schoenberg’s second string quartet, I’ll inform you that we’re in the same year, or few years, with this work as Schoenberg was with his. Berg was a composition student of Schoenberg’s around this time, but it seems the works might have been composed, or at least started, before the composer’s tutelage under Schoenberg had begun. In any case, what we see here is, as with the clarinet work yesterday, a supple, melodic, very Romantic sound, not as intentionally dissonant as some of what Schoenberg wrote, but still playing with harmony in a distinctly 20th century way.

The works were originally for voice and piano, and completed around 1908. Three of them, Die Nachtigall, Liebesode, and Traumgekrönt, were performed in a concert of Schoenberg’s students in late 1907, but the works weren’t published until 1928, around which time he orchestrated them. I’ve chosen the orchestral versions because I feel they accentuate the color and richness of Berg’s writing. His decision to (revise and) orchestrate the works is an interesting one, as Universal Edition describes:

This was an important pe­riod in Berg’s life when several major changes took place: The first successful performances of Wozzeck and Schoenberg’s move to Berlin. Berg was probably thinking of the example of Gustav Mahler when he set several of these songs both for voice and piano, as well as with orchestra.

That’s one of the reasons I opted for the orchestral version, even though it’s not the original. It’s easy to hear that lush, epic late Romanticism from the likes of Mahler in this orchestration, and Berg’s use of the ensemble, his vivid color and supple textures make the work come alive in a special way. We’ve also, to this point, only had one song cycle so far with orchestra, Berlioz’s incredible Les Nuits d’étéThere’s another on the way, though.

Universal Edition gives the listing of the songs as follows:

  1. Nacht/Night (Carl Hauptmann) 3min 20s
  2. Schilflied/Song Amongst the Reeds (Nikolaus Lenau) 2min
  3. Die Nachtigall/The Nightingale (Theodor Storm) 1min 40s
  4. Traumgekrönt/A Crown of Dreams (Rainer M. Rilke) 2min 20s
  5. Im Zimmer/Indoors (Johannes Schlaf) 50s
  6. Liebesode/Lovers’ Ode (Otto Erich Hartleben) 1min 35s
  7. Sommertage/Summer Days (Paul Hohenberg) 1min 20s

The text (in German and English) for the entire collection can be found here, from Lieder.net, but they’re hostilely aggressive with their copyright notices, so you can reference this score from IMSLP with both the German and English for ease of use.

Notably, the text of each of the songs in this cycle is taken from a different poet, so while there’s not a single narrative as we saw from some previous works, the works do fit together by sharing similar subject matter and imagery.

Nacht (Night) tells us of clouds and mists, “a magic land before us”, and speaks of the trees, and of solitude, silver mountains. The flute figure at the very beginning, bar 2 I think, is a figure that appears throughout this song, and the orchestral color is bold, the textures rich, overflowing with detail and clarity. The text makes for a wonderful beginning to this cycle, if we are to take it as the first of seven installments of some kind of narrative. If we do so, then, take note of the final line, which tells us to ‘drink of solitude; give heed.’

Schilflied (Amongst the Reeds) begins by speaking of walking along secret paths, through reedy trees. This imagery is stunning, and Berg treats the text beautifully, freely, without any canned, lifeless setting. It’s full of life and passion, and the music sounds equally Romantic, inviting, magical, even a little mysterious. It’s more straightforward and transparent than the first song, operatic, simply romantic, passionate and supple. Our poet is weeping, thinking of a lover, hearing the gentle sound of their voice. This longing, the simple beauty of the writing calls back to what we heard from Berlioz.

Die Nachtigall tells us of a nightingale who sings her sweet song through the night, that “she used to be a wild young maid” but is now “in meditation.” Are you seeing a pattern? Themes of love, loss, strong imagery of nature, of solitude and longing, all of this imagery shows up throughout these songs, and it’s easy to identify with, as Berg’s music is clearly of a more modern idiom, evocative perhaps more of Debussy than what one might think of as Schoenberg’s ultimate sound, but it’s supple and intense, brimming with intensity and passion. It’s such a fantastic counterpart to Berlioz’s cycle, I think, because they evoke similar imagery and speak of similar emotions, and accomplish the same thing in similar ways, and a comparison shows the more modern language that Berg uses is unique, but still strongly rooted in the Romantic tradition. Just beautiful!

Traumgekrönt, or ‘A Crown of Dreams’ brings us more imagery of night, feelings of longing. It is Mahlerian, opening with white chrysanthemums, the singer’s soul being saved, or ‘gathered’ deep in the night. She was comforted by someone familiar, and this pure, soft romantic song, the message of love sounds like it just might have come from Mahler’s pen, especially the ending.

The fifth song sees us Im Zimmer, ‘indoors’ for the first time. It’s smaller, with bounce, the singer taking a far more central role, or rather the orchestra steps back a bit, to give us a song that sounds more like an aria. It’s the evening looking in on an autumn night, with a crackling fire nearby, “my head upon your knees/ that’s happiness! When my eyes your lovely face caress/ how silently the minutes flee.” Could it be any more romantic?

Maybe. Sixth is Liebesode, a Lover’s Ode. “Embraced by love we blissfully fell asleep/ A breeze of summer stood by the garden door.” Yup. Lots of romance. But why does it sound almost ominous? Knut W. Barde’s translation, found here, says that:

… the summer wind listened
and carried the peacefulness of our breath
out into the bright, moonlit night.

That sounds almost evil, but their breath is replaced by “the scent of roses” that gives them wonderful dreams. There’s an absolutely breathtaking ornateness, of drama, in the orchestral writing, broad, sweeping sounds, with splashes and brush strokes from the entire ensemble, standing independently with their own shades and flashes of color, but together painting a vivid, intricate picture of beauty.

Finally, we reach Sommertage, Summer Days. It has a forward motion, a pushing kind of energy that the others don’t have. It’s still romantic and sumptuous, but it’s pushing forward to something big. It swells at times to sound as if it borders on tragedy. Emily Ezust’s translation (from the same link above), we read:

Now the days drag through the world,
sent forth from blue eternity;

It’s one of the shortest songs, and feels like a single impulsive gesture, one lone ebb and flow of emotion. It ends:

In meadowsong the heart falls silent;
now there are no words, and image upon image
visits you and fills you entirely.

What is there to be said about the narrative that Berg has constructed with these seven poems from seven pens? They all discuss similar things, the imagery is crisp and clear and unforgettable, the music sweeps us off our feet, but what does it all mean? That’s a question I’m not going to try to answer. What about that last song? Does all end well or not? Is it a happy ending? What place does loss serve in this cycle, if any?

In any case, it’s a supple, arrestingly beautiful early work, very impressive for such a young composer, and as we shall see later in the year, there was so much more greatness to come from Berg’s pen, and I look forward to sharing it.

This article marks the end of the foreign-language portion of this vocal series, at least for me, since the next few installments are all in English. You might not think of English as a language with a rich history in vocal music, and in some ways, you’re right, since the first English work comes from the middle of the 20th century, and we only get more modern from there. Do stay tuned, because there is more amazing music coming up, and thank you for reading.

 

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2 thoughts on “Berg: Sieben frühe Lieder

  1. Hooked on the Second Viennese School, are we? 😄 Excellent! I’m currently oscillating between Schubert and Russia at the turn of the century – the change in moods matches the weather here!

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