Friday, May 21, 2010

Arguing for the Arts: Advice from Britain

After attending rehearsals last night for Vaughan Williams' "A London Symphony" which the Harrisburg Symphony will be performing here this weekend, I find this bit of news from Across the Pond important advice for American arts organizations who will be facing state budget battles regarding support for the Arts.

Alistair Smith's article posted Wednesday at Britain's The Stage:
- - - - - - -
Arts Council England chief executive Alan Davey has called on the cultural sector to help it make a “rational” argument to government about the importance of funding for the arts, in order to avoid heavy cuts in this autumn’s spending review.

While frontline arts organisations look set to avoid significant cuts from the £66 million in savings that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will have to find from its 2010/11 budget because of spending cuts across government, it will not be known until later in the year how arts budgets will be affected from 2011/12 by the change in the country’s leadership.

Following June 22’s budget, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition will undertake a Comprehensive Spending Review, with the results expected to be revealed for the DCMS and the arts council in the autumn.

Davey said he believed that whatever government had come to power in the elections, there would have been a “hard case to make” for the arts because of the fiscal climate, but called on the sector to help ACE make that argument.

“You have to argue as hard as possible, but not be unrealistic about the outcome,” he told The Stage. “[The sector] is helping because we are talking to them and they are talking to local politicians and making the case to politicians generally, so everyone is getting the message that arts spending is good spending, it’s hard-working spending, and it’s important to the life of the country. It’s not a trivial thing or an optional add-on that’s nice to have.

“I think although that argument been won to an extent, we mustn’t sit on our laurels, we have to keep making that argument and justifying it, and given that spending overall is so tight, it’s going to get harder and more important to do it. The way the sector can help is to help us make rational arguments and make the arguments themselves. What clearly doesn’t work is shroud-waving.”
- - - - - - -

While 'shroud-waving' may get our lawmakers' attentions (even for a limited span), facts and figures speak louder than shrouds (banners, to the Brits).

I also love their naming this council the "Department for Culture, Media and Sport." While lumping Culture and Sports into the same bucket may seem strange to an American (many of whom would wonder why the Arts are included in the first place), at least the ordering reflects the long-range priorities of our society.  

Gear up - it's going to be a long summer if past budget cycles have been any indication...

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Robert Schumann's Installment Plan Concerto

This weekend, you can hear the Schumann Piano Concerto on the program with Daria Rabotkina and the Harrisburg Symphony conducted by Stuart Malina at the Forum, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm.

I thought it would be interesting to look at all the different things that were going on in Schumann's life - actually, his and Clara's lives - during the years between his writing what became the concerto's first movement and then finally adding the last two movements four years later.

Considering I'm the kind of composer who spends a year working on a string quartet and two years on a symphony, it boggles the mind to see Schumann sketching a symphony IN A FEW DAYS and then taking maybe a month to orchestrate it or writing three string quartets in the span of seven weeks...

It's been very pleasant coming back to this piece after not having heard it for two years. There's something about not hearing a piece every month or so, then coming back to it after a long break where you can hear it afresh.

Anyway, you can read my "up-close & personal" post at the Harrisburg Symphony Blog here.

- Dick Strawser

Monday, May 17, 2010

Off to 'London' This Weekend: Vaughan Williams in Harrisburg

This past weekend was great - I took one of those bus day-trips into New York City which just happened to coincide with the last performance at the Met this season of Alban Berg's Lulu which I'd been blogging about prior to its radio broadcast the week before. Hopefully, I'll get around to writing something about it soon.

This coming weekend is the final "Masterworks Concert" of the Harrisburg Symphony's current season which features a work that has been a favorite of mine since my days in high school many (many) years ago: "A London Symphony" by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

So I've written two posts over at the Harrisburg Symphony Blog. The first one is about the concert and the symphony itself, including photos and some performance videos, including a quite good one with an All-State High School Orchestra I'm assuming is from Georgia (it's only labeled the GMEA All-State). The second is a more personal recollection of the symphony and how one phrase never fails to bring a tear to my eye.

The concerts are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Come an hour early to hear Truman Bullard give the pre-concert talk.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Alban Berg's Lulu: Up Close & Maybe Too Personal (Part 3)

Continuation of Alban Berg's Lulu: Lulu Under Lock and Key.

In Frank Wedekind's original plays which Berg based his opera on, the character Alwa is a writer. Berg turns him into a composer. In fact, when he introduces Alwa as a composer, Berg quotes the opening of his own opera, Wozzeck, as a kind of inside joke.

Inside joke or an autobiographical clue?

In the third scene of Act One, Alwa gazes on Lulu, thinking she could become the subject of an interesting opera.

Considering how long it took the complete opera to see the light of day – from Berg's death in 1935 to the premiere of the three-act version in 1979 – the saga of the opera itself could make “an interesting opera.”

Perhaps it could be called, with an ironic bow to Franz Lehár, “The Jealous Widow.”

Helene and Alban Berg had what most of their friends would have agreed was “the perfect marriage.”

Berg met her in 1906 – a year after he'd first seen Wedekind's Lulu plays – but they were not married until 1911.

She was a singer, the daughter of a wealthy family though it was rumored she was the illegitimate daughter of the emperor. Perle, in quoting the letters Berg wrote when he was kept apart from her “by the implacable opposition of her adoptive father,” notes how he “facetiously describes himself as a 'writer' whose daily letters to her are 'chapters of a vast novel entitled HELENE AND ALBAN: The Story of a Great Love.” Berg even suggested taking 70 or 80 of these letters and turning them into a “nice book” they could present to her “old man” that “could even convert him!”

