1. Seele, wie bist du schöner (Soul, how much more beautiful are you)
2. Sahst du nach dem Gewitterregen den Wald? (Did you see the forest after the rainstorm?)
3. Über die Grenzen des Alls (Beyond the boundaries of the universe)
4. Nichts ist gekommen (Nothing has come)
5. Hier ist Friede (Here is peace)
Alban Berg (1885-1935), the Viennese composer commonly recognised as a student of Arnold Schoenberg's, was one of the most influential composers of his era. As the more 'romantic' composer of the Second Viennese School (consisting of himself, Schoenberg and Anton Webern), his works are easily discernible from the others, all while retaining much of their shared musical language. The 'Five Orchestral Songs on Picture-Postcard texts by Peter Altenberg, or more commonly referred to as the 'Altenberg Lieder', were composed in 1912. Its second and third movements were premiered in 1913, under the baton of Schoenberg and became known as the 'skandalkonzert' ('scandal concert') due to the audience's violent reaction to the songs. It is somewhat astonishing that at the age of only twenty-eight, Berg was able to illicit such a passionate response from the Viennese audience. Then again, this was a highly charged and artistically involved era and place, which although resulted in often violent reactions, nevertheless formed Berg's life and career.
The piece is written for a large orchestra of at least seventy, and mezzo soprano. It is a miracle, at least on paper, that such an imbalance of power between orchestra and singer was achieved so successfully. Alas, Berg was able to realise this in a way worthy of era defining talent. It can be argued that this is no different to an operatic aria of Wagner or Puccini, whose large orchestras easily equal the power of Berg's. But in the case of these songs, the orchestra is front and centre, not only audibly, but also literally - being right behind the singer on the concert stage. The pieces are, after all, songs. They are meant for an intimate dialogue between singer and orchestra. And it is through his ingenious balance of timbres and orchestration that Berg was able to achieve this.
In being associated with Berg's 'aphoristic' phase (characterised by a lack of formula or rule) the piece was easily critiqued and dismissed by Schoenberg and therefore, automatically, by the highly impressionable Berg (Adorno, 1991). Schoenberg's dismissal of this style's legitimacy even led Berg to calling the songs 'insignificant and worthless'. However, despite the 'aphorism' associated with the work and with Peter Altenberg's works, the songs are nevertheless ingenious in their use of hidden themes and structures.
While all the movements share important musical qualities, their differences are distinct. All share a variety of timbres, dynamics and a density of musical expression. Put more simply, they are all characterised by extreme contrasts in their own unique ways. The first song, 'Seele, wir bist du schönner', begins with an orchestral introduction. It explores, well before any voice enters, a plethora of orchestral sounds and timbres, establishing the significance of the orchestra that is to characterise the songs more generally. Early on, a viola line (then taken by the celli) sets off a growing crescendo, ultimately climaxing to a fortississimo but quickly regressing back to a pianississimo. This is where the voice enters. The voice is fragmented and engages in complex counterpoint with differing instruments of the orchestra, all while extablishing its solistic character. The piece totals around three minutes of music and is one of the longest songs in the whole work.
The second, third and fourth movements are not granted any orchestral introduction. They are all extremely short and share a similar otherwordly quality, albeit in different ways. The second movement begins with a voice solo, almost as if Berg attempted to make up for the orchestra's dominance in the first song. The voice's fragmented movements and directions lead the piece's expression. The song explores vast contrasts of dynamics, with the voice singing a high A in pianississmo - a feat almost impossible to pull off. This is pushed even further in the next movement, where he writes a high C in, once again, a pianississimo dynamic. This third movement is uniquely characterised by a much more disturbing nature. The singer uses the technique of 'sprechstimme' - a colour between speaking and singing - accompanied by a pianississimo, which results in a whispery and atmospheric tone. The voice's line is once again fragmented and the orchestra's texture is dense and a feeling of uneasiness sets in. The fourth movement is often romantic in its lines and colours. It also includes vast dynamic contrasts and fragmented vocal lines. Counterpoint between the voice and lone instruments is also important to note, as well as an accentuation of each instruments unique abilities and potential. This exploration of timbres has been termed 'klangfarben' ('sound colour'), and was a common technique used among those of the Second Viennese School. As with the other movements, the orchestral range of notes is tremendous, spanning almost five octaves.
The fifth movement is described as a 'passacaglia', a musical form most commonly associated with the early seventeenth century. It is characterised by a slow triple time and varying lines over an unwavering bass. This movement is the longest of all, totalling four and a half minutes. Like the first movement, it begins with an extensive orchestral introduction. At first, a solid bassline line is established by the bass clarinet. Next, the flute hovers over with a solo line, which is then taken by the oboe and eventually melts into the voice. This seamless progression results in the voice and orchestra's equalling in importance. The voice is also often coupled with a sole instrument. Despite the movement's often violent outbursts, it ultimately always returns to a soft and gentle character. True to the passacaglia's form, there is a constant and comforting pounding bass line throughout the movement. The movement, and therefore the full work, ends calmly with gentle touch of a strummed harp.
Although a collection of five separate songs, there is a certain cyclical nature to their totality as one work. The first and fifth movements are exploratory, more developed and longer movements, often equalling the voice and orchestra's importance. While the three central movements could be characterised as short, musical 'aphorisms', perfectly capturing the ephemeral nature of Altenberg's texts. The style of these songs is all the more unique due to Berg's dismissal of it after the songs. He consequently moved on swiftly to more 'complex' and structurally rigorous works (all while keeping true to his more sensual nature), worthy of his teacher’s approval.
Rita Fernandes, September 2020
Theodor W. Adorno. Alban Berg: Master of the Smallest Link. Translated by Juliane Brand and Christopher Hailey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
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