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Alban Berg and Lulu

©  copyright Laura E. Thompson, 2011

Musicology 335: Expressionism Professor Rosenberg


Assignment #4: Alban Berg and Lulu


Part 1:


In his interview with the Radio Rundfunk, Alban Berg seeks to prove that his music, while admittedly somewhat revolutionary in its treatment of harmony, builds on the ideas of previous composers, and is the newest contribution to the longstanding lineage of classical music, especially that in Germanic countries. He asserts that even though he does not use major and minor key areas around which to organize his music, this so-called “atonal” music does not represent a true break with the musical traditions of the past. Instead, he argues that his music brings these European musical traditions forward into a newfound expression of musical possibilities and artistry.

Berg disputes the use of the term “atonality” because he claims that it carries the implication that any music it describes must be without order, sense, or any of the crucial elements which over many centuries have been deemed essential features of music. Berg believes (at least at the time of this interview) that atonality is a misleading word through which detractors may simply dismiss his music as lacking an overarching unifying structure without taking time or pains to try to understand it. The confusion surrounding this word is made quite evident when the interviewer asks Berg if indeed, “does not the negation of relationship to a given tonic lead in fact to the collapse of the whole edifice of music?” In order to answer this rather loaded question, Berg then attempts to deconstruct the assumptions that are behind it. On the one hand, he says that the interviewer is referencing the idea of tonality (and in its reverse, atonality) as is embodied by the music and philosophies of Jean-Philippe Rameau. According to this definition, atonality would be embodied by the lack of any discernable key areas or main tonic pitches in a piece of music. Berg says that this definition of atonality could accurately represent certain musical works or sections. But he also argues that this term is often misapplied to anything that seems novel or different and seems to follow a different harmonic logic than those which came before. And in so doing, Berg sees the use of the term “atonality” as a kind of weapon used by many to call into question not only whether such music is beautiful, but actually whether it is music at all.

To dispute these implications, Berg first points to history. He says, “Even if this so-called atonal music cannot, harmonically speaking, be brought into relation with a major/minor harmonic system—still, surely there was music even before that system in its turn came into existence...” and the interviewer proclaims “and what a beautiful and imaginative music!” And then Berg argues that if music (and even beautiful music) existed before the standardization of major/minor harmonies, then logically music should also be able to exist in forms created or discovered after the major/minor system. Berg also asserts that the tendency of his “atonal” music to move towards polyphony should not be thought of as a rejection of the music which came before him, but a harkening back to the polyphonic music of Baroque times. While his music differs in some significant ways from the late-Romantic sensibilities which directly preceded him, Berg seeks to frame his music within the context of a longer musical history, through which his music can be understood. While he asserts that his polyphony builds upon the work of composers before Bach’s time, he also claims that some of the melodic chromaticism in his work is really not that far removed from that found in the works of venerated Romantic composers including Brahms, Schubert and Wagner. In so doing, he shows that his music simply one step further along a natural path of musical evolution.

Another way in which Berg tries to demonstrate the legitimacy of his music and that of his contemporaries is the role that intention plays in the compositional process. He asserts that because all of them care deeply for their art, everything that they write is considered very seriously before a final decision is made about how the music will progress. In other words, nothing that they write is random, and the great degree of intention that goes into a work must mean that there are some sort of artistic and logical grounds for including anything in a work of music, even if it is characterized as “atonal.”

By mentioning Schoenberg’s 12-tone system, Berg points out that these so-called atonal works quite often have intricate organizing systems that can be even more all-encompassing than that of the major/minor harmonic system. He also implies that these works are not always completely without key areas or prominent pitches, but that the logic is simply different.

In arguing that “atonal” music contains, phrases, melodies, rhythms, and harmonic structures (albeit different kinds of structures from those usually seen in the past), Alban Berg advocates an open-minded approach this music. In the interview, he dramatically convinces his interviewer to reconsider his preconceptions about “atonal” music, and to see the similarities between this music and the classical music of earlier composers. Berg’s music is undoubtedly different in some significant ways (early on in the interview he calls it “a new art”), but these differences are only apparent because the music is heard in conversation with the works that came before. I find his arguments very convincing. Though I do not believe that the music of Berg is the only logical next step forward from the traditions of his predecessors, I do believe that it does seem greatly inspired by many musical works that came before. I do not believe that his music can only be seen as legitimate through its connections historical works, but I do think that it can be better understood through the context of music history.

