Berg: Lyric Suite

Performed by the Quatuor Diotima and Marie-Nicole Lemieux, or below by the Juilliard Quartet (without vocalist)

If I haven’t already mentioned it, and I’m pretty sure I have, the works of Alban Berg might for many be the way into the Second Viennese School.

You might not think that if you’ve just finished listening to Wozzeck from earlier in the week, but truthfully, his music is expressive, lyrical and emotional. As evidence of that, I’d suggest you listen to some of his earliest works, like the op. 1 sonata that I need to rewrite an article on, or his string quartet, or the astoundingly lush Sieben Fruhe Lieder. We hear in all of this a softness and lyricism that, while modern, isn’t as acrid or astringent as some of his fellow Viennese counterparts. (I have in fact included Webern in this month’s schedule, with a revisit article I’d been needing to write. This way, we keep the chronology the way I want, but also have all three composers represented. Webern never wrote an opera.)

As discussed in Schoenberg’s Erwartung, color and atmosphere are critical factors in the music, an area of detail not to be ignored. On top of that, in today’s work, we also have a love affair, with a “secret program” and “secret dedication.” Let’s talk about that.

The piece was completed in 1926, and is Berg’s first to employ Schoenberg’s serialist procedures of a “tone row,” something he seemed quite proud of, along with including not only all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale, but also all intervals. It’s considered a twelve-tone work, and the vast majority of it does use these procedures, but not all of it.

George Perle, an American composer and theorist, seem to be the first to have discovered this secret program, of which we will speak shortly, but his analysis is enlightening in other ways. He says:

A set of 12 different tones gives the rough material of the composition, and the portions which have been treated more freely still adhere more or less to the technique.

René Leibowitz, advocate (worshipper?) of Schoenberg, claims that the first movement is “entirely written in the twelve-tone technique, [it] is a sonata movement without the development… because of the highly advanced twelve-tone technique of variation, everything in this movement is developmental.”

More or less in line with that sentiment are the words of H. F. Redlich, the first to analyze the work. He says “the first movement of the Lyric Suite develops out of the disorder of intervals in its first bar, the notes of which, strung out horizontally, present the complete chromatic scale…” All of these quotes come from the work’s Wikipedia article. There’s actually quite a bit to be found in the Composition and Analysis and Tone Rows sections of the article, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The work is in six movements, as follows:

  1. Allegretto gioviale
  2. Andante amoroso
  3. Allegro misterioso – Trio estatico
  4. Adagio appassionato
  5. Presto delirando – Tenebroso
  6. Largo desolato

In all the recordings listed on Wikipedia, an incomplete list I’m sure, there are only three (that I saw) which have the soprano part included in the final movement, one of which is the recording from the Quatuor Diotima (another being the Leipziger Streichquartett), and this vocal part isn’t even mentioned in the article on the work.

The piece was completed in 1926 and publicly dedicated to Schoenberg’s only formal teacher, Alexander von Zemlinsky (so basically like Berg’s teacher’s teacher), and even quotes from Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony in the fourth movement, but remember that ‘secret dedication’ I mentioned earlier?

There’s (or was….) a chick named Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, née Werfel, who was wife of Herbert Fuchs-Robettin and sister of Franz Werfel. That name might sound familiar.

Herbert Fuchs-Robettin is described as “a Prague industrialist with a great enthusiasm for music,” and was also a friend of Berg, but that didn’t stop the composer from having a little fling with Hanna, whose older brother Franz Werfel was one of the men on whom Alma Mahler, wife of the late Gustav, had a relationship outside marriage. This was years after Gustav Mahler’s passing, but she eventually did marry Walter Gropius, the architect, and while he was away in the army, she, as she seems always to do, took a liking to Werfel. But that’s a story for another time. Maybe it just ran in the family.

In any case, Alban Berg, also married since 1911, and HFR had their little affair, and we can trace its trajectory through this work. Interestingly, this affair is not mentioned on Berg’s Wikipedia article, and only briefly on hers, but it seems it did not last.

The work lasts about a half hour, and if you want the swift ‘spoiler alert’ version, listen to the cheerful ‘jovial’ nature of the first movement, and then jump to the last, ‘desolate’ finale. Something seems to have happened, no? Well, that’s the direction this piece is heading.

The opening of the first movement, the brightest, cheeriest movement in the work for sure, exudes an optimism that’s almost saccharine. While there seems to be some disagreement on whether the work is fully 12-tone or only makes use of the whole row here and there, the opening does sound very clearly to be quite chromatic, covering all the available space, marking the points on a canvas that will later become the full picture. Basically just enjoy the first movement, because it’s kind of all downhill from here, but pay attention to some of the figures and shapes from the opening that reappear later on. There’s tension and excitement here, beyond just a pretty movement, so despite what you might think about “atonal” or “serialist” music, it can be enjoyed on multiple levels.

In contrast with the allegro giovale marking of the first movement, the second is andante amoroso, a more tender sound. I mean, come on, have you ever been in a relationship? There’s the initial excitement and newness and thrill of getting to know someone, but things eventually get more personal. I’m not even talking about that kind of personal or intimate, maybe just a one-on-one conversation in the corner of a quiet restaurant. I’m also not saying I know what these lovers’ relationship was like, but we can use our imaginations, can’t we? What I want to emphasize, as I’ll elaborate on later, is that this music, despite being ‘modern’ and ‘serialist’ and all the rest, is richly expressive, and you can hear the sensuality of it in this movement, and as you might expect, not without a little bit of nerves.

