Alban Berg: Three pieces for orchestra Op 6
Lecture with musical audio examples
© Maarten Brandt, August 2009
Alban Berg's Drei Orchesterstücke or Three pieces for orchestra Op 6 belong to the most revolutionary and complex scores of the 20th century, although they are - in a cosmetical sense - more or less part of the late romantic tradition. At first glance they might even be more revolutionary than Arnold Schoenberg's Five pieces for orchestra Op 16 and Anton Webern's Six pieces for orchestra Op 6, both finished in 1909.
In order to position Berg's extravagant pieces it makes sense to focus our attention first on these works by Schoenberg and Webern, because they are more or less functional as a model to Berg, notwithstanding the fact that Berg interpreted and processed those influences in his own practical manner, as we shall see later on. The orchestral sets of both, Schönberg and Webern, consist of so-called 'character-pieces', i.e. each of those comprises a statement, a microcosm of its own, without any interrelations, let alone an over-arching symphonic structure. Thus, each piece has its own subject.
As an example we can take the first of Schönbergs Op 16 pieces, called Premonitions. Its core element consists of an ostinato like rhythmical pattern and a specific chord, in turn materialising in both fore- and background.
Sound Example  / Schönberg: Op 16/1
How different in character these pieces are is clearly revealed by the the third piece of the cycle, Farben (Colours). One chord dominates the centre of this piece, its derivatives kept within a very static framework. Not the harmonic shifts itself are the objective, but the shifts in colour, each and every harmonic transition or shift creating a change in colour. The result is what Schönberg called 'colour melody' ('Klangfarben-Melodie'). Colour is indeed the first and most important parameter or phenomenon.
Sound Example  / Schönberg: Op 16/3
One of the striking features of Schönberg's Orchestral pieces is the concentrated dealing with the material, which is even more the case in the output of Webern, whose music reveals an almost classical clarity, despite his radicalism in terms of musical style. In the sense of never writing one note too many and of those - sometimes extremely - sharply edged and quickly developing dynamic and textural contrasts, as is clearly demonstrated in his Op 6's second movement (Bewegt).
Sound Example  / Webern: Op 6/2
We almost tend to forget that Weberns Op 6 and Schönbergs Op 16 - that is to say in their original 1909 versions - were written for quite large orchestral forces (in 1928 Webern reworked his Op 6 pieces for reduced orchestra, as Schönberg did a few years earlier with his Five pieces). Especially in the fourth piece of Weberns Op 6, in the impressive 'marcia funebre', the power of the big orchestra comes into play (the score requires adequate headroom for even three timpani players!). Unlike the March in Berg's Three pieces, Webern's has from start to finish - alterings in instrumentation and dynamics notwithstanding - a steady slow tempo. However, the expressionistic characterisation of this music may have had a great impact on Berg, especially the explosive final bars containing the loudest music Webern ever wrote. The impact gets its tremendous strength specifically from the previous soft and in tension suppressed episodes.
Sound Example  /
Let us focus now on Berg, who - like many of Schönbergs other pupils - showed the highest possible esteem for his teacher, but at the same token kept a relationship full of tension, if not to a certain degree of conflict. The same can be said about Schönberg who found his pupil showing some lack of work discipline with clear signs of ample willfulness. To a certain extend one may compare this relationship with the one between Moses and Aron in Schönbergs opera with the same title. Moses represents the law as Schönberg does towards Berg, whereas Aron - like Berg - symbolizes freedom and stubborness in interpreting this law. Schönberg was more or less a kind of Calvinist, Berg a super dandy, demonstrating a more or less anarchistic approach to both, life and the arts.
The genesis of the Three orchestral pieces, Op 6 is a very complex one and even today not everything is really clear. However, we know that Schönberg wanted Berg to write an orchestral suite consisting of pure character-pieces. Berg in turn was trying to conceive a big one-movement symphony of Mahlerian proportions, including vocal parts based on the novel Seraphita by the French writer Honoré de Balzac, as a matter of fact the same novel that inspired Schönberg to use at least part of it in his unfinished oratorio Die Jakobsleiter. In that period Berg composed a lot of chamber music pieces, fugues, canons and other works, which he completely rejected later on. One of the more elaborate sketches, which were probably intended for the planned symphony, is a passacaglia episode. The musicologist Christian von Borries scored the sketch, thus enabling us to get an impression of the directions Berg was embarking on when working on this never materialised symphonic adventure.
