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Three Pieces for Orchestra

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Alban Berg
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Berg & Beethoven Jan. 27 - 29, 2011
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

"It is certain that Alban had a burning desire to express himself no longer in the classical forms, harmonies and melodic types, but in a manner in accordance with the times, and with his own personality." Thus did Arnold Schoenberg view the end of the musical apprenticeship of Alban Berg, whose artistic development he had guided from 1904 to 1910. Under Schoenberg's tutelage, Berg composed the works that established his artistic personality — Seven Early Songs, Piano Sonata (Op. 1), Four Songs (Op. 2) and String Quartet (Op. 3) — and he was then, at age 25, ready to get on with his life, both creatively and personally. It was to be no easy matter.

Berg had been in love for over three years with Helene Nahowski, a talented singer who dreamed of an operatic career, and wanted to marry her, but her father, a straitlaced Austrian civil servant, deemed the struggling young musician an unsuitable match for his daughter. Berg and Helene persevered, however, and they were finally married on May 3, 1911 (though Papa Nahowski demanded that the Catholic couple be wed in a Protestant ceremony because the divorce that he expected inevitably to follow would then be easier to obtain). They remained devoted to each other until Berg's death in 1935.

Things were little easier on the artistic front. The modest family inheritance that had enabled Berg to study with Schoenberg was largely depleted, the premieres of his Piano Sonata and String Quartet in April 1911 passed almost unnoticed, and his handful of works produced no income (indeed, he had to subsidize the publication of the Piano Sonata and the Op. 2 Songs out of his own pocket), so he made ends meet by finding occasional conducting jobs, teaching a few students, and proofreading and making piano reductions of orchestral scores for the publisher Universal Edition, most notably Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande, Verklärte Nacht ("Transfigured Night") and Gurrelieder ("Songs of Gurre," for whose premiere, in February 1913, he also provided a detailed analysis), Mahler's Symphony No. 8 and Schreker's opera Der ferne Klang ("The Distant Sound"). The death in May 1911 of Gustav Mahler (a musical hero and staunch defender of the young Viennese modernists), the departure of Schoenberg for Berlin a few months later, and the delicate state of his own health (chronic asthma) further unsettled Berg's life at that time.

Though his time and his strength were limited, Berg was still driven to compose, and as his first major work after leaving Schoenberg he mooted a symphonic score of Mahlerian scope inspired by Balzac's mystical novel Serephita that would culminate "with a boy's voice singing from the gallery." His sketches had gotten no further than a few ideas for an opening movement, however, before he turned to making succinct settings for voice and orchestra of five aphoristic poems by his friend Peter Altenberg, which were directly influenced by Schoenberg's Piano Pieces, Op. 11 (1908) and Op. 19 (1911) and Webern's Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 (1910), seminal creations both in their atonal harmonic language and their compressed form. Schoenberg included two of the Altenberg Lieder (Op. 4) in the concert of new music that he presented in Vienna on March 31, 1913, but their performance was interrupted when a melee broke out in the hall; the complete set was not heard until 1952. Undeterred, Berg followed the Altenberg Lieder with an instrumental sequel, the Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano (Op. 5), which he completed before visiting Schoenberg in Berlin in June 1913. Their week together was congenial and stimulating (Schoenberg arranged a special performance of Pierrot Lunaire for him), but just before Berg left, Schoenberg had some distressingly harsh words about his pupil's life style and most recent music. Berg did not record the interview, but from a letter he wrote to Schoenberg after returning home, he was apparently criticized for his careless dress and his procrastination and his unreliability, for not applying himself with sufficient zeal to creative matters and depending too heavily on family financial resources, for writing music that was too pessimistic, for an inclination toward the mistiness of the French Impressionists, for writing mere miniatures. Berg, always admiring of Schoenberg and then still dependent on his advice and approval, took his admonitions to heart — "I have to thank you for your reproof as for everything I have received from you" — and determined to compose something suitable in time for his teacher's fortieth birthday the following year, September 13, 1914.

