Alban Berg (1885-1935)
Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op.6
1: Präludium (Prelude)
2: Reigen (Rounds)
3: Marsch (March)
Alban Berg was born into a comfortable middle-class Viennese family, the third of four children. His unremarkably happy childhood was thrown into disarray after his father died in 1900. This loss was hugely traumatic for Berg. Within months he had an attack of asthma, a compalint from which he would then suffer for the rest of his life. His schoolwork suffered; he failed his exams and was forced to repeat his sixth year, and would later also have to repeat his seventh. Most scandalously, he had an affair with the family's kitchen maid, which resulted in an illegitimate daughter. The eventual collapse of this relationship was the primary motivation for a suicide attempt in the autumn of 1903.
As a child Berg's main passion had been for literature, but in the wake of his father's death he became interested more in music. He had been given piano lessons by his governess, and from 1901 he composed songs and piano duets for his family. He evidently had talent, and so in 1904 his brother and sister answered a newspaper advertisement for composition classes. Unknown to Berg, they took copies of some of his songs to the teacher, Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg was impressed with what he saw and accepted Berg as a pupil, refusing to charge a fee in view of the family circumstances. Berg quickly became devoted to him. He studied with him until Schoenberg abruptly left Vienna in 1911, and continued to seek his advice and approval thereafter.
The relationship was not an easy one. Berg increasingly regarded Schoenberg as something of a surrogate father figure, whose approval he craved and whose criticism was devastating. Schoenberg for his part felt no compunction about lecturing his pupil on matters of morality as well as music. As well as absorbing Schoenberg’s compositional ideas, Berg also inherited to an extent his teacher's moral views, in particular his ambivalence towards Viennese society. Schoenberg, along with many artists, saw the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a corrupt and decadent realm that preferred oppression of its subjects to social reform. The Expressionist movement to which Schoenberg was allied was in part a reaction to the lack of opportunity for political expression by exploring extremes of personal crisis in art, partly fulled by the new ideas of the subconscious that Sigmund Freud was developing.
In 1913 Berg visited Schoenberg in Berlin. The trip was a happy one until the last day, when Berg showed his former teacher the two pieces he had written since Schoenberg's departure from Vienna. Schoenberg vehemently criticised them, before proceeding to lecture Berg on what he saw as his lack of self-discipline. In a letter to Schoenberg written after his return home, Berg revealed how much to heart he had taken the criticism: “I have to thank you for your reproof as for everything I have received from you, knowing well that it was meant for my own good. I don't need to tell you that the great pain it has caused me, is proof of the fact that I have heeded your criticism.”
Schoenberg had suggested that for his next composition Berg should consider a characteristic suite for orchestra, and Berg resolved that he would attempt such a project. This was the starting point for his Three Orchestral Pieces. This origin is visible in the titles of the pieces (Prelude, Rounds, March), but the final work that Berg produced moves way beyond the scope of what might be expected of the original idea. Berg dedicated the Three Orchestral Pieces to Schoenberg as a present for his 40th birthday in 1914; in the event, only the first and last pieces were finished in time, the middle movement not being completed until 1915. Berg's friend and fellow pupil of Schoenberg Anton Webern conducted two of the pieces in 1920, but it was not until 1930 that the work was heard in full.
Apart from Schoenberg, the influence of Gustav Mahler looms large in Berg's style. After Mahler's death in 1911 Berg briefly considered writing a symphony, and some of the ideas from that aborted project ended up as part of the Praeludium. This piece, materialising uncertainly from nothing, carries clear echoes of the opening movement of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, which had made an enormous impression on Berg at its posthumous premiere in 1912 in Vienna. Like Mahler, Berg's Prelude rouses itself repeatedly to increasingly intense climaxes, but eventually retreats back into the fog from which emerged. In a nod to Schoenberg's concept of “developing variation”, ideas from this movement are then reconstituted and transformed to provide the themes for the second.
The title “Reigen” is usually translated as “Round Dance”, but it seems more likely that it has other associations: in the 19th century, “Reigen” was a term used in salon music for a sequence of dance tunes, generally a hodgepodge of popular hits. In a nod to this, the movement evokes Waltzes and Ländler, sometimes overtly but often through a distorting mist. “Reigen” may also refer to the notorious, and at the time banned, play of that name by Arthur Schnitzler. The play has ten scenes featuring a chain of couples: a prostitute and a soldier, then the soldier and a maid, and so on until the prostitute appears again with a count in the final scene to complete the circle. Berg owned a copy of this dark indictment of Viennese morality, and its tone chimes well with Berg's own ambivalence towards Vienna, and the often sardonic character of this movement.
The final March also begins with material reworked from the previous piece, as well as reintroducing a number of ideas from the Praeludium. This is music of astonishing and overwhelming complexity, that makes the most of the sheer brute force that can be harnessed by a large orchestra. The sheer density of ideas and textures eventually causes everything to collapse in on itself, leaving a desolate landscape and a hint of something sinister before a final outburst by the brass. Weeks after Berg completed this movement, Europe stepped over the brink and was engulfed in war.