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FastNotes

  • In 1925, Schoenberg had begun composing in his 12-tone system, and his student Alban Berg had also begun his own evolution of 12-tone techniques in the Chamber Concerto he completed that year.
  • While on a trip to Prague to hear Alexander Zemlinsky conduct orchestral pieces from Berg’s opera Wozzeck, Berg stayed at the home of Herbert Fuchs-Robettin and his wife Hanna. Berg was struck with an intense infatuation with Hanna, which inspired the six-movement Lyric Suite.
  • Berg dedicated the Lyric Suite to Zemlinsky – the title is a direct reference to Zemlinsky’s own Lyric Symphony, which Berg also quoted in the music – although the Lyric Suite was inspired and shaped in almost every way by the affair with Hanna.

In 1925, Arnold Schoenberg’s “emancipation of dissonance” was well-advanced. Schoenberg had begun composing in his 12-tone system, and his student Alban Berg had also begun his own evolution of 12-tone techniques in the Chamber Concerto that he completed that year.

Also that year, Berg made a trip to Prague to hear Alexander Zemlinsky conduct orchestral pieces from Berg's opera Wozzeck. He stayed at the home of Herbert Fuchs-Robettin and his wife Hanna, the sister of novelist Franz Werfel and the sister-in-law then of Alma Mahler, who introduced Berg to the family. Berg was struck with an intense infatuation with Hanna, and poured his passion into a work for string quartet, the six-movement Lyric Suite.

Berg worked diligently and duplicitously to keep the affair secret, telling his suspicious wife Helene repeatedly that there was nothing between him and Hanna – while simultaneously reassuring Hanna that Helene had no suspicions. Berg dedicated the Lyric Suite to Zemlinsky, and the title is a direct reference to Zemlinsky’s own Lyric Symphony, which Berg also quoted in the music.

Berg’s respect for Zemlinsky was sincere, but the title and dedication were something of a feint, for the Lyric Suite was inspired and shaped in almost every way by the affair with Hanna. This was not known, however, until 1977, when American composer George Perle visited Dorothea Robettin, the daughter of Herbert and Hanna, and saw the copy of the score that Berg had annotated for her mother. It had been clear from the first that some sort of extra-musical program lay behind the Lyric Suite, which Berg’s pupil Theodor Adorno called a “latent opera.” The copiously annotated score, however, makes this narrative explicit. (The adjectives applied to each movement are a strong hint to the narrative arc, as are the tempos – the fast movements get faster and the slow movements slower in an expanding wedge, as delirium leads to the despair of parting.)

It also demonstrates how Berg worked with elements of their names to create many of the details of the music, as Brahms had done with the F-A-E and F-A-F mottos in his A-minor Quartet. The initials “A.B.” translate to A and B-flat in the German solfège syllables, and “H.F.” becomes B and F to form a motivic cell that underpins much of the thematic work. (The cell is heard most plainly in the hushed four-note groups at the beginning of the Allegro misterioso). The metronome tempo markings and the number of measures in various sections are derived from the number of letters in the lovers' names: 23 for Albano Maria Johannes Berg and 10 for Hanna Fuchs.

The numerology and secret program explain much, down to details such as the repeated Cs (“do” in solfège) in the Andante amoroso (a rondo portraying Hanna and her two children), representing the young Dorothea (nicknamed Do-Do). And that chord skittering down two and a half octaves at the end of the movement is the famous “Tristan” chord (from Wagner’s influential opera), fading away over the cello’s plucked low Do-Do.

But the Lyric Suite became some of Berg’s most well-known and popular music for two generations without the extra-musical agenda. So popular that Berg extracted movements 2-4 and arranged them for string orchestra in 1928. These are the three most “romantic” movements in any sense (movements 1 and 6 are the most rigorously 12-tone).

One other revelation of the annotated score was that Berg laid a text over the last movement, the lover’s lament “De Profundis Clamavi” from Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal (in German translation). Berg probably did not intend for it to be sung, but that has been a viable option since the discoveries of 1977; on its recording of the Lyric Suite (with Renée Fleming, coupled with the Wellesz Sonnets), the Emerson String Quartet offers it both ways, with and without voice.