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Blurring the Lines, Part 2 The Bard Retrospectives: “Berg and His World,” Second Weekend

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"Pillars of Society" by George Grosz


Symposium: Rethinking the Modern

Garry Hagberg, moderator; Daniel Albright; Richard Eldridge; Abigail Gillman; Klara Moricz; Paul Reitter; and Michael P. Steinberg


PROGRAM SEVEN: “No Critics Allowed”: The Society for Private Performances

7:30 pm Preconcert Talk: Tamara Levitz

8 pm Performance: Fredrika Brillembourg, mezzo-soprano; Randolph Bowman, flute; Miranda Cuckson, violin; John Hancock, baritone; Blair McMillen, piano; Anna Polonsky, piano; Orion Weiss, piano; Bard Festival Chamber Players

Ravel La valse (1919–20, arr. 2 pianos); Bartók Fourteen Bagatelles, Op. 6 (1908); Szymanowski Romance, for violin and piano, Op. 23 (1910); Stravinsky Piano-Rag Music (1919)
Berceuses du chat (1915); Josef Matthias Hauer (1883–1959)
Nomos, Op. 2 (1913); Berg Four Songs, Op. 2 (?1909–10); Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1891–94; arr. Sachs, 1921); Max Reger Serenade, for flute, violin, and viola, in G Major, Op. 141a    (1915)


PROGRAM EIGHT: You Can’t Be Serious! Viennese Popular Music and Operetta Commentary by Derek B. Scott; with James Bassi, piano; Hai-Ting Chinn, mezzo-soprano; William Ferguson, tenor; Thomas Meglioranza, baritone; Camille Zamora, soprano

Alban Berg (1885–1935)

Johann Strauss II (1825–99)
Excerpts from Der Zigeunerbaron (1885) and Die Fledermaus (1874)

Jacques Offenbach (1819–80)
Excerpts from Les Brigandes (1869), La Grand Duchesse de Gerolstein (1867), La belle Helene (1864), and La vie parisienne (1866)


Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900) (Gilbert)
Excerpts from H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Yeoman of the Gurard (1888), The Gondoliers (1889), and Ruddigore (1887)

Franz von Suppé (1818–95)
From Boccaccio, or The Prince of Palermo (1878)

Franz Lehár (1870–1948)
From Der Graf von Luxembourg (1909)

Emmerich Kálmán (1882–1953)
From Gräfin Mariza (1924)

Paul Abraham (1892–1960)
From Viktoria und ihr Husar (1930)

Ralph Benatzky (1884–1957) / Robert Stolz (1880–1975)
From White Horse Inn (1930)

PROGRAM NINE: Composers Select: New Music in the 1920s

1 pm Preconcert Talk: Marilyn McCoy

1:30 pm Performance: Paolo Bordignon, harpsichord; Teresa Buchholz, mezzo-soprano; Hai-Ting Chinn, mezzo-soprano; Miranda Cuckson, violin; Ilana Davidson, soprano; Laura Flax, clarinet; FLUX Quartet; Robert Martin, cello; Blair McMillen, piano; Orion Weiss, piano; James Taylor, tenor

Berg Adagio, from Kammerkonzert, arr. for piano trio (1923–25; arr. 1935);

Manuel De Falla
Concerto, for harpsichord, flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, and cello (1923–26); Ernst Toch (1887–1964)
Quartet for Strings No. 11, Op. 34 (1924): Alois Hába (1893–1973)
Quartet for Strings No. 2, in the quarter-tone system, Op. 7 (1920); Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957)
Four Little Caricatures for Children, Op. 19 (1926);
Hanns Eisler (1898–1962)
Tagebuch des Hanns Eisler, Op. 9 (1926); George Gershwin (1898–1937)
Three Preludes for Piano (1923–26)

PROGRAM TEN: Modernism and Its Discontent

7 pm Preconcert Talk: Christopher Hailey

8 pm Performance: Christiane Libor, sopranoFredrika Brillembourg, mezzo-sopranoThomas Cooley, tenor; James Taylor, tenor; Robert Pomakov, bass-baritone; Bard Festival Chorale, James Bagwell, choral director; American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, music director, and others

