You've successfully subscribed to American Purpose
Great! Next, complete checkout for full access to American Purpose
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
Success! Your account is fully activated, you now have access to all content.
Success! Your newsletter subscriptions is updated.
Newsletter subscriptions update failed.
Success! Your billing info is updated.
Billing info update failed.
Opera for a Broken World

Opera for a Broken World

Alban Berg’s atonal harmonies heralded a world grasping for modernity, write Bryan Simms and Charlotte Erwin in their recent biography.

Paul Kroeger
by Bryan Simms and Charlotte Erwin (Oxford University Press, 528 pp., $55)

Fin de siècle Vienna was a dynamic place for a young composer. As the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and third-largest city in Europe, Vienna had the wealth and population to support a vibrant cultural scene. For young Alban Berg, the city’s sophisticated audiences and innovative environment pushed the budding composer to break free of the tonal restraints that characterized the Romanticism of Brahms and Dvořák. It was a break further cemented by the devastation of World War I, and Berg’s resentment of his conscripted service, which would come to influence his dark operas Wozzeck and Lulu.

The city serves as the backdrop for Berg, a biography of the avant-garde Austrian composer by Bryan Simms and Charlotte Erwin. Relying on extensive archival research, Simms and Erwin examine Berg’s short but impactful life and provide insightful analysis of his compositions. While the more granular musical analysis may be difficult for some readers to parse, the authors explain the main concepts in broader terms accessible to a wider audience.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Berg was a product of the Viennese upper-middle class. His father, Conrad Berg, ran the Vienna branch of a successful import-export business based in New York City. Berg’s oldest brother followed in his father’s footsteps, emigrating to America, acquiring American citizenship, and importing some of the first teddy bears into the United States. Profits from the business enabled the Bergs to acquire a large country home in present-day Slovenia that they called Berghof, a property that played an important role in Berg’s career and legacy.

The family’s fortunes turned with the death of Conrad Berg in 1900, when Alban was just fifteen years old. With the loss of Conrad’s income, the Bergs struggled to maintain a semblance of the lifestyle to which they had grown accustomed. Unsurprisingly, Conrad’s death also had a significant emotional impact on young Alban, as Simms and Erwin document through school records and letters to friends. Berg’s grades plummeted and by 1902 he dropped out of school. Responding to pressure from his mother, he eventually passed an accounting exam and briefly and unenthusiastically held a job as a clerk.

It was during this period that Berg began his musical studies with Arnold Schönberg, a radical musical figure and proponent of atonal compositional technique. Until the 20th century, Western harmonic language followed strict traditional rules. Compositions had a tonal center and other notes in the composition moved according to rules in relation to that center. During the 19th century, Romantic composers experimented with increasingly complex harmonic structures, yet remained essentially tonal. While Schönberg did not single-handedly invent atonality, he has become the composer most closely associated with major atonal innovations including twelve-tone technique, which eschews the functional harmonies of the past in favor of utilizing all twelve notes of the western octave equally in a defined sequence.

The upper-middle class of fin de siècle Vienna valued the arts as both a status symbol and an expression of nationalist German culture. Industrialization and rising incomes democratized music. Mass production of pianos and other musical instruments made them attainable for middle-class families throughout German-speaking lands. Viennese also regularly attended performances. Schönberg marveled at the ability of amateur late-19th-century Viennese “to retain a melody—even one by Brahms—after only one hearing . . . [and] listen once to a canon and know how many voices it had, about its structure, plan, and other such facts.” The Viennese audience was therefore uniquely open to complex and experimental compositions.

It was in this heady atmosphere that Berg began his lifelong relationship with Schönberg, whom the authors suggest may have served as a surrogate father figure for him. (The relationship was not always happy; though Schönberg was undoubtedly a major intellectual and personal influence on Berg, he could be cruel and demeaning to him.) Schönberg, Berg, and others in their circle—which came to be called the Second Viennese School—saw their work as a natural evolution of music theory. Tonal harmony and musical forms became increasingly complex over time, culminating in Wagner’s epic experimental harmonies.

Berg required quiet isolation to compose. Throughout his life, he retreated to Berghof to write music in the summers. His compositional genius lay in the ability to bridge the gap between the tone rows of Schönberg and the sentimentality of late-Romanticism through ingenious quasi-tonal groupings of notes. For readers with an understanding of music theory, these musical examples illuminate the evolution of Berg’s musical language and theoretical innovations.

