Seven Early Songs

Alban Berg

Vienna in the turn of the century was an extraordinary place. Radical inquiry was being made into the depths of the mind (Freud) the nature of music (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern) new philosophical studies (Ludwig Wittgenstein) and other areas of the human experience as they came into question and review. Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art resonated throughout the city. Vienna’s coffeehouses brimmed with the excitement of intellectual revolution. Sexuality, investigations into the occult, into mathematics, into a bevy of esoteric matters stirred a combustible mix of artists, intellectuals and scientists. Strict adherence to the long-sanctioned bodies of western knowledge was passé. The genie came out of the bottle.

Music was not immune. A triumvirate of composers — Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg — were the theoretical and compositional headliners in the “new music” of Vienna. Sometimes the trio was referred to as the Second Viennese School, following the First, which was comprised of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. The triumvirate hobnobbed frequently with all components of the intellectual elite. Berg studied with Schoenberg, and the teacher’s Harmonielehre became a seminal statement in writing music without the pull of a tonic (atonal), proclaiming a new musical logic called serialism. The method posited no less than a totally new method of rationalizing and writing music. Serialism spun a concept of equality of tones, tied together by a row (the sounding of each of the twelve tones without repetition), which would be the “subject” of the piece at hand. Total serialism controlled not only notes, but also rhythms and dynamics simultaneously. Music employed mathematical constructs, palindromes and other methods to harness and rationalize the sounds. Intellect ruled. Intellectual complexity was riveting.

Berg, unlike his teacher, did not throw the baby out with the bathwater. He utilized the emotional inheritance of the late Romantic composers (especially Mahler) in iterating his own voice. He produced a small number of works, usually less tied to the acetic strictures placed by Schoenberg and Webern. In so doing, he has provided a softer introduction to the world of twelve-tone music. The passionate feature within Berg’s products made Schoenberg furious, and he wrote scathing commentary (such as that on The Altenberg Songs and Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano) written by his straying student.

For his part, Berg was obsessed by symmetry, enjoyed mirror structures and retrograde formations (palindromes). For more on this read The Eternal Return: Retrograde and Circular Form in Berg by Robert Morgan who posits that all of Berg’s music reflects an obsession with musical temporality and circular forms, a case of “driving back to the beginning.” Berg especially liked to site Nietzsche’s notions of eternal return to add a certain pedigree to his thinking. He also loved secrets, and messages were sometimes encrypted or smuggled into his music (such as the Chamber Concerto containing secret messages to Schoenberg). Berg was fascinated with mysticism and had a passion for Balzac’s mystic novel Seraphita. Another fascination with numerology led him to a deep connection for the numbers 10 and 23, the latter being his “fateful number” which, he believed, controlled his personal life cycle.

The Seven Early Songs were inspired by the composer’s love for his wife, Helene, written before their marriage in 1911. Each song is set to a text by a major German poet, reflecting his love of literature. The premier of the whole set occurred in Vienna on November 6, 1928. They were first set for piano and voice and later for orchestra.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015

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