Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6

performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado

There had to come a day when we could hear how a chord of eight tones really sounds in the brasses!

(cover image by Tara Evans)

Earlier in the week, we had Schoenberg’s op. 16, his pieces for orchestra, and today we’ll take a look at what is sort of… an echo of that, in a way, a response or parallel to Schoenberg’s piece. In fact, Berg’s work, dating from 1913 to 1915, is dedicated to Schoenberg:

to my teacher and friend Arnold Schoenberg in immeasurable gratitude and love

Berg’s piece, in contrast with his teacher’s, feels much closer in spirit to a symphony. It is in three movements, and they sort of suggest a kind of progression that we might have in a symphony, even if there’s no actual sonata form, etc. The movements are as follows:

  • Präludium (Prelude)
  • Reigen (Round Dance)
  • Marsch (March)

The march makes up about half the playing time of this 20-minute work.

I read somewhere recently an article where the writer explained that Berg is easily the most closely related to Mahler, in spirit. There were all sorts of reasons for this that made wonderful sense at the time, but it boiled down to his slightly softer, more traditionally Romantic sound, not as pared down and sometimes acrid as Webern, and obviously not serialist like what Schoenberg later came to develop.

You may remember the series of modern operas we did from last summer. One of them that I was most excited about was Berg’s Wozzeck. If you’ve heard that work, or are familiar with it, then the language in today’s piece won’t be unfamiliar. It has some of the characteristic Viennese romance, splashes of folksong and quaintness, but also terrifying violence. Berg never wrote a traditional symphony in the strictest sense of the word, but if someone were to carry on as closely as possible the train of thought that Mahler gave us with his ninth (and later tenth) symphony, it isn’t much of a stretch to see how it might be Berg.

As we see with many pieces from the Second Viennese School, there are some familiar labels given to the pieces/movements here. The first, a prelude, is the shortest, but gives us a sense of the kind of near-barbaric violence and rawness that this music is capable of. The piece is almost tranquil at first, like some kind of diseased sunrise that you might hear from Grieg, but guttural brass roars shatter that image, and the prelude bares its teeth. Even if it isn’t that way nonstop, the fear lingers, as the pained clarinets and woodwinds seem to express.

The first installment fades much as it began, and the result, for me, is two thunderous climaxes and the ripples they create, a meditation on stillness and movement, but with unbelievable color and motion.

If this ’round dance’ doesn’t bring Mahler to mind, I don’t know what will. It has the complexity and distorted beauty that we might hear in a Mahler movement, charming but also disturbing. There are waltzy elements here and there, dance-like passages, a violin solo in the mix. Don’t get me wrong. Schoenberg comes through loud and clear here.

There’s a sense in this music, the whole piece, that the shape and color is constantly in flux. If you’ve ever watched a thick billowing cloud of smoke, a dark, black pillar of the stuff, then you know what I”m talking about. It is itself seemingly immaterial, yet chokes the absolute life out of you if you even get near it. It isn’t solid, but also has a surface, one that constantly changes as it moves upward. It’s a roiling, undulating mass of sound that grows and morphs as we listen, and it’s wholly captivating.

You hear this ebb and flow in the second movement, as the music builds momentum, or fades down to an intimate solo. If only Mahler had been able to hear this, something like this second movement, I think he’d either have been in love with it or else detested it. A word like ‘atmospheric’ is an injustice to the weightily substantial nature of this music.

And then we hear Berg’s march. It again roils and billows to life, and perhaps unsurprisingly, sounds only in passages like a march to which someone would actually march. As in the other pieces, the ripples and eddies of Berg’s writing that surrounds the climaxes is fascinating as it evolves and reshapes itself, but gracious, when he reaches a climax, does he ever. You can’t miss it. The entire musical landscape is enthralling, for sure; it’s music you can easily get absorbed in, but those high points stay with you.

It is as if there is both an extraordinary amount to understand in this music, but also nothing, from the standpoint that there’s enormous complexity and florid detail and growth, but also nothing pedantic about it. How can you let this music wash over you and not be moved somehow, not have an emotional reaction or mental imagery?  It’s aggressively vivid and emotional, but in a way that some listeners maybe aren’t used to.

But what’s challenging, or bad, or unpleasant about it? This is good music. The Second Viennese School in general is still considered controversial or avant-garde or whatever, but you can’t listen to this and not hear the lush tradition whence this piece and its composer came. Enjoy it.

That’s all the music this month, save for a concert review tomorrow that I’m pretty excited about. Please stay tuned for more good music and thank you so much for reading.

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