On February 23rd of 1913 Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder premiered in the Grosser Musikvereinssaal in Vienna [See my centenary article here]. On March 31st of that year, Schoenberg was back in that hall, conducting his own works and others from his circle, under the auspices of the Akademischer Verband für Literatur und Musik. The program was historic, but its realization was incomplete.
Schoenberg sought to showcase two of his most advanced pupils, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, and also of his brother-in-law, Alexander von Zemlinsky as well as his own Chamber Symphony for 15 instruments, op. 9, and to give particular emphasis to the music of Webern, he assembled a huge orchestra for the first performance of Webern’s Six Pieces, op. 6, in their original version with quintuple woodwinds and sextuple brass. (Years later, Webern rescored his Opus 6 for a standard-sized instrumentation.) The hall was filled to capacity, but there was trouble; the audience made noises of protest during Webern’s work. The six pieces are all fairly short (though longer individually than many of his later works), but their evanescent and angular atonal gestures and strident harmonies represented new and unusual sounds which must have baffled many of those present. Zemlinsky’s Songs on poems of Maeterlinck were apparently well received, but Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony, though it had been performed before in Vienna and was much more tonally structured (E major), provoked hissing and whistling.
Schoenberg then introduced two songs (nos. 2 and 3) from Five Orchestral Songs on Picture-postcard Texts of Peter Altenberg, op. 4, by the 28-year-old Alban Berg. These were even shorter than Webern’s pieces, and even more aphoristic, and the audience, reading the texts in the printed program, could have found them scurrilous (“Did you see the forest after the thunderstorm?!?! Everything is quiet, twinkles, and is more beautiful than before. See, woman, you too need thunderstorms!”). The third song, beginning with a wind chord of twelve different pitches and ending with the same chord in divided strings two octaves higher, was described by one observer as “an inimitably dissonant piling-up of sounds”. With this, the audience lost all restraint, and a riot broke out; blows were exchanged, the police had to be called, and the concert was closed down before the final work on the program, Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, could be performed. (Marya Freund had contracted to sing the Mahler, but declined to sing the Berg songs; Julius Boruttau, a tenor, who had sung the part of Klaus the Fool in the Gurrelieder premiere a month before, was brought in for the Berg, as a last-minute and less-than-ideal substitute.)
News of the catastrophe traveled as far as the United States, but not quite two months later it was submerged by a more famous scandal in Paris at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. In the aftermath, the president of the Akademischer Verband was hauled into court for unlawful fisticuffs, and another had been arrested for taking a swing at the operetta composer Oskar Straus. Berg himself was devastated by the event, which came to be called the Skandalkonzert. His personal disappointment was made even worse a few weeks later, when Schoenberg took him heavily to task about the songs, for reasons which even today remain obscure. The reproof was enough to cause Berg to put his Opus 4 on the shelf, and he never again tried to get a performance, though he did make a chamber arrangement of the fifth song (“Hier ist Friede”) as a present for Alma Mahler, and in 1919 he published a short score of it as a supplement to a small literary magazine. Thus it is hardly surprising that Berg’s Altenberg Lieder were never performed complete in their original version until decades later, in fact, not until 1952 in Paris, under Jascha Horenstein’s direction. A skimpy and inaccurate piano reduction was published in 1953; the orchestra score wasn’t published until 1966, and a documentarily authoritative edition appeared only in 1997, as part of the Berg Sämtliche Werke. Performances of the Altenberg Lieder have been rare ever since the premiere. The first American performance was in New York in January 1959, on a program that included the premiere of Stravinsky’s Threni, with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft, and Bethany Beardslee was the soprano soloist; their recording (made in just thirty minutes of session time, including rehearsal, left over from recording Threni) appeared in the fall of 1960. The Boston premiere was in 1967, at the New England Conservatory; the Boston Symphony finally took up the work in 1969, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting and Evelyn Lear singing.