Berg Der Wein (1929); Franz Schmidt (1874–1939)
Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (1935–37)


PROGRAM ELEVEN: Between Accommodation and Inner Emigration: The Composer’s Predicament

1 pm Preconcert Talk: Richard Wilson

1:30 pm Performance: Ilana Davidson, soprano; John Hancock, baritone; Anna Polonsky, piano; Bard Festival Chamber Players

Alban Berg Schliesse mir die Augen beide (1925); Othmar Schoeck (1886–1957)
Notturno, Op. 47 (1931–33); Ernst Krenek (1900–91)
Durch die Nacht, song cycle, Op. 67a (1930–31); Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905–63)
Quartet for Strings No. 1, “Carillon” (1933)


PROGRAM TWELVE: Crimes and Passions

4:30 pm Preconcert Talk: Bryan Gilliam

5:30 pm Performance: Liam Bonner, baritone; Fredrika Brillembourg, mezzo-soprano; Kiera Duffy, soprano; Daniel Foran, tenor; Christine Goerke, soprano; Christiane Libor, sopranoElizabeth Reiter, soprano; Lisa Saffer, soprano; Susan Shafer, mezzo-soprano; Andrew Schroeder, baritone; Brian Stucki, tenor; Jeffrey Tucker, baritone; Bard Festival Chorale, James Bagwell, choral director; American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, music director

Three Fragments from Wozzeck (1924)
Lulu Suite (1934); Paul Hindemith Sancta Susanna, Op. 21 (1921); Kurt Weill Royal Palace, Op. 17 (1925–26)

In the second weekend of the Bard Music Festival “Berg and his World” there emerged more clearly a reevaluation of Berg’s historical position. It could be paraphrased this way: Berg’s true spiritual and musical father was Mahler rather than Schoenberg; he was also strongly influenced by Schreker and Zemlinsky, both of whom were more connected to Romanticism than Modernism. While Schoenberg’s role as mentor and colleague was crucial, Berg’s aesthetic sympathies were with tonal opulence, melodic expressiveness, musical eroticism, and formal expansiveness, even though he sought to downplay this throughout his life in order to placate Schoenberg. The larger historical consequence of this view is a revision of the narrative about Modernism: its advocates, including followers of Schoenberg and Webern (i.e. atonalists and dodecaphonists) saw it as the main line of artistic evolution, a music of the future that would last a century and ensure the greatness of German music. This view dominated the historical narrative until the 1970’s, but was never borne out by audience acceptance and/or popularity. On the other hand, the new, emerging narrative has it that Berg was a conservative sustainer of Mahler’s vision, and achieved success that worked alongside the post-1960 Mahler revival and the emergence of Neo-romanticism. In Friday’s day-long panel, Klara Moricz went so far as to classify Berg’s use of tone rows as an occult, mystical and therefore musically arbitrary elements unrelated to expressiveness and musical effectiveness or value. The implication was that while this mystical side of Berg’s personality resonated with that of Schoenberg and many other Viennese contemporaries, it played no role in the aesthetics of the music as experienced by the audience.

In part 1 of this review, I proposed that this view was controversial, and that many arguments could be brought to bear both for and against it. Rather than take up space debating the point further, what follows will simply indicate how this new perspective was either supported or not by the music and commentary provided in this extremely stimulating event, rich in both artistic experience and food for thought.