In 1907, the year he officially concluded his studies with Schoenberg, Berg composed a setting of a poem by Theodor Storm, “Schliesse mir die Augen beide” which he dedicated to Helene (you can hear it sung here by Hermann Prey). It sounds more like Schumann than what we might expect from the composer who would later write Wozzeck but Berg was 22 then and it would be another seven years before he would begin work on what became his first opera, completed in 1922 when he was 37 and which wasn't premiered until three years later.

When they were (finally) married – on May 3rd, 1911 – Alban and Helene Berg were considered “the perfect couple.” One friend wrote “The Bergs were a most devoted couple. Indeed, their union seems to have been that rare thing – an ideal marriage.”

In a posthumous biography of the composer, their friend Wili Reich wrote of this relationship,

- - - - - - -
“Beyond her delightful relationship to the man, Helene not only accompanied her husband on most of his journeys, but – with her finely cultivated heart and spirit – became the critical advisor of the composer in his work. Her presence gave the artist the peace and comfort of a relaxed home life, and the quiet necessary for undisturbed creative work. After Berg's death [in 1935] his widow was the most faithful guardian of his works.”
- - - - - - -

Then, in 1925 – the year of Wozzeck's premiere which made him a world renowned composer – Berg wrote a second setting of Storm's poem, “Schliesse mir die Augen beide” which can be considered his first attempt to write a serial composition.

(Wozzeck is 'atonal.' Schoenberg, when he was teaching Berg and Webern, was still writing in a highly chromatic style like Verklärte Nacht or Gurrelieder that was gradually working its way toward his first atonal works around 1908, including his 2nd String Quartet. His concepts of “composing with twelve inwardly related tones” which later came to be known as serialism did not begin to evolve until the 1920s.)

You can hear a recording of the song here – quite different, by comparison to the song dedicated to Helene, but then what a difference 18 years can make.

What happened in those years is anybody's guess, but when he was in Prague for a performance of "Three Excerpts from Wozzeck" in May, 1925, he stayed at the home of the brother-in-law of Franz Werfel, husband of an old friend, Alma Mahler, widow of composer Gustav Mahler. It was there Berg met Werfels' sister, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. They met again when he stopped in Prague on his way to Berlin for Wozzeck's premiere.

At this point, you could say the “idyllic domestic life” of the Bergs became a pretense.

It is interesting that both composer and wife worked hard to maintain the exterior appearance of a happily-married life. Helene may not have known (or understood) the full details of the affair – or, if she did, she worked very hard to give the impression she did not.

What must she have felt like if she had known that two people who were go-betweens for her husband and his mistress were two of her best friends, Alma Mahler and her husband, Franz Werfel? Did she suspect that Mrs. Fuchs-Robettin was something more than Werfel's sister and a friend of Alban's? Did Berg maintain the affair as a romantic fantasy that could not have succeeded any other way? Did he meet her and think she would make an interesting opera?

When Berg wrote the second setting of “Schliesse mir die Augen beide,” it was ostensibly dedicated to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Universal Edition, his publisher. There is no small irony in the fact the song is full of musical symbolism representing Hanna Fuchs-Robettin – musical cells based on her initials, phrase lengths based on “her number” (Berg was very much into numerology and astrology: her number was 10, his was 23). And yet it's the same poem he had set to music and dedicated to his wife during their courtship!

The brief poem is ostensibly a funeral poem – closing the eyes of the deceased was the role of the grieving spouse or lover – and concludes with the lines, “As the last blow falls / you fill my whole heart.”

Though there is nothing extant to prove he wrote it for her or with her in mind, what is more significant – at least musically speaking – is that this song, or rather the serial “row” on which it's based, became a preliminary study for a six-movement work for string quartet he composed next, his “Lyric Suite.”

This work was dedicated to his friend Alexander von Zemlinsky, the composer of the “Lyric Symphony” from which Berg took a musical quote and incorporated into his string quartet. Incidentally, the music is associated with the words, “You are my own.” There is also a musical quotation from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde – from the “Love Potion” Music – which, in case anybody's forgotten, aside from being one of the most pivotal works of the mid-19th Century and considered the seed from which atonality and serialism grew, was also a story about a man in love with another man's wife.

Though Berg himself wrote about the technical aspects of the suite for the general public, he gave Hanna her own private copy of the score in which he marked certain things in different colored inks that unfolded an involved secret program:

- - - - - - -
It has also, my Hanna, allowed me other freedoms! For example, that of secretly inserting our initials, HF and AB, into the music, and relating every movement and every section of every movement to our numbers, 10 and 23. I have written these, and much that has other meanings, into the score for you. ...May it be a small monument to a great love.
- - - - - - -

The score is marked “for whom and only for whom – in spite of the official dedication... every note of this work was written.” Berg combines her initials H.F. (translated into German musical notation as B.F. - the same way Bach's name becomes B-flat – A – C – B-natural) with his A.B. (which becomes A – B-flat) to form a melodic germinal motive of four pitches that generates most of the material on which the piece is based.

He also points out various uses of their “secret numbers,” 10 and 23, which pervade many proportional relationships within the entire piece: the way he changes tempo from one to the next is usually through some multiple of either number or how a section where the tempo is ♩ = 100 lasts for 69 bars (the tempo is her number x 10, the length is his number x 3).

He described the movement entitled Andante amoroso as “the most beautiful music I have ever written” and in a letter before the work was performed, told her,

- - - - - - -
“Even an unsuspecting listener will feel, I believe, something of the loveliness that hovered before me, and that still does, when I think of you, dearest.”
- - - - - - -

Most surprisingly was the inclusion of a secret song embedded in the string parts. In their private score, Berg highlights the notes of the “implied” vocal line and superimposes the words of Baudelaire's “De profundis clamavi” (Out of the depths I cry), a private message shared only between the composer and the work's secret dedicatee.

