Swan song with scissors

Bard Music Festival illuminates “Berg and His World” with concerts & lectures this weekend

by Frances Marion Platt
August 12, 2010 11:12 AM | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Alban Berg next to his portrait painted by Arnold Schoenberg, 1920, getty images
Alban Berg next to his portrait painted by Arnold Schoenberg, 1920, getty images
Alban Berg’s musical reputation rests largely on the worldwide popularity of Wozzeck and Lulu, which are regarded as instrumental to the evolution of opera in the 20th century to embrace Modernist musical principles. So it is perhaps appropriate that Berg’s life could itself have inspired a storyline for an opera, full of Sturm und Drang.

Born in 1885 to a bourgeois Viennese family, young Alban lost his father at the age of 15, by 17 had impregnated the family housemaid and at 19 was taken under the formidable wing of Arnold Schoenberg to pursue a serious musical education. Thus was he drawn into a heady circle of intellectuals who included composer/musicians Anton Webern, Alexander von Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker, painter Gustav Klimt, satirist Karl Kraus, poet Peter Altenberg and architects Adolf Loos and Walter Gropius, along with the latter’s wife, Gustav Mahler’s widow Alma – a gifted composer in her own right, especially of lieder. (It was the death of Gropius and Alma’s young daughter Manon that inspired Berg’s best-loved work, his Violin Concerto.) And of course, everybody who was anybody in turn-of-the-century Vienna knew and was influenced by Sigmund Freud.

Berg wooed and won the hand of a wealthy woman whose family disapproved of the disadvantageous match; his bride, singer Helene Nahowski, was reputed to be the illegitimate daughter of Emperor Franz Joseph. But the fairytale couple did not go on to live happily ever after; by the 1920s Berg was inserting coded messages about various extramarital affairs into his compositions. It’s possible that his elaborately constructed ciphers did not entirely succeed in hiding the knowledge of these liaisons from his wife. In 1935, when he was 50, she lanced a boil from an infected insect sting on Berg’s back with a pair of scissors – ostensibly to save money on doctors, since Nazi blacklisting of Modernist music had by then reduced the couple to poverty. He developed sepsis, and by the time he was taken to a hospital, it was too late to save the composer. After his demise, she refused to allow anyone to complete the orchestration of the third act of Lulu based on his notations; the full opera was not premiered until 1979, after Helene’s own death. You know what they say about payback.

That’s not to mention all the other dramatic scenes in Berg’s short life: his service in the Austrian Army in World War I, for instance, or the riot that broke out at his first big public premiere in 1913, with Schoenberg conducting. But however gossipworthy his brief existence may have been, what matters now is the fact that of all the Modernists of the Second Viennese School, Alban Berg is the one whose music still gets played regularly. His genius was the ability to meld Schoenberg’s not-very-accessible 12-tone techniques with the Late Romantic sensibilities of his Viennese forebears Mahler and Strauss, thereby producing music that still speaks to the heart while engaging the intellect.

This weekend and next, the 21st annual Bard Music Festival pays tribute to “Berg and His World,” with “Berg and Vienna” the focus of Weekend One. It gets underway this Friday, August 13 at 7:30 p.m. with a preconcert talk by Festival co-artistic director Leon Botstein titled “Alban Berg: The Path of Expressive Intensity,” followed at 8 p.m. by a chamber program tracing Berg’s stylistic development from early works like the Seven Early Songs (1905-08) to the maturity of his Lyric Suite (1925-26). Performers will include the Daedalus Quartet; Jeremy Denk, piano; Danny Driver, piano; Alexander Fiterstein, clarinet; Christine Goerke, soprano; Pei-Yao Wang, piano; and the Bard Festival Chamber Players. It takes place in the Fisher Center’s Sosnoff Theater on the Bard College campus in Annandale; tickets to the first night’s events cost $20, $35 and $45.

Offerings on Saturday, August 14 kick off with a free panel discussion from 10 a.m. to 12 noon in Olin Hall titled “Berg: His Life and Career.” Christopher H. Gibbs is the moderator, and panelists include Christopher Hailey, Douglas Jarman and Dan Morgenstern. The second musical program, “The Vienna of Berg’s Youth,” follows in Olin Hall with a preconcert talk with Mark DeVoto at 1 p.m. and a performance at 1:30 by Alessio Bax, piano; the Daedalus Quartet; Pei-Yao Wang, piano; and Nicholas Phan, tenor.Tickets are $35.

Program Three, “Mahler and Beyond” begins Saturday evening with the usual preconcert talk at 7 p.m., this time by Christopher H. Gibbs, and continues with an 8 p.m. performance featuring Christiane Libor, soprano; Akiko Suwanai, violin; and the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein. The program will include Berg’s suite of early songs based on poems by Peter Altenberg that incited the abovementioned riot. These offerings take place in the Sosnoff Theater, with tickets priced at $25, $40 and $55.

Sunday morning’s program in Olin Hall, “Eros and Thanatos,” starts at 10 a.m. and examines the conflicting drives that Freud identified as governing human nature. There will be commentary by Byron Adams and a performance by Marnie Breckenridge, soprano; Fredrika Brillembourg, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Phan, tenor; Thomas Meglioranza, baritone; Lucille Chung and Pei-Yao Wang, piano; and the Daedalus Quartet. Tickets are $30.

Program Five, “Teachers and Apostles,” which follows in Olin Hall, includes compositions by Berg and Schoenberg’s students, among them the eminent philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno. The preconcert talk by Sherry D. Lee begins at 1 p.m.; the 1:30 p.m. performance features Alessio Bax, piano; Marnie Breckenridge, soprano; Lucille Chung, piano; Cygnus Ensemble; the Daedalus Quartet; Danny Driver, piano; and Soovin Kim, violin. Tickets are $35.

“The Orchestra Reimagined” – the weekend’s final program, on Sunday in the Sosnoff Theater – features Berg’s Kammerkonzert of 1923-25, his first work to use a tone row, alongside similarly pared-down orchestral works by Schoenberg, Busoni and Hindemith. Antony Beaumont delivers the 5 p.m. preconcert talk, and the 5:30 concert features Jeremy Denk, piano; Soovin Kim, violin; and members of the American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein. Admission is $20, $35 and $45.

Tickets and further information about all Bard Music Festival events – including Weekend Two of “Berg and His World,” takes place at Bard on August 20 through 22 – can be obtained by visiting the website at, e-mailing or phoning (845) 758-7900.

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