Evidence of Berg’s conservative taste was offered in several forms. On Saturday morning we heard a program of excerpts from light opera, Viennese and otherwise, expertly performed by a group of winning young singers, including soprano Camille Zamora, mezzo-soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, tenor William Ferguson, and baritone Thomas Meglioranza, with narration by Derek Scott. Hearing Johann Strauss II, Léhar, Kalman, Sullivan, Offenbach, et al. supported Scott’s claim that a split occurred around 1840 between “ernst” (serious) and “leicht” (light) music. This split pushed serious composers (read Germanic) further toward grandiosity and profundity — in other words, it took away their “oom-pahs.” Berg’s taste for “leicht” music was demonstrated by including his two early piano waltzes elegantly rendered by James Bassi; its later presence in his work was exemplified by the crude waltz embedded in act 2 scene 3 of Wozzeck and one could have added the Carinthian Ländler of the Violin Concerto. But these mature examples actually underscore Berg’s modernism through their distortions which contextualize the music either in a sordid environment (Wozzeck) or a distended sentimentalization indicating temporal remoteness (Violin Concerto). One might have also remembered that a fondness for lighter forms was shared between Berg and Schoenberg, for whom Austrian dance-forms were equally significant (see his Serenade op. 24 with its “Tanzszene” or his Suite op. 29’s “Tanzschritte”). Hearing all this light music with saucy and ironic lyrics left a distinct impression that the late 19th/early 20th century Viennese bourgeoisie was shot through with moral hypocrisy, that beneath a veneer of respectability and deference to a social hierarchy there seethed a riotous sensuality and hedonism, one of whose greatest pleasures was to see itself thus portrayed on stage in a parody of the moral earnestness of grand opera. On Sunday evening, we were to receive a healthy dose of the modernist operatic response to that moral earnestness not only from Berg (the two suites of excerpts from Wozzeck and Lulu) but also from Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith, whose short operas from the 1920’s overturn received cultural assumptions about the place of eroticism in social behavior. More about that later.

Another way that Berg sublimated “light” music into his own style was through the solo cantata Der Wein, a 1929 setting of poetry by Baudelaire whose composition interrupted work on Lulu, which exemplifies Berg’s late style, but does so with a lighter touch, albeit not with a reversion to a simpler style. It includes overt references to popular style, particularly in the “Tango pastiche” that occurs twice, as well as in the inclusion of an alto saxophone (which was to be a significant voice in the orchestration of Lulu). Berg’s post-Lyric Suite approach to harmony is firmly grounded in his own way of using tone-rows and continues to develop his interest in musical palindromes, i.e. sections where the music moves forward to a certain point and then reverses, moving literally backwards. This device can also be found in the later work of the more obviously modernist Webern, not to speak of other modernist contemporaries. Most writers on Berg find this device not only clearly audible, but highly expressive and often related to an explicit or implicit text; a clear example is the film music from Lulu in which the action it accompanies follows the forward-reverse pattern as Lulu is sent to jail and then makes her escape. At the same time that Der Wein employs these “advanced” techniques, it also is full of tonal references which, as Anthony Pople has written, “depict symbolically a world of sleaze and sensation….”

In other words, many elements cited as proof of Berg’s romanticism also further the modernist agenda of reviewing 19th century attitudes through a critical lens, which connects Berg firmly to one corner of the aesthetic camp occupied by Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler, both of whose works make use of a version of traditional tonality.

Der Wein was heard as prelude to an ultimate expression of musical “ernst:” Franz Schmidt’s apocalyptic oratorio The Book of the Seven Seals, which has already been separately reviewed for BR by Seth Lachterman. Its deep-dyed musical conservatism, occasionally tinted by bits of modernism (the pale horse appears as if in the surreal fields of Wozzeck act 1 scene 2) offered a stark contrast. Berg’s musical text-setting is rich with feeling but emotionally leaves room for the listener to come to her own conclusions as to connections with the text, an ambiguous quality that I associate with great opera. Schmidt’s approach to his over-the-top text is to have the music go over with it: it is grandiose and univocal, in the traditions of the oratorios of Handel and Mendelssohn, as well as the symphonies of Bruckner. The work is a great quasi-medieval fresco (more grandiose than Dürer’s images of the Apocalypse, which seem to me to retain a human scale) with the full resources of the late-romantic orchestra. (Compare this work with Hugo Distler’s contemporaneous a capella choral work Totentanz which achieves its power through its austerity.)