Sound Example  / Berg: Passacaglia
Writing passacaglia-like works was a very common practice in the circle of Schönberg, whose own model was of course that famous passacaglia (chaconne) finale of Brahms Fourth symphony, which inspired in turn Webern during the composition of his official 'opus 1' his Passacaglia for Orchestra
Sound Example  / Webern: Passacaglia (excerpt)
The first question we have to face is, did Berg meet Schönberg's 'demand' by writing this orchestral suite of character-pieces? The answer is yes, because the Three orchestral pieces cover unmistakably three different characters, the Präludium having the character of an overture, Reigen that of a round dance, whereas Marsch speaks for itself. The other question is, did Berg follow his own ambition to write a symphonic work? Again the answer is positive because we may consider the Three pieces as such, albeit as a non-classical symphony. The Präludium can be viewed from the angle of a doom-laden and in gesture very monumental opening movement, whereas Reigen can be seen as a mix of the traditional slow movement with a scherzo-like movement, and the Marsch as the each and everything surpassing finale. The final question is whether the Three pieces are based on a symphonic concept. Yes, again, but far removed from the formal sense of this notion. Despite the fact that for instance the Präludium consists of an arch-form (A-B-A2), A2 can by far not be considered as a traditional (not to speak of sonata-like) recapitulation of A. Or, to mention another example, the three distinct tempi in the Marsch must not be seen as a tripartite sonata-form. All details of the Three pieces refer more or less to the respected 19th century, with classical tradition only having a cosmetic status. Like the recapitulated thematic subjects embedded within one layer which in turn is part of a framework projecting the constantly changing transformation of the material, and on several other levels simultaneously. Furthermore, there is an over arching structure in the sense that melodic and rhythmical ideas in the Präludium play their role in the subsequent two pieces. Once again, what on the surface seems to be something traditional is on a deeper level quite the opposite. In this respect, the Three pieces differ fundamentally from the orchestral pieces of Schönberg and Webern, its most striking feature being a symphonic overall structure as the embodiment of a transformation of the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic points of departure ad infinitum; and this on several levels at the same time. It is a process during which the textures are increasing in density, at that time unprecedented in terms of orchestral writing, especially with regard to the final piece of the cycle, the Marsch. As a result of this dense polyphonic writing, even the elaborate harmonic complexes have a horizontal character.
No wonder that many (different) analyses have been devoted to Berg's Op 6. The most extensive one to date is that of the German musicologist Melchior von Borries: »Alban Berg's "Drei Orchesterstücke Op 6" als ein Meisterwerk atonaler Symphonik«, a book of almost 600 pages!
My introduction does not by far have the pretention of being an analysis. My only aim is to give some cues to enable some orientation in this rich 'landscape' of Berg's most ambitious orchestral work.
The first thing to deal with is that many of the melodic ideas emerge from the minor second/minor third-constellation as can be demonstrated by means of the next four examples of Präludium Reigen and Marsch.
Of utmost importance in all three pieces is a rhythmical motif that can be interpreted as a symbol of death and destruction. It appears for the first time in the small tam-tam in the Präludium, subsequently in the closing bars of Reigen and finally - in its accelerated form - after the second major climax of the Marsch. It is the so-called catastrophic rhythm, which also plays a dominant part in Berg's opera Lulu and the Violin concerto (major climax). It is very likely that Berg was inspired by the Trauermarsch of Wagners Götterdämmerung and the opening movement of Mahler's Ninth symphony, two works of two composers Berg adored immensely.
We already saw that Berg's idea of his Three pieces doesn't correspond with the conventional symphonic concept, but that there are sometimes melodic entities which are more or less literarily recapitulated. One example is a melodic subject of the Präludium which is referred to as matter of fact just before the coda of the Marsch, akin to the snake biting its own tail. Even the tonal environment is identical, but the remainder is so different that this theme's reappearance makes the impression of a lightning bolt coming out of the blue.
A very substantial element is the moment when the first violins enter in the Präludium with a melodic figure which one could consider as a song-like idea and that is subjected to a multitude of transformations during the work's further progression. Sometimes it is expanded, or it is deconstructed, not to say excerpted (like in the first section and the coda of the Marsch), and returning in different and ever-changing contexts. We already spoke about the simultaneity of many different layers. The next series of examples on this subject (or parts from it) are not only appearing in the first violins but in other instruments and instrumental groups as well.
