May 20, 2005

Classical music from 1904 Vienna to today's Chicago

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra played Alban Berg's brilliant Chamber Concerto under the equally brilliant Pierre Boulez this Monday. I was to review that event, but due to Chicago traffic, I got to Symphony Hall sometime around intermission. Of course, I was much too late to write a decent concert review, and therefore, feeling vaguely irresponsible, I thought I would make it up to you by writing a piece on Alban Berg instead.

Vienna, 1904: Those were scintillating times. Classical music was trying to find its bearings and direction in the aftermath of Wagner—four centuries of ordered, beautiful development had reached its apex. What Adorno would later call "the inexorable" finally made contact with the inevitable, and the post-Tristan und Isolde landscape was fraught with excitement and uncertainty.

Stylistic innovations that would shape the destiny of classical music in the 20th century were conceived, molded, tested, and performed. Looking back, it is tempting to say that giants walked the streets of Europe—Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern—but from the perspective of the times they were just men, without the stature bestowed by history.

Of course, flux creates factionalism, and, upon the aesthetic landscape of the times, lines of war were drawn. The critics became members of two distinct groups. The Hanslick-Krehbiel camp was sternly against the musical dissolution wrought by Wagner and all his infernal forces while the niveau-garde—consisting of people like Huneker, Mencken, and the Schoenberg-Berg-Webern triumvirate—favored the dawning of a new era in which form would be made completely and irrevocably subordinate to expression with equal vehemence.

There was a sense of barely suppressed exhilaration at every unveiling, every premiere. Audiences rioted, cheered, and wrote to the editors of the national papers in outrage or with accolades while knights of the inky cloak clashed with lords of the lyre. Duels were fought, performances were booed, demonstrations were staged, and a riotous profusion of music was made. The very future of aesthetics was at stake.

In the midst of this vibrant melée we find the young Alban Berg, not yet 19, on his way to a meeting with the then-already renowned Arnold Schoenberg, author of Gurrelieder, Pelleas und Melisande, and Verklärte Nacht. The meeting would decide the philosophical and artistic destiny of classical music, sparking collaboration, a friendship, and an artistic influence that would lead to some of the most important works of the 20th century.

Berg came across an advertisement for lessons in harmony and theory offered by Schoenberg, and at his brother's suggestion, decided to take advantage of them. Berg studied extensively under the famous master—he was thoroughly schooled in counterpoint, harmony, theory, compositional technique, style, and form by Schoenberg, as well as being a sounding board and intellectual touchstone for Schoenberg's more radical ideas and visions for the future of classical music. In fact, Schoenberg's seminal work on harmony, the Harmonielehre, was a product of the discourse born from lessons with his student.

After Wagner and Mahler, classical music had reached something of an impasse. Tonality had been pushed as far as it could conceivably go. It became clear that additional insight could not be gained with further variations upon principles of harmony and counterpoint that had already been stretched into meaninglessness. Schoenberg's solution was an entirely new idiom: one based on mathematical principles of pitch and its organization. The 12-tone row was to take the place of the scale, evolving its own rules of treatment, making available to the composer not just a new version of tonality but an entirely new palette. Apparent randomness was institutionalized into consummately beautiful, intensely expressive art, and the face of classical music was never the same again.

As a student, Berg was extraordinarily receptive. He once said that Schoenberg preferred to talk about new ideas with him rather than with Webern and Polnauer, as Berg would absorb and discuss where they would punctuate the discussions with exclamations of how they had already tried this or done that. Berg adopted Schoenberg's idiom but molded it to his own inclination towards the expressive styles of Brahms, Wolfe, and Strauss.

Berg was the Romanticist of the second Viennese School. His compositions have the flavor of tonality while remaining intriguingly divorced from it. His rows are usually constructed as multiple series of intricately related triads, which give the underlying harmonic possibilities a richly tonal flavor. There are implications, expectations, and coruscating colors that vanish with the ensuing chord, only to be set up again in a different direction. Berg's works were usually planned on a grand scale with lush orchestration and very Romantic love for ciphers. His tone-rows and variations are exercises in layered, symbolic composition.

The chamber concerto was the first piece in which he definitively used 12-tone formalism. His quintessentially Romantic love for stories and puzzles is manifest here. Woven into the second movement is an account of the affair that Schoenberg's wife, Mathilde, had with a painter named Gerstl, as well as her eventual return to her husband, in a story straight out of Verkärte Nacht. The concerto is mathematically conceived and permeated with variations on the number three along with several concealed palindromes. Each variation is a musical portrait of an acquaintance.

Interestingly, the movements get progressively less serialistic. The first movement has a theme and four variations: the prime, the retrograde, the inversion, the retrograde-inversion, and the prime. This is perhaps the most natural sequence in serialism, the foundation upon which the entire theory is built. If I were to draw a tonal analogy, I would compare this to the fundamental I-II-IV-V-I chord sequence. The fact that Berg lays this out so precisely at the beginning of the concerto seems like a final acceptance and affirmation of the idiom with which he had been flirting for a few years prior to the concerto's composition.

The second movement gets more elusive. There is only a prime, an inversion, and another prime, and even that is deeply embedded. The structure is palindromic, but the music is indistinct. The third movement also has a palindromic structure, but combines material from the first and second movements to convolute the structure until it almost becomes "free atonalism." There is still a strictly palindromic structure, but the material within that structure becomes more fluid. Serialism gradually loses ascendancy during the piece, leaving only a legacy of expressive potentiality shorn of formalism.

It is tempting to view this as a prediction for the future of atonalism. Historically, this is exactly what happened. Strict serialism achieved its potential under Webern—was taken much further than it should have been by proponents of total serialism and aleatoricism (or "pure chance" music), in which everything is scrupulously randomized and then simply fades away, leaving only the legacy of the expressive possibilities.

Alban Berg was one of the more intriguing figures of the second Viennese school, a composer who was part of two worlds that appeared to be separated by irrevocable chasms. He owed allegiance to no influence but his art, and was, in many ways, the perfect Romantic-Schoenbergian ideal—an artist for whom technique, form, influence, classification, and idiom were entirely and absolutely a function of expression.