Third is Allegro misterioso, Trio estatico. The misterioso is extremely nervous, marked by much pizzicato and sul ponticello bowing, and it’s one of the shortest movements in the work, harried, even frenetic, a little chilling. I guess everyone might have their own impression or image of what this anxious nature might relate to in an extramarital affair, but who knows? It’s almost diseased-sounding, but wait for the ‘ecstatic’ trio. Does any of it sound familiar? In contrast with the shadowy, suppressed sounds of the earlier passage (a scherzo?), the trio is like a release, a relieved exhalation, or exhilaration, uninhibited expression, but it ends largely the way it began, perhaps even more intensely, and then it’s over.

We return to an ‘appassionato’, and although there is a clear sensual passion to the movement, there’s also some leftover anxiety in the background from the previous movement. “All was not well.” And it’s here that we hear what might be the climax of the whole work, after which there’s a cool languor.

The first marking for this movement, as above, is presto delirando, a root whence we have the same English word ‘delirious.’ The tenebroso, though, is an interesting term. ‘Tenebrism’ is defined by Merriam-Webster as:

a style of painting developed by Caravaggio and other 17th-century Spanish and Italian artists, characterized by predominantly dark tones and shadows with dramatically contrasting effects of light.

So we have a ‘delirious’ presto, something that sounds like what we might hear out of a Hitchcock film, with the stabs of strings, but also eerie squeals and whispers. In among it all though, can you not still hear echoes of the opening figure from the first movement?

That energy kind of burns or fades away, though, like a heartbeat slowing down, and leaves a kind of groaning, unsure middle section to the movement. This perhaps is the tenebroso, somewhat similar to the idea of chiaroscuro, which I believe we discussed (very briefly) in connection with a Mozart work a few months back, those sharp, vivid contrasts between light and dark. The delirium of the opening returns, and the movement closes abruptly.

In the Wikipedia article for this work, it cites that Theodore Adorno refers to this work as “a latent opera,” and no matter how I’ve described it, I think the work very much has that sense about it, an intensity and color that’s of a very narrative nature.

But in the final movement, at least in the version from the Quatuor Diotima, we have a human voice appear. This literal human element makes the story that much more poignant, something like the “air from another planet” in Schoenberg’s second quartet, that out of this still landscape appears something so entirely different, and to happen at the end of a piece like this, it’s so powerful, something like the chamber music version of a Mahler symphony. But that similarity to Schoenberg may be the very reason he may have ultimately decided not to include it. Does it go beyond the composer’s wishes? I don’t know.

The text is a translated version of Baudelaire’s De Profundis Clamavi. It’s a bleak text, and pair that with the use of the ‘Tristan motif’, referring to “impossible love,” and you’ll get an idea of what is going on in this work. It begins with pizzicato, then comes to life, shivering and moaning under the soprano who appears as if out of a fog. We have a closing movement that differs so wildly from the opening movement, but along a scale, fading from perhaps light blues and green or yellow, to darker, somber, even grayish hues. Ultimately, the work fades away with no fanfare.

There’s much more to be said here if you were looking to analyze the work from an academic standpoint, the compositional procedures and its structure, etc., but if you’re interested in and capable of that kind of research, you’d likely have done it already. What I’d like to emphasize with this work, though, if you’ve read this far, is that it might be one of the gateways to understanding and appreciating modern music, especially that of the Second Viennese School.

This work, while employing serialist techniques, is hardly a cacophonous, harsh work. It does live up to its name as a lyrical work, and in contrast, is far less challenging to the ear than the former Wozzeck, which does not employ 12-tone technique. You could compare basically anything from Webern that we’ve discussed (except the passacaglia, perhaps) to Berg’s work and see that they are wildly different. Even within this often intimidating label of ‘atonal’ or ‘serial’ or whatever, there’s such room for variation and personality.

These labels can be dangerous. We can classify things into bins and push those bins aside and dismiss them without a second thought. Well, I’m all for classification and categorizing, but there are pieces to which that kind of labeling would be an injustice and this is one of them.

12-tone technique may never sound like Haydn or Mozart, but it doesn’t always sound like what people imagine it sounds like. Sure, it may take some getting used to at first, but it is a technique, an approach, not a style in and of itself, so don’t shy away from it just because it has a certain label or other. Berg’s particular flavor of 12-tone music, here in particular, is especially soft, while his use of free atonality in Wozzeck was much harsher, but each approach is suitable to the subject at hand. There is interpretive freedom, a means of expression that can be understood by people with no other specific study or research than listening. Could you try that? I hope this work might help you to do so.

Well, that was much longer than I expected it to be, but that’s okay. It’s an important piece, in my book, for the reasons I’ve described above. But that’s not all for this weekend. We have another chamber piece lined up, one that it seems took some inspiration from Berg’s chamber masterpiece, so do stay tuned for that and thank you for reading.

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