Friends of Berg's had unknowingly described the suite as “a latent opera” or as having an “underlying inner programme” suggested by the literal quotations from Zemlinsky and Wagner, that the headings of each movement – like Adagio appasionato or Largo desolato – are “clearly the psychographic curve of a singularly powerful emotional experience.”

Little did they know!

In the summer of 1976, American musicologist Douglass Green – he taught a form and analysis class at Eastman which I took during the course of my doctoral studies there in 1973-74 – discovered a manuscript draft of the finale to the Lyric Suite in the Austrian National Library in Vienna. Over the notes were superimposed a cryptic shorthand text. Actually, another musicologist, Douglas Jarman, had already seen this but could make no sense out of it. Green succeeded in deciphering it, discovering it was Stefan George's translation of Baudelaire's “De profundis clamavi” which proved to be “nothing less than a libretto for the last act of what Theodor Adorno had called 'a latent opera.'”

Not long after that – January 24th, 1977 – George Perle discovered Berg's annotated copy of the score that put all these questions into focus and proved there was indeed a secret programme behind this intensely personal music.

Helene Berg who had played the part of the Grieving Widow since her husband's death in 1935 died at the age of 91 on August 30th, 1976, just before all this “unpleasantness” came to light.

And suddenly there is a different light, then, on the question why she suppressed the third act of Lulu and forbid anyone even to look at it in the years following her husband's death (see the second post in this series).

She knew the original manuscript score of the Lyric Suite was in the possession of Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, though she told one biographer it had been given to its official dedicatee, Alexander von Zemlinsky and was presumably in the hands of his heirs. When confronted with word from Zemlinsky's widow that they had never had the manuscript copy, Helene became greatly upset that it must have become lost. But at the time, it was already in her possession: she had her friend Alma Mahler prevail upon her sister-in-law to return it to her. But apparently Helene was unaware of the existence of the annotated score.

Curiously, it was this fabrication that led Perle to interview Zemlinsky's widow about the score. It's from her he discovered the real relationship of Alban Berg to Hanna Fuchs-Robettin which then led to the discovery of 14 of Berg's letters and the annotated score now in the possession of Hanna's daughter. Had this come out before, who knows what affect it may have had on Helene Berg?

(see right: Alban & Helene Berg motoring with Franz & Alma Mahler Werfel)

She also indicated that one of Alban's possessions was a gold fountain pen he liked very much and with which he composed all of Lulu as well as his next work, the Violin Concerto. It was, she wrote, “a gift from Franz Werfel.” What she didn't know or wasn't letting on she knew was the gift was actually from Hanna Fuchs-Robettin: Werfel was only the person who presented it to him, acting as his sister's agent.

Berg knew very well where this pen originated from. In one of his letters that Perle quotes, Berg writes to her, describing the difference between his 'play-acting' self, the exterior person, as opposed to his inner person:

- - - - - - -
“In the frame of this life everything takes place that a normal life brings with it: vexation and joy, ill-humor and gaiety, interst and indifrerence, business and pleasure, art and nature – But believe me, Hanna (and now I can finally address you properly: one and only eternal love), all this pertains only to this exterior person, the one I have been forced to present myself as to my fellow human beings, one whom you (thank God) have never known, and who (only in ordert o chacractersize him in some way) might for a time be fulfilled with the joys of motoring, but could never be able to compose Lulu. That I am, however, doing this may be proof to you that the other person (and now I can speak again in the first person), that I still exist! When I work and take hold of your pen, at that moment I am here, and am also with you, as I am with myself when I am with you in thought.”
- - - - - - -

That was written to Hanna in October, 1931. When he wrote down the final measures of Lulu three years later (though the ending may have been sketched long in advance of that event), the words he set for Countess Géschwitz to sing are

“Ich bin dir nah! Bleibe dir nah, in Ewigkeit!”
(I am near you. I remain near you, in eternity!)

The final chord progression consists of three chords – an A major triad over an F in the bass; an A minor triad over an F in the bass; and then an E-A-B over an F in the bass. These are all based on various “tropes” of the main 12-note 'set' from which most of the opera's musical material is derived. The first chord is derived from a trope associated with Dr. Schön, the second chord from one associated with his son, Alwa, and the third chord from one associated with the Countess.

These are the three characters who have been so tragically affected by their association with Lulu throughout the opera.

The first chord ends Act One, after Lulu has coerced Dr. Schön into renouncing his fiancé and marrying her instead. It is also the chord that opens Act Two, when Dr. Schön is now Lulu's husband.

The second chord ends Act Two, after Lulu has returned from prison and Alwa describes her body in musical terms in what is a markedly one-sided love duet. This is also the chord that opens Act Three, where Alwa has run off to Paris with Lulu to escape the Viennese police.

The third chord ends Act Three, in which the Countess has given up her peaceful existence in Vienna to be near Lulu in what is clearly an unrequited relationship in the midst of the squalor of her life in a London slum, dying not far from where Alwa's body lays, in the room next to where Lulu's body lay, murdered by the man who (according to Berg's stage directions) is to be sung by the same man who sang the role of Dr. Schön.

The final chord of the opera – the resolution of all three of these chords – has a B (or an H) in the upper voice and an F in the bass.

B – F, Berg's musical motive for Hanna Fuchs-Robettin.

While there are lots of B-F relationships in Wozzeck, written before he ever met Hanna Fuchs-Robettin – he thought it was prophetic that he met her in the course of traveling to hear performances of the opera – the specific use of the B-F idea is definitely not a coincidence in the Lyric Suite. And though it has less significance in Lulu, is there perhaps some secret going on beneath the surface of this over-heated tale about love and its tragic consequences?