Hearing almost all of Berg’s music in two weekends was not only a rare treat, but also highlighted certain aspects of his oeuvre. First, he wrote relatively little music. Botstein characterized him as “lazy” in his opening remarks, which is probably true, but another reason could be that his music is intricate, extremely carefully worked out, and displays the highest level of craftsmanship. Unlike Webern, who was a gifted conductor, Berg was not a performer. He refused offers to conduct his own music, for which he had no training or gift, and understood it would take both to lead it effectively. He played a bit of piano, but not even as well as his older brother. The fact that he wrote with so much idiomatic flair and originality for instruments and voices he could not play himself is a testament to his thoroughness of study and of the tutelage he received from Schoenberg. But the size of his output was small enough so that even with copious amounts of music not by him, we were still able to hear most of it during the festival.

Second, his work appears to divide into two periods, not counting an apprentice phase that culminates in his Piano Sonata op. 1. The first period culminated with Wozzeck, which was completed in 1922. Thereafter, he used no further opus numbers, he began using tone rows (plural because he regularly used more than one in a single composition), and his lyrical style becomes more romantic, with longer, more flowing phrases. At the same time, the sense of irony, humor, or self-criticism becomes more continuous and pronounced; Adorno describes the music as self-negating, music that undermines its own existence, that questions its own authenticity. This makes it virtually unique — the expressiveness that we think of as romantic cannot be accepted at face value because of the complexity of its formal context. During the panels and pre-concert talks we were constantly reminded of Berg’s love of secrets and codes, and of the many contradictions and conundrums of his personal and political existence. While this may make his life a headache for biographers, it means that his polysemic music offers a field-day for imaginative listeners. His later music shares this quality with his fellow Viennese composer, Mozart. There is something there for the lay-person and something in addition for the connoisseur. Many of those who attended this festival must have moved from the first to the second category regarding Berg.

The festival provided some dramatic discoveries of little-known music by Berg’s contemporaries, three of which occurred during this second weekend. These were the string quartets of Ernst Toch and Karl Amadeus Hartmann, and a little cantata by Hanns Eisler. Another revelation was the absolutely fresh originality of Stravinsky’s 1915 Berceuse du chat, (original Russian title: Kolïbel’nïye) as heard in this context, a “minor” work that stood out amid the surroundings of Program 8 which consisted of pieces performed at the “Society for Private Performance” concerts. Even though Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, and Szymanowski were on the same program, these little songs for mezzo-soprano and three clarinets, superbly sung by Frederika Brillembourg, seemed to inhabit its own musical universe, one that seemed modern in a whole different way from all else: spare, clean, utterly lacking in sentimentality, apparently (but not actually) simple, bereft of any apparent signs of musical cultivation. Hearing it in a program of other new music of the time recreates for us the impact Stravinsky’s individuality must have made on those audiences, and provides us today with a different metric for modernism in music.

Another kind of impact was experienced with Toch’s String Quartet no. 11 from 1924, heard on Program 9, and performed with passion and precision by the FLUX Quartet, and with the Hartmann Quartet no. 1, “Carillon,” of 1933, played with equal conviction by the Bard Festival Quartet. Toch’s work spoke the language of Hindemith while Hartmann drew strongly on Bartok. Unlike the fine Karl Weigl quartet from the first weekend, these were fully modernist works, vigorous and expressive yet unsentimental. They were both firmly shaped, compelling throughout, and beautifully written for strings, yet the two were utterly distinct, each displaying its own unique voice. Neither showed any direct stylistic connection to Berg. Although not overtly neo-classical, the central European classical tradition provided the lineage for Toch’s forms, which were balanced and well-rounded, the different movements complementing each other as they do in the quartets of Haydn. Hartmann, on the other hand, used Bartok’s Quartet no. 4 as a model, not to be imitated, but as a stylistic and aesthetic point of departure. I am familiar with some (but not enough!) of Hartmann’s post-World War II music which has seemed to be sombre, searching and anguished, written with great commitment and skill, and offering emotionally challenging listening experiences. This work was a delightful surprise, earthy, replete with springy rhythms and a sense of “joie de jouer” that was infectious. Hearing it was another indicator of how much joy was destroyed by that war.

