Friday, January 15, 2010

Alban Berg's Sledgehammer of Desperation

Last night the New York Philharmonic, with TB. Alan Gilbert conducted. Haydn's Symphony No. 49 in F Minor, La passione (1768), which I was too tired to appreciate. John Adams's The Wound-Dresser, for Baritone Voice and Orchestra (1988), sung by Thomas Hampton. Interesting music but the words sounded wrong in it. Adams unexpectedly appeared with singer and conductor after the piece, and was warmly applauded.

I was more awake after the intermission. I especially loved the first movement of Schubert's Symphony in B minor, D. 759, Unfinished (1822). The playing was passionate but controlled. The program ended with Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6 (1913-15), which Gilbert thought "completed" Schubert's Unfinished.

You often find Berg's Three Orchestral Pieces . . . at the beginning of a program. It can be seen as an extension of Mahler's Symphony No. 6; in fact, when we perform it, you'll see an incredible instrument at the back of the stage--an enormous wooden box with a huge sledgehammer--used in both the Mahler Sixth and the Berg Three Orchestra Pieces. Both Mahler and Berg were trying to express a kind of desperation in their music. a struggle ay a point in history when these pieces were written, a fin-de-siecle moment where prejudices and presuppositions were being questioned. I've decided to close the program with the Berg because when you get to this cataclysmic end--after this amazing and compelling and terrifying march that is the third piece--there's really nothing else to say.
But where did Berg come from? Yes, Mahler, but even before that Schubert. Schubert was one of history's greatest songwriters, and I think Berg was one of the great melodists. I hope that you, the audience, see elements inthe Berg that are extremely expressive and extremely beautiful--there's a reason that this is called expressionist music. I believe that if Schubert had continued to compose for the next 100 years, he would have ended up where Berg was.

The program also quotes Theodor Adorno in his 1968 study of Alabn Berg.

Berg let himself go with complete abandon in the March from the Three Pieces for Orchestra, an absolutely stupendous work, which has yet to be generally appreciated and whose analysis and explication must one day be the task of a definitive interpretation of Berg. When he showed me the score and explained it, I remarked of the first visual impression: "That must sound like playing Schoenberg's Orchestral Pieces and Mahler's Ninth Symphony, all at the same time." I will never forget the look of pleasure this compliment--dubious for any other cultured ear--induced. With a ferocity burying all Johannine gentleness like an avalanche, he answered, "Right, then at last one could hear what an eighth-note brass chord really sounds like" as if convinced that no audience could survive such a sonority...

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