Given Berg's intense analytical approach to his composing process and his preference for such musical symbolism, it is probably not a coincidence in Lulu. But here, it is less overt: since Berg identifies Alwa as a composer (introduced by the quote from Wozzeck), does he really see Hanna as Lulu? Not likely – it is the power of Lulu as a kind of Eternal Feminine, perhaps, that attracts Berg here more than the opportunity to write something that makes Lulu a “female Rake's Progress.”

There's no suggestion Hanna was ever involved in the death of any husband – in fact, after Berg's death and the later takeover of Prague by the Nazis, Fuchs-Robettin and his wife fled to America where he died in New York City in 1949, presumably of natural causes; Hanna died in 1964.

So far, I haven't seen Perle or anyone else come up with any convincing argument about Hanna and Lulu – at least, not to the extent of her involvement in the Lyric Suite.

Perle even proposes the theory that the Violin Concerto may have a secret program that is not associated with its outward dedication “to the memory of an Angel,” inspired as it was by the death in the spring of 1935 of Manon Gropius, the 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler.

He points out there are sketches to the Violin Concerto which include marginal configurations of various combinations of the numbers 10 and 23 – again relating to tempos, structure and phrasing of the music – but which nobody would have understood until the “secret score” of the Lyric Suite came to light in 1976 and realized the significance of those numbers. Was the relationship between Hanna Fuchs-Robettin and the composer really behind the Violin Concerto as well?

Perle mentions his idea – that Berg wrote it as a Requiem for himself – which seems only to be conjecture but one based plausibly on the other “secret programs” Berg incorporated into the music of the last ten years of his life.

But Berg wasn't ill when he wrote the concerto – though his health was never robust, between asthma and allergies, that came almost immediately after he completed the concerto. There is a story that Berg, a notoriously slow and pains-taking composer, was working so hard on this concerto, Helene had begged him to slow down and he responded “I cannot – I don't have time.”

One thing is easy to see – at the risk of seeing Hanna in every statement of the notes B and F – is that the row Berg chose for the concerto ends with four notes of a whole-tone scale which also, fortuitously or not, are the opening notes of the chorale “Es ist genug,” a very unusual melodic pattern for the 18th Century when that interval, F to B-natural, the tritone (“three whole-tones”) was a.k.a. “The Devil in Music.”

Which came first, Hanna or the chorale?

As Berg uses the chorale tune, even quoting Bach's harmonization of it at one point, he also quotes a Carinthian dance-tune. (You can hear it here, at the beginning of this clip, played by Louis Krasner who commissioned the concerto and premiered it in 1936 with Anton Webern scheduled to conduct!) It's interesting to point out that Berg's country home, which he called Waldhaus (“Woods House”), was on the Worthersee (Lake Worth) in the Austrian province of Carinthia and on the opposite shore of this lake is the town of Portschach where Brahms, who said the melodies abounded there so much one had to be careful not to step on them, wrote his 2nd Symphony and his own Violin Concerto almost sixty summers earlier.

But it wasn't until 1982 that scholar Douglas Jarman identified the dance tune that Berg quoted – and it had a decidedly vulgar and totally inappropriate text given the context of the concerto. It was about sleeping with a girl named Mizzi who is Catholic (the narrator of the song is Protestant) but who will no doubt put away the rosary in bed.

Okay... given Berg's predilection for quotes obvious and otherwise, is it likely he chose this tune just because it was a nice tune (which it is)? What about the coincidence of the girl's name Mizzi to the nickname given to Manon Gropius – Muzzi?

Is Berg so juvenile he would actually include something like this as a smarmy innuendo that, he figured, no one would “get”? Is it meant as an aspersion on Manon's character? A hint that Berg himself would have liked to... well, let's not go there...

Or is there another meaning? Mizzi is also a nickname for any girl named Marie. As Perle points out, in the opera Wozzeck, Marie had an illegitimate child by Wozzeck (with whom Berg identified himself, following his unfortunate experiences in the Austrian military during World War I). And when Berg was 17, he fathered a daughter with one of the household servants, Marie Schuechl, a daughter he acknowledged but of whom neither he nor Helene openly mentioned.

Perle also says there is a 23-page letter Berg wrote to Hanna during the last year of his life – don't you love it? even the letter reflects “his number” – that he was not allowed to see. If Berg confided in Hanna about the program for the Lyric Suite and had written to her how writing Lulu with the pen she'd given him (wouldn't Freud have a field-day with that symbolism?) made him feel closer to her, couldn't he have done the same thing, telling her about what's going on behind the public veneer of the Violin Concerto?

The composer may have thought, “they will never know.” And perhaps it would be better that way.

Are things like this “insights”... or gossip?

Probably both, since they affect the lives and minds of the creative artist and have some bearing, however tangential, on the works they create.

(For another example of something very personal possibly reflected in a musical quotation, read my post from last summer about Arnold Schoenberg and his 2nd String Quartet.)

I'm reminded, now, of a comment I'd heard when I was a student – perhaps in Douglass Green's class at Eastman, before he uncovered the key that eventually unlocked all this mess about the Lyric Suite – that Helene Berg, usually viewed in a nasty light by fans of her husband's music, especially of Lulu, suppressed the last act of the opera “because of that woman.”

I'm not sure this was a quote from Mrs. Berg's letters or the opinion of whoever said this, but the implication was Helene Berg didn't like Lulu because she was this unprincipled, immoral creature – Wedekind even introduces her as a snake (the symbol of evil and biblical temptation) in the circus-like prologue (and it just occurred to me that, while her name is Lulu, only Schigolch calls her that: the Painter calls her Eva).