The Vienna concert, assembled at short notice, would have been a serious opportunity for Berg to hear his very first effort in composing for orchestra, but one wonders why Schoenberg would have even been willing to perform an incomplete work at all. Berg told Schoenberg that the first song (“Seele, wie bist du schöner…”) was much too difficult orchestrally, but that he was very eager to hear a performance of the fifth song (“Hier ist Friede…”)—so eager, indeed, that he copied out a complete set of orchestra parts by himself, while engaging a professional copyist for the much shorter second and third songs. It seems as though Schoenberg believed that the inexperienced Berg wasn’t yet mature enough to deserve a full performance of a large-scale work—large-scale orchestrally, that is — whereas Webern, two years older than Berg and a fully trained, actively performing musician, was already well experienced in orchestral music.
Schoenberg nevertheless was wrong about the Altenberg Lieder. (And though he can hardly be blamed, Berg ought not to have so meekly accepted Schoenberg’s unjustified criticism.) For these five orchestral songs are an amazing leap into the visionary unknown, representing Berg’s heroic and fully successful effort to declare his independence from Schoenberg’s guidance after seven years of dedicated expert instruction. Igor Stravinsky, writing in 1959, declared the year 1912 as a watershed, a year in which Schoenberg composed Pierrot Lunaire, Stravinsky The Rite of Spring, and Debussy Jeux, while Berg wrote the Altenberg Lieder, which “…though still relatively unknown, is one of the perfect works composed in this century and worthy of comparison with any music by Webern or Schoenberg up to the same date…. What exquisite pieces they are, especially the Passacaglia [no. 5].”
The Altenberg Lieder reveal amazing, sensuously expressive vocal and instrumental sound; even today, possibly because they are so seldom heard, they still can dazzle the listener. But what the music historians and theorists most admire about the Altenberg Lieder is their extraordinary structure, which is wrought in inspired musical abstraction. Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, which dominated the thinking of many composers around the world ever since the 1920s when he first devised it, has significant adumbrations in Berg’s Altenberg Lieder. The first [good performance here] and fifth songs are structurally unified by two principal melodies which are completely different from each other—except for the fact that both are made up of the same twelve pitch-classes in the same ordering. As far as we know, this is the first formal use of a twelve-tone series by any composer. The crucial difference between Berg in 1912 and Schoenberg in 1923 is that Berg made his twelve-tone series the structural basis of two melodies only, whereas Schoenberg in his Opus 23 no. 5 made his series the foundation of the entire musical substance, not just a melody. But Berg’s formal sense in the Altenberg Lieder goes far beyond the plain twelve-tone serial aspect. The most persuasive structural device in the whole cycle is a harmonic one—a five-note chord progresses to a different five-note chord at the curtain-raiser climax of the first song, fff; in the fifth song, the reverse progression subtly but distinctly ends the fifth song, pp: “Here, snow gently drips into pools of water. . .” In his orchestration, too, Berg reveals a rich imagination whose instrumental novelties bothered Schoenberg—and, I suspect, made him envious.
It’s too bad that Berg’s Altenberg Lieder have been so poorly served by history. It was more than the bad luck of the Skandalkonzert; it was the temper of the times, too, when the Great War was a little more than a year off (though Berg’s personal experience in the war stimulated him to reach new heights in Wozzeck); and after that it was the failed economy of Austria and Germany in the 1920s, and then the coming of the Nazis and World War II. Berg died in 1935, prematurely and shabbily [for a related document on Berg’s widow’s treatment of her husband click here], and without finishing the orchestration of his second opera, Lulu. It has remained for the generation after World War II to discover and assess his true importance, beginning with the Altenberg Lieder that foundered in 1913.
I write about this unusual centenary because it seems to be passing without notice anywhere in the musical world. But also I have a special interest in a musical work that changed my life. I wrote my doctoral essay for Princeton University on Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, whose orchestral score was still unpublished in 1966, and thirty years later I edited the new score mentioned above, for the collected edition of Berg’s works. You can read an important article, an extract from my essay, on my website or in the original publication (“Some Notes on the Unknown Altenberg Lieder,” Perspectives of New Music, spring-summer 1967), and you can buy the study score of my edition, published by Universal Edition of Vienna. There are also some good recordings. Maybe, during this banner year when the 100th birthday of The Rite of Spring is celebrated everywhere in the musical world, you will be able to find some performances.