Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam

Berg Altenberg Lieder

The concert in the main hall of the Musikverein on 31 March 1913 had an interesting programme. It consisted of Webern's Six Orchestral Pieces Op. 6, Zemlinsky's Four Maeterlinck Songs Op. 13, numbers 2 and 3 of Berg's Five Orchestral Songs to Picture Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg Op. 4, and Mahler's Kindertotenlieder. Arnold Schoenberg would also conduct his own Chamber Symphony op. 9. The works by Webern, Zemlinsky and Berg were all world premières, though the original version of Zemlinsky's op. 13 with piano accompaniment was premièred in Vienna on 11 December 1910. Due to the uproar caused by the Berg songs, the concert had to be abandoned.

Foto Olga Schoten, 2013
PHOto Olga Schoten, 2013

With his lanky figure, asthmatic shoulders, aquiline profile and expressive eyes, Alban Berg (1885–1935) looked like a character from Oscar Wilde. Gossip and amorous affairs were his delight. The need to be in love, desperately in love if possible, was overwhelming, but his extra-marital affairs were rarely consummated: that was less important to him. As a young man, he took a course in accounting, attended lectures in law and musicology at the University of Vienna, and studied privately with Schoenberg. In 1910, thanks to an annuity, he was able to give up his office job and devote his time to composition.

For Berg, time was of the essence. Rarely have composers attended more scrupulously to the minutiae of their scores; not for nothing did his friend Theodor W. Adorno describe him as a 'master of the smallest transition'. He spent six years working on Wozzeck, his undisputed masterpiece, and seven years on his second opera, Lulu, which remained unfinished at his tragically early death. During Berg's lifetime, Wozzeck was performed so often that from the proceeds he was able to purchase a black model A Ford, still preserved at the family home in Carinthia. Schoenberg did little to disguise his contempt for the success of his former student, but later acknowledged that Berg was 'the only one capable of winning wider acceptance for our cause'.

At Schoenberg's 'scandal concert' the audience did not hear Berg's Op. 4 or Zemlinsky's Op. 13 as we know them today. For one thing, neither of the cycles was presented in its entirety; for another, the Altenberg Songs were sung by a tenor. Berg would have preferred a soprano, and stressed that his favourite song, 'Hier ist Friede', was suitable only for a female voice, but in the event Schoenberg chose the second and third songs, which needed less rehearsal time. Accordingly, Berg secured the services of Alfred Julius Boruttau (1877-1940), a singer with perfect pitch, noted for his commitment to contemporary music. Boruttau was on the roster of the new German Theatre in Prague until 1909, and subsequently active as voice teacher and concert singer in Vienna. At the world première of Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder on 23 February 1913, he sang the part of Klaus-Narr.

Initially, the 'scandal concert' was scheduled for 30 March. It was postponed to March 31 because Boruttau was not available the previous day. With remarkable foresight, Berg remarked to Schoenberg that, should there be disturbances during the performance, Boruttau was unlikely to lose his nerve.

Where Webern remained a faithful follower of Schoenberg, Berg sometimes took a more independent stance. Several aspects of the Altenberg Songs manifest his approach. Schoenberg was determined to eliminate diatonicism from his music; Berg organized his pitch content around small, shifting islands of tonal harmony. In his vocal music, Schoenberg's prime concern was to penetrate to the psychological core of a text and define its musical 'atmosphere'. Berg, in contrast, examined his texts for their architectural potential, which then emerged as rondos, sonata forms, palindromes and passacaglias. Sentiment became subservient to structure.

Eccentric, psychologically unstable, a heavy drinker, Peter Altenberg (1859–1919) wrote prose poems and a few novels. Known primarily to a small circle of admirers (including Alban Berg and his wife Helene), he cultivated a 'telegraphic' style. Altenberg strove for clarity, compassion and wit. Once, while still at school, he was required to discuss 'The influence of the New World on the Old'. He wrote just one word – 'Potatoes' – and failed the exam. He was obsessed by young girls. It was their beauty that fascinated him. 'A woman is too old, but never too young', he wrote. 'The law says: no younger than fourteen. But laws are not made by artists.'

Altenberg kept a collection of picture postcards in Japanese lacquer boxes. The first box was dedicated to his heroes: Hugo Wolf, Beethoven, Tolstoy and Klimt; in the second he kept pictures of Mount Fuji and other wonders of the natural world; the third was reserved for photographs of young, often prepubescent girls, posing nude or scantily clad.

The first Altenberg Song is the most complex of the five. Berg drew his texts from Altenberg's Neues Altes (Berlin, 1911). The book also contains three prose poems inspired by Berg's wife, Helene. Adorno compared its opening bars to the Prelude of Franz Schreker's opera Die Gezeichneten:

'The nature of Berg's mixed sonority [...] is such that while the simultaneously juxtaposed colors [...] blend into a whole, they at the same time remain unhomogeneous, independently layered. [...] Planned disorganization becomes organization; such clear-cut intention transforms those eighteen instrumental bars into something other than the chaos they initially appeared to be.'

Schoenberg was more worried about the closing bars: 'I find some things disturbing', he wrote, 'particularly the rather too obvious desire to use new means.' Berg replied: 'Perhaps my mode of expression is like that of a child who hears so many foreign words at home that he uses them all the time, even when he hasn't yet quite mastered his mother-tongue. But at least I cherish the hope that the child uses the foreign words correctly.'

Antony Beaumont