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Working with Manuscripts, Part 2

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Alban Berg

An invitation to present a research paper at the International Alban Berg Symposion led to my first-ever trip to the European continent in May 1980. The symposium proved especially fortunate because Berg’s papers, formerly stored at his apartment at Trauttmansdorffgasse 27 in Vienna under the supervision of his widow Helene, had been transferred to the Nationalbibliothek downtown, and had only just then, four years after Helene Berg’s death and 45 years after Berg’s, been opened to scholars. The well-funded Symposion took place over a period of two weeks during the Wiener Festwochen, with presentations lasting up to 45 minutes. Researchers from Germany, England, and the USA, including several younger workers like me, met each other and schmoozed. One of the big-shot attendees was Carl Dahlhaus (1928-89), a hugely prolific and wide-ranging scholar, though not widely known for work on Berg; I did discover when this veteran managed to get any sleep — during other scholars’ presentations. One whom everybody liked was Erich Alban Berg, nephew of the composer, then 75 years old and very convivial (for those who like me had only a very limited command of German, he was especially helpful; he had been an interpreter for the British occupation forces after WWII and spoke excellent English).

During those two weeks I found myself in the music collection at the Nationalbibliothek during most of its open hours. Berg’s papers, musical and otherwise, were a mess, but a librarian’s efforts had sorted them into at least a temporary classification, in folders which had been preliminarily catalogued. I was fascinated to see music by Berg that almost no one else had looked at for nearly 80 years. I found a single page of a Waltz in A Minor: “Mein erster Walzer. Meiner lieben Mama gewidmet.” If you know the A minor waltz (op. 12, no. 2) in Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, you can imagine this little piece by the 15-year-old Berg; today, it is published, and you can smile at the fff in the seventh bar.

Some important manuscript discoveries had already emerged. Douglass Green, musicologist from the Eastman School, had received permission to examine the sketches for Berg’s Lyric Suite from Helene Berg a year before her death, and after careful and astute examination combined with some very good luck, made the exciting discovery that the last movement (Largo desolato) of that great string quartet had been composed with a concealed vocal part. Green gave me useful advice about going through the very assorted archive. I had found a loose page of score in one folder that clearly belonged with a larger score in a different folder where a page was apparently missing. Confronted with this, I asked him, what ought I to do? He said: leave a note in the folder, pointing out the discrepancy and indicating where to find the missing piece. I don’t know why that hadn’t already occurred to me, but it was obvious enough; and sooner or later, some other librarian or archivist would find my note and follow it up.

It also became apparent that there would be serious bumps on the research road. Scholars knew that Helene Berg, in 41 years of widowhood, had regularly received visitors from around the world who were anxious to meet her over tea and help her honor the memory of the great composer who had died prematurely at age 50. In turn, she would honor many of these acolytes with a souvenir of the visit: a scrap of paper from the thousands in Berg’s study. When I later searched fruitlessly for important sketches of Berg’s Altenberg Lieder, op. 4, it seemed plausible that many of them had disappeared in this way. A renowned Viennese musicologist and Schubert scholar of my acquaintance, who had visited Trauttmansdorffgasse 27, left with a manuscript score page. “I think it’s from Lulu,” he told me, but I recognized it at once as a page from Der Wein.

In 1986, supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, I spent three months in Vienna working with Berg’s manuscripts, mostly at the Nationalbibliothek; there were others at the Stadbibliothek (better known for its large collection of Schubert autographs), at the Musikverein, and at the offices of Universal Edition, Berg’s publisher. I had already signed a contract with the Alban Berg Stiftung to edit the Altenberg Lieder for the planned Alban Berg Sämtliche Werke (complete works). (The Altenberg Lieder was unpublished in orchestral score when I completed my major essay for the Ph.D. in 1966; a study score finally appeared late that year, but had some errors.) Some of the most valuable sources for my research turned out to be a couple of pocket sketchbooks, 14 x 20 cm, ten staves per page, in which Berg felt free to jot down anything at all, whether musical ideas of just four or five notes, or grocery shopping lists. His handwriting was frightful; Schoenberg, who in his letters regularly grumbled to Berg about everything, complained harshly about handwriting. The sketches were mostly in pencil; some were in black ink, others in the purple ink Berg had favored for composing songs during his teen years. Some ideas came through with startling clarity; but others were readable only as a scrawl. Compared to these, Beethoven’s worst sketches look like an engraved edition. (“Entsetzlich [hideous],” remarked a librarian to whom I showed it.) Sometimes bits of text appeared that might have been taken from Peter Altenberg’s postcard jottings, if I could only decipher them. I never did find any sketches at all for the beautiful Passacaglia that is no. 5 of the Altenberg Lieder, and this lacuna remains the biggest puzzle today. But one sketchbook contains an extensive working-out process, really a design, for the very complicated song no. 1 with its dazzling orchestral prelude, but only up through the first sixteen measures. On one page I found the German names of all twelve pitch-classes listed in chromatic order (“C / Cis / D / Dis / E…” etc.) but systematically crossed off: Berg was apparently keeping track to make sure he had used all twelve, as in the serial viola melody beginning at m. 9; we don’t know whether Berg crossed the names off in serial order, but it’s a good guess. (C, D-flat, B, B-flat, D, A, E-flat, A-flat, G F-sharp, F, E : see also the beginning of the fifth song, from m. 5)

