Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Lulu Under Lock & Key: Alban Berg's "Unfinished" Opera (Part 2)

This is a continuation of the previous post, "Alban Berg's Lulu: Up Close but Not Too Personal."

Shortly after Lulu's world premiere in Zurich, Helene Berg wrote to her friend Alma Mahler (I suppose I should refer to her as Alma Werfel since at the time she was married to author Franz Werfel),

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When I heard it sounding for the first time it seemed so deeply familiar to me, as though it came from me and was my own speech. There are places in it where one feels that one is no longer on this earth. Alban has grasped the depth of two things and has understood how to give it back again: the mystery of love and of death. The beginning and end of our earthly existence. It is also worth noting that I was always prejudiced against this Wedekind, but since I've heard the music for it, this music, it's different. Lulu is just as dear to me now as Wozzeck. I love it and tremble for it, as for a child. It is a fearful thing and people don't like it, when one illuminates their depths; but when Alwa sings of Lulu, in tender ecstasy, “A soul, rubbing the sleep from its eyes in the next world,” I know now that this dream also had to be written, for it has its own profound meaning. That the opera is stageworthy as a torso doesn't surprise me; I have learned to trust in that which is Higher, it has all happened according to a plan. How could Alban, who had so much to say and to give, have been called away if his last work, which nothing else can touch, had not been left, in some possible way, 'complete.' Even those who today face this work without understanding or with misgivings – for he was so far in advance of them – will gradually grow into it, until a time comes when people will at last know who Alban Berg was.”
(quoted in Perle, Operas of Alban Berg: Lulu, p. 281-282)
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In addition to this response to the opera, she also had written to Berg's publisher shortly after the premiere:

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“Now, however, that these legitimate concerns [of economy and of publishing a work that might not be performable or successful] have been obviated by the great success of the premiere, I revert today to my wish, already known to you for a long time: namely, the publication, as soon as possible of the vocal score of Act III [which had already been put on hold], the complete libretto... and the full score to that very bar where the catastrophe struck Alban Berg himself, Lulu's last victim... We owe this to Alban and to his magnificent creation.”
(quoted in Perle, ibid, p.282)
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At what point and why did her attitude toward the opera change, when she decided to suppress the Third Act of Lulu?

By the time she wrote it into her last will and testament, it had already become the understood policy with Berg's publisher: Helene Berg had the legal rights as her husband's heir to do so.

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No one is to be permitted to examine the manuscript of the third act of Lulu. Nor may anyone examine the photocopy at Universal Edition. The reason that I could never resolve to permit another composer to orchestrate or complete the incomplete sections of Act III is as follows: After Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Alexander Zemlinsky explained, on examining the manuscript, that they could not prepare it, the opinion of these three most intimate friends of Alban's was decisive in my resolve not to release the manuscript. Moreover, I have almost serious scruples against violating Albans' principles – all the more where it concerns the conclusion of works, which he always wrote with the most profound sense of responsibility – by making something available which he still wanted to subject to a 'basic overhauling' (as he assured me and his friend Webern) before he could present it to the public with a good conscience.”
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Upon Mrs. Berg's death, then, it fell upon the Alban Berg Foundation she had established to oversee his music to “perpetuate the restrictions.”

Her explanation in the mid-1950s of the advice from Schoenberg, Webern and Zemlinsky was timely: by then, all three were dead. Schoenberg's own correspondence mentions nothing of the material's being able to be completed: just that he felt he was not able to be involved in it (see the ending of my previous post). I'm not sure that Webern ever really responded to the request and Zemlinsky, according to Theodore Adorno, “was so pre-Schoenbergian as a composer, that for all his solidarity he must have, with good reason, held himself back as unsuitable.”

Though it was reported shortly before his own death that Webern (see photo, left: Berg [l.] & Webern [r.]) had expressed interest in finishing Lulu, Adorno writes that, if Webern had said he would have to give up composing his own music just to orchestrate all of Bach's 'Art of Fugue' as he had once been asked, “he would not have felt differently about Lulu” (which was also counter to his own stylistic aesthetic). As it turned out, Webern's death in 1945 (at the hands of an American soldier during the post-war occupation of Austria) would not have given him much time to have accomplished much work on Berg's music, much less his own.

But while each of them said they couldn't do it, for whatever reasons, nowhere did any of them ever say “it can't be done.”

What Berg left behind consisted of some 268 measures on 39 pages of full score plus another 122 measures used in the final movement of the Lulu Suite – out of 1,326 measures in the “short score,” about 30% of the entire act – plus some 70 pages (over 450 measures or about 1/3rd of the act) already prepared for the vocal score by Erwin Stein, another friend and former Schoenberg student, who had previously prepared the first two acts for publication and rehearsal, reduced from Berg's completed full score.

