February 6, 2017. Alban Berg. The great Austrian modernist composer Alban Berg was born on February 9th of 1885. When we celebrated him the last time two years ago, we wrote about his first opera, Wozzeck, which was completed in 1922. Wozzeck was a huge success, which speaks volumes of the Viennese musical sensibilities – almost 100 years later, it is still considered a “difficult” opera. Vienna was full of contradictions: on the one hand, it was the city where Schoenberg, Webern and Berg were acknowledged as masters and accepted by the artistic community; at the same time, it was more conservative than probably any other European capital, anti-Semitic, clinging to the vestiges of the lost empire. Greatly diminished in the aftermath of the Great war, Vienna was the capital of a small country, not an Empire. Austria even wanted to join Germany as a province, but the Allies wouldn’t have it. At the beginning of the 20th century Vienna was one of the world centers of music, if not the center, but by mid-1920s many musicians started moving from Vienna to Berlin; back then, as now, Berlin was seen as a more open, exciting cosmopolitan city. Composers Franz Schreker, whose operas were almost as famous as Richard Strauss’s, and Ernst Krenek left Vienna. Alexander von Zemlinsky, the famous composer and an important figure in the Viennese musical cultural life, also moved to Berlin. Even Schoenberg himself was spending more time in Berlin than in Vienna. As Michael Haas, a music producer and writer points out, conductors Fritz Stiedry, who assisted Mahler in his youth, Georg Szell, and Erich Kleiber, all at some point active in Vienna, also left the city. Still, even with these losses, the musical life of Vienna was vibrant. The Vienna Philharmonic was still considered one of the best orchestras in the world and practically all prominent musicians performed there.
Berg is best known as the creator of two seminal operas, the already-mentioned Wozzeck and Lulu, on which he started working in 1928 and continued for the rest of his life, leaving it incomplete on his death in 1935. The period between these two major compositions was also very productive. One of the more interesting pieces written during this time was Kammerkonzert (Chamber Concerto), a composition for Piano and Violin with 13 Wind Instruments. Even though it was composed in the 12-tone technique, Berg’s innate lyricism shines through, softening its very rigorous structure. Concerto was written in honor of Schoenberg’s 50th birthday, and Berg decided to create the main theme (or, rather, the main tone sequence) out of the names of Schoenberg and his two favorite pupils’, Anton Webern’s, and his own. In German musical notation, B is what in English is called B flat, while the English B is called H; the flat sign is “-es.” Therefore, “ArnolD SCHoenBErG” turned into the sequence of A–D–E-flat–C–B–B-flat–E–G. From “Anton wEBErn” he derived A–E–B flat–E, and from his own name, “AlBAn BErG,” A–B-flat–A–B-flat–E–G. Berg then went on to invert the theme, mirroring all intervals in the opposite direction, so that, for example, a third up became a third down. He then “retrogrades” it, running the sequence from the end to the beginning. Despite this scientific, almost mathematical approach, the music retains its undeniable warmth. Of course it’s not an easy listening, and we have to apologize for presenting two difficult pieces two weeks in a row (last week it was Luigi Nono’s Como una ola de fuerza y luz). Here’s Kammerkonzert, performed by Staatskapelle Dresden, Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting. The pianist is Andrea Lucchesini, the violinist – Reiko Watanabe.
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