Characteristic for a march is the presence of a fanfare by the brass instruments. In the case of Berg this fanfare is another symbol connected to death and destruction. This becomes clear in the final bars of the Marsch, the only place where we hear the fanfare in its entirety. But this final blow (accentuated by the big hammerblow) is already many times before anticipated to, not only in the Marsch itself, but in Präludium and Reigen as well. This symbol indicates to a high extent the core of Berg's Op 6: the destruction of the tradition by means of that same tradition. This becomes evidently clear in the Marsch which can not be considered as a march in the formal sense, but as a 'paraphrase about the phenomenon march as such'. Berg's Marsch begins in the right tempo, that is to say, a tempo which one associates with a march as such, but each moment during which the march tries to re-establish itself, forces to distort it come into play with sudden changes of tempo and direction, and this on several levels. But now let us turn back to the role of the fanfare in the Op 6 pieces.
Another relationship is that just before the closing episode of the Präludium and the beginning of Reigen, which returns in Reigen more then once, the last time being in the form of a canon starting in the woodwind section.
The influences of Wagner we have already discussed and to Mahler we shall come back later. But Berg was influenced by Claude Debussy as well, as for instance in his Seven early songs and the Lyric suite in which the whole tone sequence and its derivatives play a substantial role in some places. In the Three pieces we are sometimes remembered of Debussy, in terms of his orchestration and his subtle colourful imagination, more in particular of the second movement - Jeux de vagues - of his La mer. This is in my opinion no coincidence because the subtitle of this work is 'Trois esquisses symphoniques' ('Three symphonic sketches') which could easily be translated into 'Three orchestral pieces'. Another thing that Berg's Three pieces and Debussy's La mer have undoubtedly in common is that much of the melodic material emerges from small interval constellations. The next four examples (with excerpts of Jeux de vagues and Präludium and Reigen respectively) serve to show the link between some gestures in colour and orchestration between the to works.
Mentioning polyphony - one of the most striking features in Berg's Three pieces - brings immediately associations with the baroque era to mind. However Berg's use of polyphony should not be explained in terms of whatever kind of neoclassicism, but first and foremost as a means in order to canalize an extremely turbulent expression. Often episodes of a canonical character come into play, like in Reigen in which a canon begins with the clarinet and at another place, slightly modified, starts in the viola. The same canon-idea returns, but now in a more different guise, during the coda of the Marsch, starting with the trumpet.
The most important subjects of the Three pieces are developed in Präludium and Reigen. But during the Marsch new elements are added. One of these is a sharply defined motif which makes its appearance for the first time in the xylophone. During its second time it become's the core of an dramatic stretto, introduced by the 'Hauptstimme' ('Principal voice') of the timpani, and than it serves during the transition-period from the principal climax ('Höhepunkt', as indicated in the score) of the Marsch to the second major climax, first in the timpani and some bars later in the xylophone doubled by the trumpets, and rhythmically by several other instruments.
One of the important characteristics of Berg's Op 6 is the so-called 'secularisation' of the musical landscape. This means that kinds of music which originally do not belong to the respected symphonic establishment - like that of military bands, the café, Folk-song like Hymns and so one and so forth - are becoming part of the material used by the composer. One of the first important examples of this we encounter in the symphonic output of Berg's idol Gustav Mahler, and more in particular in the hybrid first movement of his enormous Third symphony, in which there is at a given moment a real pandemonium of march-formulas not unlike in the second movement of the in 1916 written Fourth symphony by the American composer Charles Ives. Of course, Berg didn't know Ives (his Fourth symphony being premiered in the 1960-ies under Leopold Stokowski) but he adored Mahlers work (during one of the rehearsals of his Third symphony Berg remarked: "This music. We all can stop now!"). Let us just listen to three excerpts: Mahler, Ives and Berg (Marsch)
Widely known is that the Marsch clearly foreshadows Berg's opera Wozzeck. To be precise, the second scene of the first act. In the Marsch it is heard in the trombones, in Wozzeck in the horns and trombones. Of course there are more anticipations of Wozzeck (like for instance the waltz-episode of Reigen which can be linked to the big café-scene of the second act of this opera).
Theodor Adorno, philosopher and composer (and pupil of Berg!) remarked that the finale of Mahlers Sixth symphony served as a model for Berg's Marsch. Berg himself was very clear about this too in a letter to Anton Webern: "There is only one Sixth notwithstanding the Pastoral symphony." The big hammer symbolizes not only the act of destruction of the late 19th century tradition (the 'Höhepunkt' is the point of no return, after which the real destruction begins and the music gets more excerpted, despite several climaxes. It can be seen as a kind of Berg's homage to his spiritual mentor. However, if we compare the trajectory of Mahlers finale with its first hammerblow to Berg's in his Marsch it is clear that Berg is - from a stylistic point of view - thousand miles and more removed from Mahler's idiom.