Part 2:

While writing about the Paris (1979) and London (1981) performances of Lulu, George Perl seems quite angry at the ways in which he believes the producers made the text and music of the opera totally irrelevant to what they put on stage. He fiercely objects to opera companies taking such liberties with a work that was created by another. In mentioning some of the major stage directions that he feels the producers absolutely should not have changed, it is interesting to see the ways in which he supports his arguments with musical points. In one notable objection, Perl writes about the question of dramatic action the Countess should take upon the death of Dr. Schön. From a directorial standpoint, it might make sense for her to walk towards the portrait of Lulu in youthful bloom. But in terms of the music, Berg includes a leitmotif every time he mentions the portrait in his own stage directions, and so walking towards the portrait at a moment with no picture chords underneath undermines the musical language that had been established throughout the opera.

From the descriptions of the Paris and London opera productions, it does sound as though George Perl is justified in his objections. It seems that both companies used Berg’s material as a starting point onto which they could project their own ideas. I think that George Perl must feel more offended than the average audience member because of his own passionate interest in the historical aspects of this work and in the mysterious elements that led to the enormous secrecy surrounding the third act. To get a better idea of what Berg originally intended, of course George Perl would hope to see as close a rendering of Berg’s ideas as possible.

But I do not think Perl is alone in his call for a more faithful production according to the textual and musical clues left by Berg. It seems that these initial performances of the complete opera may have had a special responsibility to realize Berg’s vision because of their pivotal position in presenting the complete opera for the first (and second) time. Once the opera was known in such a form, then perhaps would be a more appropriate time for directors and producers to project their own ideas onto the work.

On the other hand, directors and producers are constantly put in a difficult position of making decisions when no author is present to explain their intentions, and sometimes they will not be able to take every bit of musicological information into account. And who is to say that it is immoral to interpret a work in a way that is not faithful to the author’s original vision?

In the Glyndebourne production of Lulu, one aspect of the stage production that departed from the stage directions in the libretto was the decision to make very slight alterations in the stage actions right before the orchestral interlude at the center of Act II. In the libretto, the Countess and the Schoolboy have the final lines of text before the silent film begins, but these lines are omitted. In fact, the Countess has already left the stage and when Alwa announces that the police are about to arrive, the Schoolboy runs up the staircase to escape. I think that this decision is effective in that it tightens the drama of the scene. We are left with a final outcry from Lulu as she collapses onto the ground and clings to Alwa’s knees until he flees the stage. It is her downfall that remains at the fore of the scene. The lines that the Countess and the Schoolboy have in the libretto would not have contributed to the tension in the scene: the Countess would only have announced once more (after Alwa had already done so) that the police were coming and then the Schoolboy would have proclaimed that he is going to be expelled from school. Her line would have been redundant and his line distracting to the main focus of the opera, which is Lulu and her fate.





1) Read the 1930 radio interview with Berg in the "Readings" folder on Blackboard. This interview has been given the title "What is Atonality?" because so much of it is taken up with discussion of this term. Keep in mind that Berg had already been working on the composition of Lulu since the summer of 1928. In addition to objecting to the term "atonality," Berg attempts to prove that what he is doing is not a complete negation of the musical past, but a continuation of the classical tradition. Summarize his arguments and explain why or why you do or do not find them persuasive.


2) The conclusion of George Perle's magisterial book on Lulu (in the "Readings" folder) is taken up with bitterly denunciatory critiques of two productions of the completed 3-act work, one in Paris in 1979 and the other in London in 1981. In both of these critiques, Perle outlines a "purist" viewpoint, insisting that the departures from certain original stage directions weaken the effect of the opera in performance. Note the some of Perle's objections to these stagings rest on musical arguments. Based on his descriptions of the 1979 and 1981 productions, do you feel that his criticism is justified? After reading the Lulu libretto (in the "Vocal texts" folder) and watching the Glyndebourne production on Blackboard, identify one aspect of the performance which departs from the stage directions in the libretto, and explain why this difference is or is not justifiable in some way. Does it help the opera or undermine it?