In her letter to Alma Mahler written after the premiere of the first two acts of Lulu, Mrs. Berg admits her opposition to the Wedekind plays as the source of a libretto, but after hearing the music, she changed her mind and called upon her publishers to immediately bring out what music her husband had completed of the opera before he too became one of Lulu's victims.

But perhaps "that woman" was not Lulu but Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, whose greater involvement in her husband's life she was just beginning to comprehend? And she chose not to allow her to have the last word in her husband's musical after-life?

There are letters to Alma Mahler that refer obliquely to Hanna, always mentioned in the third person or collectively as “those people in Prague” which doesn't always imply anything more than she didn't like them (a different economic class who wouldn't understand the financial burdens placed on Berg's preferred life-style when the ban on his music in Germany reduced his income considerably) but that would be naïve.

Two months after Berg's death, she wrote to Alma, discussing how people thought she never left him alone, always traveling with him, going to concerts and dinners with him and so on, that

- - - - - - -
“...there remains but one explanation: Alban invented an excuse to keep his poetic passion within those boundaries which he himself desired. He himself constructed obstacles and thereby created the romanticism which he required. Perhaps it was also unconscious caution: he didn't want too close an association with this woman, as he imagined her in the unheard-of florescence of his artist's fantasy, for fear of disappointment (for Alban was spoiled, mentally and physically). He avoided her... It all comes to a flight from reality. In this way and only in this way could the Lyric Suite have come to be. I must therefore acknowledge the sense of all that has happened – and remain silent. And therefore I can also say that there is no bitterness in me, only emotion and melancholy. And nothing, nothing can dim my love for him. Some day I will stand with her before God.”
(Perle, quoted in The Operas of Alban Berg: Lulu, p.28-29.)
- - - - - - - -

In a way, I feel sorry for Helene Berg who worked hard and gave her life to make her husband's life comfortable enough to allow him to spend his time composing. All these years, I had viewed her as an impediment to my being able to enjoy the Third Act of Lulu without really understanding what it must have meant to her, whether I agree with her decision or not. Both she and her husband worked very hard to maintain the public image of the happily married couple: was his relationship with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin a fantasy image, creating a muse who would inspire his “poetic passion”? I am reminded also of Leoš Janáček's late-in-life unrequited “affair” with Kamila Stösslová which inspired so much great music during the last phase of his career, writing the Sinfonietta at 72. Was this what Berg's passion for Hanna really was or what he wanted Helene to believe it was? Or was she saying this to give that impression to Alma Mahler, Hanna's sister-in-law?

Did Helene know that two of her closest friends – Alma and her husband – acted as go-betweens, carrying letters and gifts back and forth between Alban and Hanna? What did she think of them if she knew? or when she found out? And what did they think of her that they could do this to her behind her back?

Perhaps the messiness of Berg's life – whether real or imagined – spills over into the romanticism of his emotional approach to something seemingly so academic and theoretically intellectual as atonality and serialism. Or maybe he's too immature to fully balance his artistic genius against his inner teen-ager (Helene points out, in the letter quoted above that Berg was spoiled both mentally and physically). Isn't that one of the images we have of Mozart, the film Amadeus aside, the creative genius with the penchant for smutty jokes, the grossly immature behavior and inability to deal with daily reality?

And what of Helene? Unlike Alma who remarried quickly after Mahler's death (she was, in her own way, a serialist), Helene remained the Grieving Widow the rest of her life.

There are also rumors – or perhaps facts – I haven't seen written in any authoritative biography or article on Berg or the fate of Lulu though often encountered as anecdotes until they seem like facts.

In the decades before the First World War, astrology and spiritualism were a prominent part of life in Vienna with its “decadent fin-de-siecle” atmosphere as the Empire stagnated. Viennese writer Stefan Zweig wrote that “the air felt perfumed and unhealthy; a dishonest morality hung over us like a nightmare.”

We know Berg employed numerology – the magic numbers he associated with himself and Hanna – in his music (but then, in a different context, so did Bach). Would it be so surprising that the Bergs attended séances as part of their social life and that Helene Berg, distracted in her mourning by issues about posthumous premieres and an unfinished opera, may have used séances to communicate with her late husband?

She never actually stated, so far as I know, that Alban told her not to release the third act of Lulu, but this story told by Leonard Bernstein has become quite popular:

As a young man, Bernstein met Mrs. Berg and was shown the house (presumably Waldhaus?) which had been maintained like something more than a museum. The clocks had been stopped at the time of his death, his shirts were displayed in a glass case and taken out to be washed every month and the death mask was prominently displayed.

Bernstein asked Mrs. Berg if she would consider him for the task of completing Lulu. She said she would have to ask Alban. A little while later, she contacted him, telling him “Alban said no.”

When I was looking for it on-line, I found this: Bernstein had told this story to Frank Corsaro, a brilliant theater and opera director, who turned it into a play who then collaborated with Thomas Pasatieri to create an opera based on the story of Helene Berg. They called it Frau Margot in which a student who had once been the late composer's mistress enters the household of the grieving widow to become her companion. It was possibly a way for both of them to work their way through the mourning process. There is even a young composer who tries to navigate the intricacies of the human mind in order to claim the prize: completing the dead master's unfinished opera.

So, then, Helene Berg has become “an interesting opera.”

How accurate an image of her this would be, I don't know: in the world of those who create art, art very often marks a fine line between what they create and the reality they create it in.

Does this reality or escape from it have any bearing on the art they have left behind for us to ponder and enjoy?