In the “short score,” which included only sporadic indications as to what the orchestration ought to be, there are a few sections, as Berg himself had said, he had not filled in completely, mostly details of realizing the sketches for two ensembles which, I'm gathering from what Perle describes, consisted of “11 measures possibly three times” depending on how he wanted to treat repetitions of the material for Lulu and Géschwitz, and 20 measures in another scene where he indicates a wavy line and the direction “everybody murmuring” (this is referred to as the “Rhabarba ensemble,” or as it would be called in America, “Rhutabaga,” something actors are told to mumble over and over again to give the impression of a constant muttered undertone). In addition, there was a statement of the “barrel-organ tune” in the final scene which was unharmonized but, since it was to be a fairly basic barrel-organ setting, one would assume even a caveman could... I mean, even a freshman theory student could figure it out.

There are sections that refer to previous passages which Berg had already orchestrated in the earlier acts and which were being restated: he frequently “recapped” whole passages in his quest for structural unity either between characters or comparable situations. This would be a matter of going back to the previous statement “and doing likewise” if not just recopying it outright.

Compared to the missing third act of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, this would seem to be a piece of cake – Schoenberg left no musical sketches at all to be realized so whoever would try to “complete” his opera had only a libretto to go by, no music! Here, in Berg's Lulu, there are only a handful of measures that need worked out!

And yet for over forty years, the world was led to believe the work was incomplete and even “incompletable.” Despite her own calls for its publication originally, something we owed to the composer, no one now would be allowed to hear what Mrs. Berg herself called his “magnificent creation.”

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It's fairly clear there was a disconnect here and the publishers, though they were legally bound by Mrs. Berg's decision to suppress the material, knew something had to be done. It was no doubt not lost on Helene Berg that someday the laws of copyright would expire and she would no longer be around to enforce her ban which meant that anybody then could go in and, presumably, take the material to come up with their own realization.

It is probably in that light that the publishers secretly engaged with composer and “Berg expert” Friedrich Cerha (right) to undertake the project, though of course legally they could not do anything with it publicly as long as Mrs. Berg was alive.

And of course, wouldn't you know, she lived to be 91.

Cerha had approached the publishers in 1962 and was actually shown the material in question. This in itself went against Mrs. Berg's directions: no one was even supposed to be able to look at this material, much less complete it! So why had they given Cerha permission but not George Perle a year later who only got to see Stein's incomplete vocal score for Act III (well, I suppose it's possible that Cerha was Viennese and Perle was not)?

Cerha made a detailed study of Berg's completed score for the first two acts, comparing passages, imitating his approaches to dynamics, phrasing, articulation and other basic musical details not specified in the sketches or the “short score” in addition to making the kind of editorial selections and changes a composer might have made to correct or improve something that was written down either in haste or without his own checking back to see how something had been handled in a similar passage composed a year or two earlier. These are all things Berg could have done had he managed to finish the score himself as well as live long enough to attend rehearsals and make any changes subsequent to an actual performance, all things composers do as a matter of course. But he didn't, so the only way we'll hear what he might have had in mind is what Cerha has been able to do. Considering what he had to work with, it seems like it might be pretty close...

Perle spends a great deal of time discussing (indeed attacking) willful discrepancies between what Berg composed and what the audience often hears and sees, beginning with the decision to present the pantomime version of the final scene from Act Three with music from the Lulu Suite as an acceptable conclusion to the opera for so many years – true, in June of 1937, there was no time to realize whatever had been left to be prepared in time for the premiere, making it an expedient solution that was better than nothing. But forty years later when the Met unveiled its new production of the opera – still in two acts – how can this still be acceptable?

Berg was also very specific about who sang what roles (for instance, the three husbands coming back in the final scene as Lulu's last three clients) which were not always followed: for instance, where is the dramatic irony to have Jack the Ripper (who murders Lulu) sung not by Dr. Schön (who was murdered by Lulu) but by his butler? And when the three-act version was finally premiered in Paris in 1979, why did Patrice Chéreau's production place the final scene not in a garret as Berg and Wedekind wrote it (the director wanted to avoid this late-19th Century cliché even though that is the time when the opera was set) but rather in the public rest room of an underground subway station?

In a footnote, Perle at least compliments the first two American productions – at Santa Fé in 1979 and at the Met in 1980 – as being “among the notable exceptions” to directors' egos overshadowing the composer's intentions (a question that was a major concern for Schoenberg in the 1930s and is still a hot topic in our own day: witness the furor over Luc Bondy's treatment of Puccini's Tosca in his new Met production earlier this season).

Though technically Berg's publishers went against Mrs. Berg's will after she died by allowing Friedrich Cerha's realization of Lulu's third act to be performed at all, the question still remains why did she impose the ban in the first place?

Considering her response to the first two acts of the opera at the premiere, what did she discover in the third act that would make her go to such lengths to suppress it? And if it bothered her that much, why didn't she just destroy the “short score”?

There were sketches to the opera that might have had “secret messages” or explanations in the margins (Cerha mentions them in his list of materials in his program note for the Boulez Paris recording) – was there anything there that would have destroyed the image she had worked so hard to maintain of the façade of the happily married couple?

And now, Act Three: “The Jealous Widow.”

To be continued...

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