After settling in for the summer at the country estate of his wife's family in Trahütten, thirty miles southwest of Graz, Berg began a set of symphonic movements modeled in their ambitious scale, massive orchestration, referential implications and expressive intensity on Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 of 1909. During the next year he completed the Präludium that opens his Three Pieces for Orchestra as well as the closing Marsch, but admitted to Schoenberg that the latter piece was not the something "more cheerful" he had asked for, though he had "really tried to give my best and to follow your advice": "I am doing my utmost to keep the ‘tears' out of it, but it probably won't be the march of an upright person marching joyously, but at most the ‘march of an asthmatic,' which I am and, it seems, will always remain." He sent the two movements to Schoenberg on September 8, 1914, five days before his mentor's birthday, hoping that they would be "something I could dedicate to you without incurring your displeasure," but apologized for not including Reigen ("Round Dance") because its completion had been delayed by his "sharpened self-criticism." He finished the remaining movement and sent it to Schoenberg the following August. Two years later Schoenberg rewarded Berg's dedication by allowing his former student to address him with the intimate German "Du" rather than the formal "Sie." "This was for me the most happy event in the last few years," Berg responded. Anton Webern conducted the first performance of Präludium and Reigen on June 5, 1923 at a festival of Austrian music in Berlin; the complete Three Pieces for Orchestra was premiered on April 14, 1930 in Oldenburg, Germany under the direction of Johannes Schüler, who had led a performance of Berg's Wozzeck the year before that the composer called "a veritable miracle."

In a note for the 1930 performance, Berg called the Three Pieces, his only purely orchestral work, a "fictitious symphony," with Präludium and Marsch framing Reigen, which comprises "both scherzo and slow movement (in that order)." The work's harmonic, textural and rhythmic complexity and its unorthodox formal proportions — the third movement lasts as long as the first two combined — make equating the piece with the traditional symphonic plan difficult, though Berg gave it a deep-seated (if not immediately recognizable) unity by sharing several motives among the movements. The Präludium describes a formal arch, arising from whispered, unpitched shudders in the percussion before acquiring fragments of themes that are worked into a turbulent climax and returning to the mysterious, pitchless music of its beginning to close.

The title of Reigen — "Round Dance" — refers generally to any kind of dancing in a circle, but in pre-World War I Vienna it also evoked the notorious play of that name that Arthur Schnitzler wrote in 1900 and published in 1903 but could not get produced until 1920. The plot, a caustic commentary on turn-of-the-20th-century Viennese mores and class distinctions, envisions a metaphorical "round dance" in which one sexual partner from each scene, alternately male and female, is passed on to a new lover in the next until the circle is completed when the woman in the first scene reappears. Berg's Reigen, called "a dance on a volcano" by one commentator, is a waltz, Vienna's quintessential musical expression, though a waltz filtered through Freud's unsettling discoveries in the subconscious, sometimes attenuated beyond recognition, sometimes febrile, sometimes surreal, sometimes seemingly reflecting the forces then driving Europe inexorably toward the great war that would topple the 600-year-old Habsburg Empire. It may not be coincidental that Berg was called up for service in the Austrian military a month after he finished Reigen.

George Perle, American composer, teacher, theorist and keen analyst of the music of the Viennese modernists, wrote, "The Marsch was completed in the weeks following the assassination at Sarajevo [which precipitated the start of World War I] and is, in its feeling of doom and catastrophe, an ideal, if unintentional, musical expression of the ominous implications of that event. Fragmentary rhythmic and melodic figures typical of an orthodox military march repeatedly coalesce into polyphonic episodes of incredible density that surge to frenzied climaxes, then fall apart. It is not a march, but music about a march, or rather about the march, just as Ravel's La Valse is music in which the waltz is similarly reduced to its minimum characteristic elements."