For some people, yes and for others, no.

I can certainly listen to the Lyric Suite, an abstract work, and not be distracted by the underlying reality – supposed or otherwise – of its origins. Or I can listen to it, marveling how he managed to hide this or that in music that is emotionally involving but which can also be vague enough to make one wonder if you're imagining it, really.

It might be more difficult with a work that specifically tells a story. Berg manages to imbue his operas with a great deal of technical brilliance – using a tone-row as a basis for the work, but creating variants (or 'tropes') of it to shape the music we hear for each of the characters: Lulu is a person who affects all the characters but she is also the musical source-set from which they all emerge. He uses old forms – given everything else, the opera is still essentially an old-fashioned “numbers opera” that is held together seamlessly by its innate inner structures. And yet there is Berg as Alwa, there is a reflection of Hanna behind Lulu (of course, except that Wedekind wrote it that way, shouldn't it be Alwa singing those last lines and not the Countess?) – how much more autobiographical information is there in the opera?

One can read too much; one does not need to read anything at all.

Berg was ever the play-actor, as he himself confessed to Hanna in one letter:

- - - - - - -
“... only still shadowed by a grief which since that time [when we first met] rules me more and more; and which, for a long time now, has made me into a double or, better said, a play-acting person. For you must know: everything that you may hear of me and perhaps even read about me, pertains, insofar as it is not completely false – as, for example, this, which I read today by chance in a Zurich programme: 'A completely happy domesticity, with which his wife has surrounded him, allows him to create without disturbance' – pertains to what is only peripheral. But it pertains only to a person who constitutes only a completely exterior layer of myself, to a part of me which in the course of recent years has separated itself... from my real existence and has formed a detached being, the one I seem [to be] to my surroundings and to the world.”
(quoted in Perle, The Operas of Alban Berg: Lulu, p.25-26.)
- - - - - - -

In the letter his widow wrote to Alma Mahler after the premiere of Lulu's torso in 1937, quoted above, she had said,

- - - - - - -
“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.”
- - - - - - -

Or maybe not.

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),

- - - - - - -
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)
- - - - - - -

In addition to this response to the opera, she also had written to Berg's publisher shortly after the premiere:

- - - - - - -
“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)
- - - - - - -

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.

- - - - - - -
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.”
- - - - - - -

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.”

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

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...

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Alban Berg's Lulu: Up Close but Not Too Personal (Part 1)

It was some time in the late-60s when I first met Lulu, not to be confused with a cartoon character of the same name: ironically, they both date basically from the same year – 1935.

Berg died that year, leaving his operatic compilation of two of Frank Wedekind's plays incomplete. Other than the fact that, at one point, the old man Schigolch who may or may not be her father refers to her as “meine kleine Lulu,” the opera and the cartoon character who first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1935 have nothing more in common.

I was a college freshman when I found the then newly released Angel recording featuring Anneliese Rothenberger dressed up as Lulu in a dance-hall costume with lots of feathers and black silk stockings revealing a good bit of thigh stretched out on a divan, the object of attentions from a young man holding her one hand and kissing the other (which would be nothing compared to this poster or this one, today...). This 2005 CD-reissue features Lulu-as-Pierrot on the cover, instead. 

It was not the prurience of the cover or its implied story that drew me to buy this recording. I already knew Berg's earlier opera, Wozzeck, and was quite familiar with Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, having bought the recording when I was in 8th or 9th grade.

(That purchase had been a toss-up between the unknown quantity of Hans Rosbaud's recording of Moses or the legendary quality of Kirsten Flagstad's Tristan und Isolde. Both were the same price, on sale at $14.95 and I had $15 burning a hole in my pocket for my record budget that trip to Philadelphia. A friend of mine and I rode the train back to his place, looking through the booklet with its diagrams and 'magic squares' of serial row forms and all that, when we decided the first thing to listen to would have to be the Golden Calf Scene – an “orgy” complete with “Four Naked Virgins.” At the conclusion of this scene (which took up a whole side of an LP), my first response after a silent pause was “I paid $14.95 for this?” However, by the time I was a senior in high school and had done a special report in my music class on Schoenberg's opera to twit my music teacher who would've preferred Don Giovanni or Aida, I was probably one of few high school students in the country who could pretty much hum their way through Schoenberg's opera.)

So here was another incomplete opera by a student of Schoenberg's. If Moses was the sacred side of the equation, Wozzeck and Lulu certainly were the profane side. Initially, I had always preferred Berg's more passionately emotional approach to his music over that of his teacher and certainly over the intellectual rigors of his fellow student, Anton Webern. But I didn't know much of their music, then: I just found Berg “easier to absorb on first hearing” than either Schoenberg or Webern.

I have since managed to see two different live productions of Moses und Aron in New York City a total of three times, one time splurging on buying the full score at the late and lamented Patelson Music House, which I called the Best Little Score House in New York. I have seen one production of Lulu twice at the Metropolitan Opera House when it was first staged there in 1977.

That was the year after the composer's widow Helene had died – as most fans of Berg's music would probably add, “finally” – at the age of 91. But there would not have been time to bring out the long-repressed “unfinished” third act of the opera in time for the Met's new production. In fact, it wasn't until 1979 that the opera was finally presented in its entirety.

Considering I was as fond of the opera as I was, I was looking forward to the television broadcast on “Live from the Met,” the broadcast premiere of the complete opera in 1980. As luck would have it, our local PBS affiliate in my hometown opted not to carry the broadcast – the explanation I was given when I wrote to complain: inappropriate for fund-raising. Whenever it was scheduled for radio broadcast – rarely, as it happened – I was always unable to hear it.