While Berg’s compositions under Schönberg’s tutelage met with some success and positive reviews, his first opera, Wozzeck—a tale of a hapless low-ranking soldier who eventually kills his unfaithful wife in a jealous rage—earned him international recognition and some measure of wealth. In Wozzeck, Berg displayed his interest in palindromic musical lines, symmetrical forms, and innovative “contrapuntal wedges,” but he also composed bel canto lines and some simple triadic harmony that hinted at a tonal center. In short, Berg combined old musical forms with new ones, to the delight of audiences throughout Europe and the United States.

With the success of Wozzeck, Berg began the laborious process of composing Lulu, an opera that he would work on for the last seven years of his life yet never finish. The opera is an adaptation of an existing play in which a depraved prostitute corrupts and causes the deaths of all those around her before being murdered herself.

For singers today, Wozzeck and Lulu are challenging operas. Berg’s characters often demand a wide vocal range as well as significant acting ability. Singers frequently break into half-spoken exclamation reminiscent of Richard Strauss’s Baron von Ochs and Valzacchi in Der Rosenkavalier. Indeed, Berg was directly inspired by Strauss’s compositions, and performers shift in and out of singing throughout his operas. Berg’s psychologically complex characters also require acting precision and emotional fortitude. As Lulu, a soprano must slowly deteriorate into utter corruption over the course of three technically challenging hours.

Mastering complex, technical roles is rewarding for the performer, though such complex, dark operas are not automatic crowd-pleasers. One of the great ironies of performing is that audiences often prefer simpler, more accessible pieces over complex, more technically challenging pieces into which the performer has invested more effort. In all but the biggest houses, each production of Lulu will be counterbalanced with at least one extended run of a crowd-pleasing musical.

When the Nazis rose to power in Germany, Berg’s embrace of atonality and his association with Schönberg and other Jewish musical figures tainted his compositions. Denounced by Nazi critics, Wozzeck productions were halted in Germany. Berg emphatically denied several times that he was Jewish in the vain hope that his works could be rehabilitated. Meanwhile, royalties were drying up. All of this forced Berg to concentrate on Lulu and sporadic commissions to pay the bills.

Berg was only fifty years old when he died in 1935. The authors speculate that he died from a medicine later linked to reduced white blood cell counts, weakening his immune system. Berg was notoriously sickly and concerned about his health, and by 1934 nearly half of the household budget was spent on medicines.

His widow, Helene, quickly asserted control over her husband’s legacy, frugally saving to turn Berghof into a foundation for Berg’s music and heavily editing his documents. When the Nazi party included Berg amongst the Jewish and avant-garde artists of the “Degenerate Art Exhibit” in 1937, Helene lobbied on his behalf.

Whereas Schönberg and Berg believed that their compositional styles were part of a linear evolution into modernity, it is more accurate to view their contributions as part of a larger cycle of musical development. The Second Viennese School was a reaction to the conservative Romanticism of Brahms and Dvořák. Postwar composers favored more abstract and depersonalized techniques at odds with Berg’s lingering Romanticism. By the 1970s, leading composers and critics in turn rejected postwar atonality as academic and tired. Composers such as Leonard Bernstein, Arvo Pärt, and Philip Glass returned confidently to tonality. In time, Berg’s compositions entered the standard repertoire. Wozzeck and Lulu continue to be performed worldwide alongside several of Berg’s orchestral compositions.

Berg possessed a masterful understanding of both the tonal past and the atonal future. His great compositional strength lay in his ability to synthesize disparate forms and techniques into a unique whole. In this way, Berg paved the way for later composers to use form, tonality, and atonality like colors on a palette.

Paul Kroeger is a field officer for an NGO in Ukraine. Previously, he worked as an opera singer in Germany, holding soloist positions at Mecklenburgisches Staatstheater, Landestheater Coburg, and the Thüringer Opernstudio.

Image: Screenshot from the Deutsche Oper Berlin's 2018 season performance of Wozzeck, featuring Elena Zhidkova as Marie and Thomas Blondell as the Drum Major. (Deutsche Oper Berlin)