Another striking example of redefining the Mahlerian idiom in his own style can be discerned in the Marsch, not long before the coda. I am referring to the episode for the trombones in unison, of which the rhetorical shape (and only that, not the pitches) are much indebted to the recitative and climax of the trombones in the opening movement of Mahlers Third symphony, as next two examples will show.
In one respect Berg's goes further back in history by referring in the Marsch to Beethovens Fifth symphony, in using a triplet motif which is subjected to expansion later on in this piece, and becoming more threatening. The next three examples will make this clear, and during its appearance in the third example this motif - before the unison of the already heard trombones - has developed into a real melodic and 'wuchtig' (heavy) statement. And, last but not least, the Beethoven fate motif is integrated in the closing fanfare (Sound Example ).
The last question we have to deal with is: What is the influence of Berg's Three pieces? Both structurally and mentally? In the Netherlands Mathijs Vermeulen (1888-1967) comes rather close to Berg (he didn't know Berg's pieces, as they were premiered in Oldenburg on April 14th, 1930 under the baton of Johannes Schüler) in terms of structural density and expression, although his points of departure differ from Berg. One of his most extreme works is his in 1922 finished expressionistic and dark Third symphony from which I let you listen tot the final section of this one-movement composition for large orchestra.
Sound Example  / Final section Third symphony by Vermeulen
Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963) was very familiar with Berg's music, whose influence is for instance clearly discernable in his Sixth symphony (1953). The first movement is a monumental Adagio, its 'undenliche Melodie' (endless melody) is expanding and transforming itself during the whole trajectory of the piece. It is subsequently subjected to a permutation technique which is very close to the way Berg deals with his material in the Op 6 pieces. The more so while this melody is embedded in an increasing density and a sometimes elaborate polyphonic structure, which in turn serves as a canalisation of enormous explosions of sound as can by heard in this example, an example which makes also clear why Hans Werner Henze (his 10 symphonies are in many respects the sequels of Hartmann's 8 symphonies) adored Hartmann so deeply.
Sound Example  / Excerpt from Hartmann's Sixth symphony
One of the more recent composers of the Netherlands who was very fascinated by Berg was undoubtedly Jan van Vlijmen (1935-2004,) a most important former director of the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. His most ambitious work - apart from his opera's - was his Quaterni for violin, piano, horn, soprano, mixed choir and orchestra (1979-1985) in four big parts. Its underlying concept is a kind of serial thinking within which the enrichment of the material comes close to Berg's transformation technique in his Three orchestral pieces. Furthermore, the big trajectories of Quaterni are much indebted to the model of Wagners Ring. In shortest possible terms: Quaterni is a striking example of the abstract influence of Berg on Van Vlijmen, comparable with the abstract influence of Mahler on Berg. This excerpt contains the transition in Quaterni II to an episode in which the piano plays a predominant role.
Sound Example  / Van Vlijmen: Quaterni II (excerpt)
Pierre Boulez gives new life to the Viennese tradition of writing orchestral pieces in his Notations pour grande orchestre. This composition - still 'work in progress' - is based on his Webern-like aphoristic Douze notations pour piano, completed in 1946. In the late seventies Boulez started his orchestral Notations which must not be seen as 'orchestrations' of the original piano miniatures, far from that, but as a complete rethinking and remodelling of the material in large scale orchestral pieces with a very rich and multi layered structure, where the original content of the piano pieces with the same title only serve as 'coordinates in the landscape'. Boulez admitted that when working on these orchestral works he was strongly - but again: on an abstract level - influenced by Berg, Wagner and Debussy (and in the background: Stravinsky).
Sound Example  / Boulez: Notation II pour orchestre
It goes without saying that the name of the German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann needs to be mentioned with regard to Berg, as his opera Die Soldaten (1966) is the only real sequel to Berg's Wozzeck. In this work of gigantic proportions Zimmermann is not only adapting a polyphony of voices and layers, but of events as well. Without planning a real 'geography of the performance' this opera can not come to life. The instrumental Preludio resembles an intimidating amalgamate of the timpani rhythm of the opening movement of Brahms' First symphony and the complex multilayered polyphony of the Marsch of Berg's Three pieces.
Sound Example  / BA Zimmermann: Preludio to Die Soldaten
We end our journey with Maurice Ravel, whose turbulent orchestral piece La valse can be valued as a kind of - like George Perle, a famous Berg scholar has pointed out - French 'companion', or equal to Berg's Marsch. Like Berg is distorting the march in his Op 6 as a phenomenon, Ravel does the same with his waltz. Both works feature their final destruction.
Sound Example  / Ravel: La valse (closing episode)
Detailed Listing of Sound Examples: