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Composed: 1905-1908; 1928
Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, trumpet, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, side drum, tam-tam, triangle), harp, celesta, strings, and solo mezzo-soprano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: May 21, 1992, Pierre Boulez conducting, with soloist Phyllis Bryn-Julson
Perhaps it is not coincidental that the first musical utterances of the composer best remembered for the operas Wozzeck and Lulu were art songs or, more precisely, German Lied, that 19th-century vehicle of all manner of human expression from poetic-philosophical musings to highly dramatic displays of psychological states and varying emotions. In fact, between 1901 and 1908 Alban Berg composed approximately 150 songs and ensembles for voices with piano accompaniment. In hindsight, we can speculate that for the young Berg, the fusion of words with melody represented a kind of marriage of the two great loves of his adolescence, literature and music. For up to 1904, he had not fully committed himself to either art form. Song, then, allowed him the latitude to play at being an artist without direction, a kind of musical poetaster with no prospects. His artistic free fall would end in October 1904 when he became a student of Arnold Schoenberg.
It was by chance that Berg’s sister (a professional pianist) spotted an advertisement in Vienna’s New Musical Press for courses in music theory “for professionals and serious amateurs by Arnold Schoenberg (harmony and counterpoint)…” His brother Charly showed some of Berg’s songs to Schoenberg for perusal. Schoenberg recognized talent in these untutored attempts in the Brahms and Hugo Wolf-styled songs, and invited Berg to study with him. Berg’s obvious musical limitations were recounted by Schoenberg later when he wrote “In the condition in which he came to me, it was impossible for him to imagine composing anything but songs… He was incapable of writing an instrumental movement, of finding an instrumental theme… I corrected the deficiency and am delighted that Berg found his way to a very good style of orchestration.” His studies with Schoenberg officially ended in 1908 with the completion of the Piano Sonata Op. 1, but Berg’s admiration for and dedication to, as well as his critical dependence upon his teacher/friend would last until his death. Even so, Berg’s eventual mature style was indeed his own; a unique blending of the rigorous variation and contrapuntal aspects of serialism with suggestions of inherited tonal rhythm of tension and release.
In 1928 Berg compiled seven songs from the many written roughly between the years 1905 and 1908, during his time with Schoenberg. He orchestrated these youthful songs as he was beginning serious work on Lulu. He felt that as it would probably be years before his next premiere, it was necessary for him to keep his name in the public memory, and what better way than to dip into his own past and resurrect youthful songs and dress them in colorful garb. The new orchestrations, in all of their Mahlerian and Straussian splendor, verified their link to Berg’s past and the influences of his youth. Perhaps the most influential mannerisms apparent in these songs are the Straussian surging climaxes, ironically filled with ever-present romantic longing.
The opening whole-tone harmonic and melodic structure of “Nacht” is evocative of the opening phrase “Twilight floats above the valley’s night, mists are hanging…” It is also the most “modern” of the set having most likely been composed later than the others. The transparent orchestration of “Schilflied” creates an atmosphere of the mystery and nostalgia of nature. The divided strings of the third song, “Nachtigall,” give a Brahmsian depth to a traditional A-B-A structure. The contrapuntal setting of “Traumgekrönt” belies the uncertainty of the first line of text “That was the day of the white chrysanthemums,/I was almost afraid of their magnificence…” The song “Im Zimmer” is most notable for the ironic use of wind instruments to articulate an indoor atmosphere. “Liebesode” with its contrapuntal writing, layered orchestration, and chromatically inflected vocal line seems to pay homage to Berg’s teacher, Schoenberg. “Sommertage” brings the cycle to a romantic climax complete with cymbal crash on the last syllable of the text and final sustained minor chord.
-Composer Steve Lacoste is the Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.