Even at the the most recent outing of the opera, I could only manage to catch the very last part of the Third Act which I'd already heard, anyway. This part was usually tacked on to the two-act versions anyway, pieced together from the excerpt Berg had included in his “Lulu Suite” in an attempt to give the story some sense of completion. But this time, there was a technical problem that cut the broadcast off mid-scream (when Countess Géschwitz is stabbed by Jack the Ripper) so we could catch the last fifteen minutes of “All Things Considered” before it was time for Garrison Keillor's “Prairie Home Companion” – a problem with the computer prematurely switching channels, not a manual error – not that that many listeners were upset by this, though even years later I continue to hear about it from some who were.

In the late-90's then, I bought a reissue of the complete three-act version of the opera recorded after its world premiere production in Paris, 1979, with Teresa Stratas in the title role and Pierre Boulez conducting. But yet, more than a decade later, I still hadn't listened to it. Somewhere along the line, my interest in it lost its momentum, for some reason.

Let's face it: the story may not be suitable for children and may be a challenge for an “opera novice.” In the first scene, while Lulu is being chased around the living room by the painter who's doing her portrait as Pierrot, her husband, an older “medical specialist,” walks in on them and immediately has a heart attack and dies (this dramatic moment never fails to elicit a few chuckles from the audience). She then marries the painter who, in the second scene after he discovers from her benefactor (read “sugar daddy”), Dr. Schön, that she has had quite a number of affairs in her past life, commits suicide. She then coerces her benefactor, Dr. Schön, into marrying her. In the first scene of Act II, after he discovers his son Alwa (not to mention an acrobat, a school boy and Countess Géschwitz as well) has just made a pass at her, Dr. Schön hands Lulu a pistol, ordering her to kill herself. She shoots him.

A musical interlude between the two scenes of Act Two accompanies a film sequence, in Berg's original conception. Lulu is taken off to prison where she contracts cholera. Now, with the help of the acrobat, Alwa and the Countess who infects herself with cholera, gradually transforming herself into Lulu, she is then able to escape from the prison hospital disguised as the Countess. As the live action resumes, she returns to Dr. Schön's home. Alwa continues to profess his love for her: what has the potential to become a heated love duet stops dead in its tracks when Alwa leads her over to the sofa where she sings the immortal line, “Is this not the sofa on which your father bled to death?” This ends the second act.

The third act, we were led to believe, was unfinished. But we know that Lulu and Alwa, joined by old Schigolch, the man who may or may not be her father, run off to Paris where a variety of misadventures has them escaping just one step ahead of the police. They go to London. Without money or resources, they rent a beggar's garret while Lulu, once the beautiful cabaret dancer, now works the streets as a common prostitute.

Since Berg figured it would be difficult for the opera to find any performance outlets in Nazi-controlled Germany or in Austria, he constructed a suite from the opera which included a large stretch from the ending of the third act. Over this music, a summary of much of the action had been superimposed in a kind of pantomime: this was the solution for its premiere in 1937 and has usually been followed in every production or recording since then – at least until the Third Act became available.

Countess Géschwitz arrives, bringing with her the portrait from Act One of Lulu as Pierrot. Lulu has three 'clients' who are supposed to be sung by the same characters who were her husbands earlier in the opera: a silent, embarrassed professor (by the old “medical specialist”), an African Prince (by the painter) who kills Alwa, and a down-on-his-luck guy who happens to be named Jack the Ripper (by Dr. Schön) who then kills her and stabs the Countess on his way out. It is the Countess who sings the final line, professing endless love for Lulu as she dies – “I'm near you, I'll always be near you, in eternity.”

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

In 1910, Arnold Schoenberg painted this portrait (see right) of his student, Alban Berg. They were to remain close friends even after Schoenberg left Nazi Germany for the United States. Berg dedicated his as yet unfinished opera Lulu to his former teacher as a 60th Birthday present.

George Perle, an American composer and theorist who became an expert on the music of Alban Berg, published a two-volume work on “The Operas of Alban Berg.” You can preview “Volume One: Wozzeckhere and preview “Volume Two: Luluhere.

About six years ago, browsing through the music section of a local used book store, The Midtown Scholar, I found a copy of George Perle's volume on Lulu, published in 1985, nearly 300 pages of in-depth musical, dramatic, structural and historical analysis of the work. In it, he explains the development of the opera's concept, the transformation of Wedekind's two plays, “Earth Spirit” and “Pandora's Box,” into a single libretto, the different ways Berg adapts his teacher's serial concepts to portray his different characters and the interrelationships between the characters, the dramatic action and the music throughout the course of the whole opera.

Finally listening to my CD of the Paris production on DG after reading most of Perle's analysis – which I find fascinating and very important to my appreciating the work as a composer – I'm reminded that most of this is immaterial to a music-lover who just wants to follow the story and enjoy the music. Though it may look (and sound, to the uninitiated ear preferring Verdi or Wagner) like a very complicated work, the score's complexity is a natural part of the dramatic expression of the story – despite its ability to provide hundreds of pages of academic analysis, the music is still first and foremost music: nowhere does Berg create an abstract world for the edification only of those who can comprehend the rigors of technical constraints placed on it by the serial system. In many respects, it is no more dense than Wagner's Tristan or Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier but since most of us are more familiar with those styles, this density may become off-putting.

Listening to it for what it is and not what it isn't will help both to the listener and to the composer.

For this post, my primary interest is the story behind the long wait from the time of Berg's death on Christmas Eve, 1935, to the first performance of the complete opera in 1979. Most of this material is taken from Perle's commentary on the events and correspondence – he was also directly involved in the quest to bring the third act out into the open.

