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...

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