Alban Berg / Lulu (1935)

Four murders, one suicide and one heart attack - Alban Berg’s brutal unfinished opera, Lulu (1935), clearly doesn’t lack dramatic and theatrical flair. Berg’s Lulu was inspired by writer Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays. These include his 1895 Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and his 1904 Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box), which Berg condensed into three acts. Well-known for his explicitly disturbing views on sexuality and eroticism, Wedekind’s works were a rich base on which to elaborate musically. Berg worked on the opera between the years of 1927 until his death in 1935, with increasing frequency from 1932 onwards. The incomplete opera was premiered in 1937 and only produced in its completed form (with the completed act 3 orchestration by Frederick Cerha) in 1979.

Alban Berg was born in 1885 in Vienna to a relatively wealthy family. Although mostly financially comfortable, he nevertheless led a musically, emotionally and culturally fascinating life. Turn-of-the-century Vienna was a culturally rich and diverse world. Its exhilarating mix of progressive and often disturbing artistic movements with the strong foundations of Viennese tradition and history, made for an often violent and consistently volatile atmosphere. As a composer, Berg grew and matured in this environment. He was at the centre of the city's 'café culture', which was essentially no more than interweaving gossip groups – albeit with some of the most influential and important artists of all time. Characters ranged from writer Karl Kraus, painters Oscar Kokoschka and Gustav Klimt to composers Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and architect Adolf Loos - and even extending to the likes of failed painter, Adolf Hitler. Among Freud’s rants on human’s incestuous nature, Kraus’ unprompted satirical shouting matches and Schoenberg’s narcissistic declarations, this became fertile ground for developing new and forward-looking ideas. The highly impressionable Berg is possibly one of the best examples of this decadent culture's artistic outputs.

The story of this opera's composition is tumultuous to say the least. A mix of health problems, complications in his relationship with his teacher, Schoenberg, and an increasingly totalitarian Nazi regime, made for an unstable and difficult backdrop. With consistent interruptions in the composition’s process, Berg’s insistent return to the opera became closely associated with the composer’s slowly deteriorating mental health. The piece was, by all means, a labour of love, and nothing less than an artistic life source. With performances of his popular opera Wozzeck, and therefore his main source of income, drastically decreasing due to Nazi censorship, the end of Berg’s life was plagued by financial instability. This resulted in the composition of various commissioned works, including the now famous Violin Concerto. By the time Lulu was becoming ‘performable’, the political arena was slowly but surely closing all avenues for the performance of progressive or socially blunt works. In an attempt to nevertheless get parts of the opera performed, Berg complete the Lulu Suite in 1934: a 30-minute patchwork of the opera's mostly instrumental parts – the inclusion of any of its libretto would be far too explicit and therefore dangerous. Berg died in December of 1935, and therefore never saw his opera completed. With act 1 and 2 orchestrated, but act 3 only written in piano score, it took more than forty years for a complete production to take place. This was largely due to Berg's wife insistence on the third act not being orchestrated out of respect for her husband’s unique and inimitable musical talent (although some have suspected it was due to the opera’s dedication to Berg’s mistress). Censorship also played a large part, at first, in disallowing a final orchestration to take place. It was eventually orchestrated by Frederick Cerha and the first full production was presented in 1979.

Lulu tells the story of a young seductress (Lulu) whose sexual and romantic adventures result in her own and many of her lovers’ deaths. As a young girl on the streets, she was adopted by the main male character, Doctor Schön, who plays the often-ambiguous role of father figure turned lover: a relationship which is at the centre of revealing Lulu’s emotional sensitivities throughout the opera. Lulu marries several men during the course of the opera, all of which either fall prey to her, their own or another’s hands. Following a flurry of eventful, violent and emotionally intense moments, the opera arrives at its point of symmetry: Lulu’s murder of Dr. Schön. For this act, she is then sent to prison. The controversially lesbian character, Countess Geschwitz, is driven by her obsession with Lulu to sacrifice her freedom by swapping places with Lulu in prison, resulting in her escape. Throughout the opera, Lulu is not a stranger to using her sexuality as a tool to survive, a tendency that leads her to becoming a prostitute in London, where she is ultimately murdered by Jack the Ripper (played by the same actor who played Dr. Schön).

In expressing the opera's emotional violence and intensity, Berg made use of ingenious musical techniques. Lulu is, still to this day, the longest and most complete stage work using the twelve-tone theory. In his intricate manipulations of tone rows, Berg was able to create an all-encompassing work through the musical characterisation of people, events and emotions. The interweaving of certain row manipulations is able to show tensions, themes and relationships between characters, much like the leitmotif. Berg was also heavily influenced by the idea of symmetry, with Lulu's imprisonment being the centre. Lulu's relationship with her various lovers are mirrored, and so are the actors that play them. The differences that they do exhibit, however, are rich in meaning and explore her emotional and psychological journey throughout the opera. Musically, the symmetry is also apparent. Many motifs return in order to signal characters and themes. Their manipulations make light of their developments and Berg’s use of musical elements (texture, orchestration, dynamics, tempi etc.) give dramatic and emotional depth to their ramifications. Musically, the opera is an ingenious mix of well organised yet still flexible overarching systems and Berg's uniquely post-romantic style. The music's often heart wrenching moments represent beautifully the violence and emotional torture on stage, while the more surreal and mythical elements are met with hypnotic moments of stillness and unbelievable beauty. The complexity of Berg's plot is innovatively paired with his unique musical style, resulting in an unparalleled fusion between music and stage. All while being a staple of the operatic repertoire today, Lulu continues to make evident the obvious issues of progressivity and experimentalism the genre has endured since. It celebrates the taboo, it revels in the exploration of sin and most importantly, reminds us, often brutally, of human’s primal nature.


Rita Fernandes, October 2020


Rita has also written:

"Geotonality": Hearing Covid-19

Johannes Brahms / Symphony No.1 (1876)

Schoenberg and Webern: Viennese Explorations

Alban Berg / Altenberg Lieder Op.4 (1912)

Richard Strauss / Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896)

East Meets East by Kroke and Nigel Kennedy

Jacob Kirkegaard / 4 Rooms (2006)

The Cycle: Why We Keep Coming Back

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