When the vocal score for the first two acts was published and the opera premiered as a “torso” not long after Berg died, it was announced that the composer had in fact finished composing the music: what had to be completed was orchestrating it, transferring it from what is called the “short score” (or reduced score) to the final “full score.” The third act's vocal score was already being prepared and, the publishers announced, would be made available soon at a later date.

But two people were involved in the delay of this realization, directly or indirectly.

The first was Adolf Hitler.

The second was the composer's widow, Helene Berg.

As the Nazis gained control of Germany and then Austria, Berg was one of many composers whose music was “forbidden.” If Wozzeck, the story of a down-trodden nobody (or, depending on your point-of-view, a proletarian Everyman) had been banned after a decade of success – it gave Berg a comfortable enough living – there was little likelihood they would see any redeeming quality in his latest opera.

Though he'd been familiar with Wedekind's two plays since 1905, it wasn't until 1928 that he began sketching a libretto, combining them into a single work. At the end of the summer the following year, the music itself began taking shape.

During the summer of 1932, he had hoped to have the opera finished but in addition to some annoying dental issues, a throat infection and the stress of his wife caring for her schizophrenic brother, Berg was stung by 20 to 30 wasps on his head, neck, arms and legs “that laid me out for a week.” Unable to find the quiet time he needed to compose, there was no way he could finish the opera for its projected October premiere.

Letters from the spring of 1934 indicated that Berg had finally finished the opera except for “some things that are only hastily sketched in, to be worked out later.” It would take him maybe two or three weeks to go through and retouch some things here and there before starting on the orchestration. The plan, now, was for a premiere during the 1934-35 Season.

Then came a letter from Berlin saying that a production in Germany of Lulu was out of the question. So in order to familiarize a potential audience with music from the opera, Berg crafted a five-movement orchestral suite with a soprano soloist which was premiered in Berlin in late November. Despite whatever the government's attitude may have been about his music, the concert was sold-out and the response enthusiastic. Only the government-controlled newspaper was negative.

Meanwhile, Berg continued working on the orchestration of the rest of the opera. But then early the following year, Louis Krasner, an American violinist, commissioned him to write a violin concerto for him. This didn't actually begin to take shape until after April 22nd, 1935, when Manon Gropius died. She was the 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler, one of the Bergs' oldest friends (after Mahler's death in 1911, she married the architect Walter Gropius and after they divorced in 1920, she married the author Franz Werfel). The Violin Concerto was dedicated "to the memory of an angel” and was completed fairly quickly that summer: the “short score” in mid-July; the full score on August 11th.

Not long after that, Berg was stung again, this time on the lower end of the backbone, which developed into a painful abscess. This led to a further problem with boils that continued bothering him even into the end of November, forcing him to miss performances of the Lulu Suite as it made its way around non-German Europe – Prague, Geneva, Brussels, London and again in Prague. On December 11th, he managed to attend the first Viennese performance of the Suite but six days later, he went into the hospital where they discovered the possibility of an abscess in the region of the kidneys. He was given a blood transfusion (he joked about it, wondering would it change his compositional style if the source of the blood had been a composer of operettas). On December 22nd, his wife Helene wrote to Alma Mahler that “he is very weak and being given whatever drugs are needed to strengthen his heart. In spite of everything, his mind is clear...” But he died a few days later in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve, eight weeks short of his 51st birthday.

So basically, after he finished the Violin Concerto, he never had a chance to find the concentration needed to complete scoring the opera.

Both works were given posthumous premieres the following years – the Violin Concerto in Barcelona (April, 1936) and Lulu (or at least the first two completed acts) in Zurich (June, 1937).

Given that no German or Austrian opera house would dare produce the opera – despite the enthusiastic response the Suite had received in Berlin in 1934, fifteen minutes of cheering, stamping ovation by a packed house – the publisher stopped production of the third act's vocal score after some seventy pages had already been prepared.

It was becoming unfeasible to move forward with plans to complete the opera: Arnold Schoenberg, having been forced to leave Germany as the Nazis gained more power – and in the process, he reconverted to his Jewish faith – offered Berg's widow his services, gratis, in completing his former student's work, even though he was now in America, barely able to make ends meet on his own and had his own unfinished opera – Moses – to worry about.

Eventually, he decided he would be unable to do this, though not because of any compositional qualms (there was very little composing that needed to be done, only scoring the completed sketch for orchestra). According to the correspondence, there were anti-Semitic directions about one of the characters in the first scene of Act Three, the banker, which bothered Schoenberg and he felt he would be unable to participate in the project.

Perle points out that others felt though the character was Jewish and perhaps stereotypically over-drawn, the commentary from the other characters – who will do business with him, accept his social invitations, eat his food and enjoy his company until things go wrong and, through no fault of his own, their money is endangered – imply the real issue here is anti-Aryan, a sort of fair-weather acceptance until some excuse needs to be found and they can then blame it on his being a Jew. Regardless, Schoenberg declined.

As did Berg's fellow-student, Anton Webern, though this would seem a bit of a stretch considering the hyper-romanticism of Berg's emotional style compared to Webern's more abstract, intellectual style that was far more austere in its instrumental approach. (There is an old joke that the three composers of the Second Viennese School - Schoenberg and his two star pupils, Berg and Webern - were described as the Father, Son & Holy Ghost...)

Other names were suggested and they, for their own reasons, declined.

The war and then its aftermath, rebuilding Europe in its wake, put a lot more than Berg's opera on hold. The opera was not heard again until 1949 first with a concert performance and then a staged production, both in Vienna. The German premiere took place only in 1953, but still nothing had been done about the third act.

Then a very strange thing happened.

To be continued...