• Lyric Suite

    In 1921, Schoenberg confided to a student that he had made a discovery that would “insure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.” He believed it was his historical mission to develop a new system for ordering and structuring music, and so spent the years between 1916 and 1923 in its pursuit. The discovery was the 12-tone system, also known as dodecaphony or serialism. Basically, it does away with tonality, the governing force behind Western composition since well before Haydn and Mozart. Instead of having a hierarchical system in which melody and harmony can be measured as closer to or farther away from a single point of reference, Schoenberg equalized all twelve tones in the Western chromatic scale, ordered them, and then began manipulating them in very calculated, almost mathematical ways. The result is a music that reveals its logic only through analysis, not by listening.

    Berg’s first extended 12-tone work is the programmatic Lyric Suite (1926), which documents his illicit love affair with the married Hannah Fuchs. He gave her a miniature score that was discovered in the late 1970s, and in this score was Berg’s own analysis—the key to the coded love-letter. The score is marked on nearly every page, in different colored inks, making all of the programmatic associations and references clear. For example, Berg writes the letters F and H above the main theme (which is not a melody but a collection of 12 pitches, in keeping with Schoenberg’s system). The first movement has 69 measures, and Berg circled the number, writing in 3 x 23, 23 being a number that was especially significant to Berg—his fateful number. 

    Only the first and sixth movements are strictly 12-tone, and it is a special feature of Berg’s style that he is able to integrate serial and non-serial music. The integration is possible partly because Berg takes a more flexible approach to the system than did Schoenberg or Webern. He was also able to translate very technical compositional designs into an entirely audible musical drama. Three fast movements alternate with three slow ones, and they pull in opposite directions: the fast movements get progressively faster while the slower ones slow down. This pulling apart is easily related to the inner turmoil of someone caught in an impossible passion. The second movement is a portrait of Hannah’s domestic life with her two children, while the final movement is a setting of a Baudelaire poem, with the lyrics suppressed. “I beg Your mercy,” it begins, “You, the One I Love!”

  • Alban Berg

    Alban Berg (1885–1935) came from a wealthy Austrian background and only began to teach for a living after World War I. Despite composing for 30 years, he produced only about 10 major works. He began to study with Arnold Schoenberg in 1904, and his compositions up to 1910 were written while his student. Berg, Anton Webern and their teacher Arnold Schoenberg were together known as the Second Viennese School—the heirs to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Despite his admiration for Schoenberg, however, Berg differed from him in important ways.

    For one, Berg always kept lines of communication open in his work to the Romantic tradition of Brahms and Mahler. His way of cutting the umbilical cord with the past was not based on burying the father-figures of tonal music, but by turning to popular songs and subjects and holding fast to the belief in music as a profoundly expressive art. His operas Wozzeck (premiered in 1925) and the unfinished Lulu were scandalous at the time for their profoundly modern subject matter, but have gone on to enjoy greater success than many other works from the Second Viennese School. Berg died at age 50, the result of an infected insect bite.
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