Last page of Berg’s Lyric Suite

A few tiny jottings, not more than a few notes and a few words (including “Ewig”), on two other pages in the sketchbook provided another special point of interest; these are slight, but they show that Berg wrote down directly what he was hearing at the world premiere in Munich in November 1911 of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, under Bruno Walter’s direction. Berg had traveled there for the occasion on the train with Webern, and remained so full of emotion the next day about the performance that he twice wrote about it in letters to Helene, who had stayed in Vienna. (Schoenberg wasn’t there either; he was busy in Berlin.) Berg took notes from the 20-minute-long final song, “Der Abschied.” Das Lied von der Erde is a cycle of six songs, bracketed by a big song for tenor at the beginning and an even bigger song for contralto at the end, with four shorter alternating songs in between — a large Bogenform, arch form. Berg planned the overall architecture of the five Altenberg Lieder in a similar way: big songs at beginning and end, and three much shorter ones in the middle. Perhaps he got this stimulus from Mahler’s cycle; but he went much further, with an intriguing cyclic design and a 12-tone series as well, and with an ultimate orchestral imagination that represents an amazing leap into the future of music. This originality seems to have made even Schoenberg envious.

Work proceeded back and forth between me and the editorial staff of the BSW (Berg Sämtliche Werke) in Vienna over the next few years. Another significant discovery emerged entirely by accident, as my attention was called to an uncatalogued Berg manuscript in the Archive at the Vienna Musikverein. This turned out to be a complete autograph Particell (short score) of the first of the Altenberg Lieder, in Berg’s handwriting, in messy but readable ink, and with the first 14 bars in 4/4 meter instead of the 4/8 of the final orchestral score. A note attached to the Particell manuscript said that it was “On loan from Gottfried von Einem.” Gottfried von Einem (1918-96), longtime Viennese resident, renowned composer of Dantons Tod (Büchner) and Der Prozeß (Kafka) and other operas, served as president of the Alban Berg Stiftung. He signed my contract to edit the Altenberg Lieder. Had he informed me or anyone else of the location or even the existence of this important sketch? No, he had not; he may have forgotten about it. But a facsimile of one page (representing mm. 29-30) is printed in the Orchesterlieder volume of the Berg complete edition, which was finally published in 1997.

That volume took so long to appear because it contains three different works (the others are Der Wein and the Seven Early Songs), and thus three editors were needed, but the result seems to have been worth the wait; it received the Deutsche Musikeditionspreis that year. So far, we have not discovered even any minor errors in the score, though the office did get a letter from Pierre Boulez, congratulating us and the publishers on such a handsome edition, and pointing out one small error — we had apparently overlooked six measures of a bassoon doubling, or something similar. We wrote back, thanking Boulez for his warm words of compliment, but reassuring him that we had carefully re-examined all the sources about the passage in question, and that even though he had been very observant, our correction superseded his.                                             

Schoenberg took all his manuscripts with him to America in 1933, and they stayed there intact until 1998. After various adventures including an uneasy sojourn at the University of Southern California, they went back to Vienna, where they reside today at the Arnold Schönberg Center in the Palais Fantö just off the Schwarzenbergplatz. (This is an irony that Schoenberg would have felt utterly keenly — but he would have been delighted that the mss. have all been catalogued and digitized and are now easily available online.) Webern’s manuscripts reside mostly at the Sacher Foundation in Basel, where one must consult them in person. Most of Berg’s autographs still survive in Vienna, the city where he lived all his life; but others, like the original orchestral score of Wozzeck, which he sold to the Library of Congress for $1000 in the 1930s, are scattered here and there, and some, despite our best efforts, await rediscovery.

See Part One HERE

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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