A third quartet, of undoubted historical importance, failed to ignite: Alois Haba, a student of Franz Schreker, became obsessed with quarter-tones early in his career, and spent the rest of his life following up and developing this new vocabulary. One would like to hear how far he was able to go with this; during the ‘20’s he designed three different pianos with two key-boards built to accommodate his music, and he continued to develop this material until his death in 1973. But this early work, Quartet no. 2 of 1921, had yet to integrate the extra notes beyond the functions of passing or decorative tones; and the dramatic structures within which they were used had a kind of uniformity of harmony and rhythm which, however skillfully woven together, failed to generate much heat or light. While microtones were of great interest during the ‘20’s to contemporaries such as Bartok, Ives, Ernst Bloch, and Juan Carillo, I am not aware that Berg made systematic use of them. (Of course, Sprechstimme, which he and Schoenberg employed in their vocal music, uses microtones, but not according to any system.)

The cantata Tagebuch des Hanns Eisler was perhaps the biggest surprise of the weekend. Like the Stravinsky, it seemed to emanate from a different musical cosmos, although it did have a connection to music yet to be heard, the short Kurt Weill opera performed on Sunday evening. Eisler’s text came from brief written observations about people that the composer made in his diary while on a train trip. Well-known both as a student of Schoenberg and as a feisty leftist, Eisler and his teacher mutually rejected each other in the mid-20’s. From there, Eisler rebelled stylistically, rejecting atonality and embracing a tonal style that was at first ironic in the vein of Hindemith but which later became straightforward and directly expressive as he became more politically active, culminating in his composition of the East German national anthem. In his diary, Eisler made observations of everyday life and behavior from an alienated and socially critical perspective characteristic of Weimar Germany, perhaps influenced by Bertholt Brecht, for whom he later wrote incidental music. The musical settings here must be described as quirky. A bit like Hindemith’s Dadaist music, such as the Kammermusik no. 1 heard the previous weekend, Eisler punctured not only the bourgeois illusions of his “fellow travelers” but the lofty aspirations of his fellow artists, albeit more gently than Brecht or the artist George Grosz whose scathing and furious painting “Pillars of Society” (1926) adorned page 56 of the Bard program book. Short and mordent violin or piano solos alternated with vocal settings for from one to three voices, none more than about a minute in length. The overall effect was humorous and charming as well as sharply observant. Here were three voices — Toch, Hartmann, and Eisler, whose works bore a less direct relationship to Berg, yet offered provocative comparisons, and left one wishing for more.

Given the quantity of music performed over these three days, it is impossible to comment on each work; some were familiar, like Debussy’s Prélude and Ravel’s La Valse, but it was interesting to hear the arrangements that were used for Program 7, as well as to enjoy the superb performances — the flute solo of Randall Bowman in the Debussy was exceptionally colorful, limpid, and shapely at the same time. Also familiar was the De Falla Harpsichord Concerto but it did not make a strong impact, perhaps owing to the placement of the harpsichord behind the other instruments, where it sounded more like a continuo accompaniment than a solo. The dynamism of the flamenco or Scarlatti-inspired keyboard writing was lost in a tinkly blur. Bartok’s Bagatelles (1908) proved to be a powerful set of not-so-small piano pieces, some of the first works to display that composer’s mature voice at an early stage in his career. The pianist, Orion Weiss, gave one of the outstanding performances of the festival. It should be said that the level of piano and violin performances in the chamber works was uniformly of the highest quality throughout the festival; after enjoying the superb performances of pianists Jeremy Denk and Blair McMillen, I was not prepared to be knocked out by a performer with whom I was previously unfamiliar; but Weiss, playing the Bagatelles from memory, infused his renditions with varied colors, ever-present character, and relaxed virtuosity that was riveting. The same qualities applied to his version of Gershwin’s Three Preludes which felt at home in the neighborhood of Berg’s Adagio. (I hope to have more to say in future writing about the relationship between the developing harmony of popular American music under Gershwin’s influence and the post-romantic European harmonic vocabulary.) Korngold’s little spoofs of his modernist contemporaries were quite lame; rather than display that composer’s own gifts, they exhibited a bit of spite. There are many composers for whom modernism has been incomprehensible; Korngold was apparently among them.

This brings us to the final concert, “Crimes and Passions,” whose unifying themes were opera and sex. The suites from the two operas were created by Berg at times when he felt there was little chance of getting the complete works staged. They have been recorded and are still performed regularly, but when the full operas are familiar to the listener, the presentation of bits and fragments of drama can be frustrating. This is more true of the Wozzeck fragments, which are shorter; hearing them this way reveals how brilliantly Berg was able to concatenate the fragmentary scenes to form a dramatic bridge. The Lulu Symphony works better because it is more substantial; the opera itself is in a much more symphonic style, and the scoring is richer and more interwoven, so each movement has its own rounded form. I found the integration of the solo voice also more satisfying in this later suite.

The novelties of the evening were the Weill and Hindemith operas, which were semi-staged in a convincing manner. In a way, the two pieces were like mirror opposites: in Royal Highness, Weill’s cast of the Princess Dejanira and her three suitors, were personalities drawn from ordinary life into a mythic time-space which displayed the inadequacies of three traditionally accepted male roles from the point of view of the critical female seeking an independent existence, who decides she would prefer to die than to accept any of her three alternatives. In Sancta Suzanna, Hindemith’s protagonist is a young nun who cannot excise from her passionate love of God the carnal element; she cannot live the myth that her role in the church would impose upon her and insists upon a three-dimensional existence despite the lethal consequences. Weill’s music emanates from quotidian popular music idioms skillfully transmuted into a continuous musico-dramatic flow that supports the verbal drama. Hindemith’s more elaborate idiom, with its use of women’s chorus (the other nuns) and full orchestration, almost seems like an oratorio; it has a more self-sustained musical texture, a rich dissonant homophony with contrapuntal details that carry the action and characters along. The staging of the ending had the nuns process from the back of the hall with candles singing their chant as the title character is immured; she is literally being buried under the weight of the massed voices of chorus and orchestra, a powerful and disturbing experience of repression.

The performances of these short operas were remarkable, given the unusual demands that both works make on all the performers. The lead singers, Lisa Saffer and Christiane Libor, showed total mastery of their parts, and characterized their roles convincingly and sympathetically. All other parts, including the smallest ones, were realized with strong, accurate vocal renditions, and the stagings by Eric Einhorn were sufficient to transport the audience and singers from the concert hall into an operatic-mythic space.

Alban and Helene Berg

One left the final event of the festival amazed at the quantity and quality of offerings that had been put forth in the space of two weekends, the number of new and powerful experiences that would need to be contemplated in memory, and the invitation they provided to explore further this repertory and its contiguous fields and to reconsider one’s concepts of the history of this period. That contemplation of course was designed to arc back to the central figure of Berg. In choosing to end the festival in the court of Eros, we were left to ponder Berg’s own troubled and ambiguous connection to his erotic drive, but even more to that of the culture that produced Mahler, Klimt, Freud, and a host of Hollywood directors and composers who played a large role in shaping our own views of the erotic and so much else. While Berg may have looked back with nostalgia, he had no desire to go back in time; in his ability to plumb new, non-verbal depths of the psyche with his music, he created works that still have the power to let us see ourselves in new and challenging ways, and will be able to do so for some time to come.

1 thought on “Blurring the Lines, Part 2 The Bard Retrospectives: “Berg and His World,” Second Weekend

  1. In both the first and second reviews Larry Wallach provides exceptional musical and cultural insight into Bard Music Festival’s Berg series. He brings to bear his wide scope and depth of understanding of music and appreciation of the subtle forces that help shape the writing of great music. Like him I was very taken with the Toch String Quartet and it was the highlight of the event for me.

    I hope more people find these wonderful pieces which are both reviews and so much more.

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