Alban Berg's Lulu Suite:

Those two missing minutes


© Maarten Brandt, April 2011



Prokovjev: Scythian Suite Op 20

Berg: Lulu Suite

Mozart: ‘Ach, ich fühl’s, es ist verschwunden’ from The Magic Flute

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6 in B minor, Op 74 (Pathétique)

Anna Prohaska (soprano), Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela conducted by. Claudio Abbado

Live recording Lucerne Easter Festival, 18/19 March 2010

Accentus ACC 20101 • 112' •

Click here for the full review (in Dutch only)

Those who watch and listen to the performance of Alban Berg’s Lulu Suite maybe in for a big surprise: in the first movement, Rondo and Hymn, no less than two minutes of the most gorgeous music Berg ever wrote are missing. To be precise: all the music between bar 85 and 117 has been wiped out by maestro Claudio Abbado. This has never been done before, and those who cherish this music may just hope that it will not ever be done again. We shall know pretty soon whether or not the Lucerne Festival performance was just an ‘experiment’, as Abbado is scheduled to perform the Lulu Suite with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Berlin Philharmonie on 13, 14 and 15 May.

After having experienced this catastrophic cut our first idea was that an editing mistake had been made, as we could not find any appropriate musical argument for all those missing bars. We decided to find out why the cut had been made in the first place. Our first target: Abbado himself. Instead of giving us a straightforward answer he directed us to Prof Otto Biba of the music library of the Vienna Musikverein, who told us that he, Abbado and Thomas Leibnitz (the director of the music archive of the Austrian National Library) had looked at all existing sources, that many details had been discussed and that Abbado was handed copies. Although not an expert in Berg’s music but quite familiar with all questions about first and second versions as well as ‘Fassung letzter Hand’ and corrected versions he fully agreed with Abbado’s decision to make the cut. Prof Biba felt that what Abbado does is right, period. However, we are not so sure.

The Austrian National Library was so kind to send us a scanned copy of Berg’s hand copy of the printed score of the Lulu Suite (click here for the pdf document). To be very clear on this: it was not the autograph manuscript (which does not exist at all) but a few pages from the printed edition (published in 1935 by Universal Edition in Vienna), which revealed the cut in Berg’s handwriting, and as said, between bar Two pages contain a straight vertical line (presumably made with a ruler) from the top to the bottom of the page. The first line is drawn throughout the middle of bar 85. At the bottom of the page, clearly visible in Berg’s handwriting: <Vi->. The second and last vertical line is located throughout the middle of bar 116. At the bottom of the page, also in Berg’s handwriting: <de>. 

We addressed our questions to the Alban Berg Foundation in Vienna. We got an answer from Mrs Regina Busch, one of the very few leading Berg experts and participating in the Alban Berg ‘Gesamtausgabe’. She wrote that the cut came indeed from Berg himself, and that it was announced as such in a letter from Berg to Erich Kleiber, the conductor who premiered the complete opera Lulu.

These markings correspond exactly with Berg’s annotations in his letter of 17 January 1935 to Kleiber:

“Einen Strich im Rondo habe ich längst vorbereitet: Von Takt 85 4. Viertel bis 116 2. Viertel (Hörner allein), so daß aus diesem neuen Takt quasi ein 5/ 4Takt wird [Notenbeispiel] Einen längeren Strich weiß ich leider nicht.“

The reason for the cut seems obvious: in January Kleiber had written to Berg:

“hat Dir  Reich meinen in aller Devotion getanen Schrei nach einem Sprung im Rondo (Nro 1) übermittelt? Sei nicht böse, ich  spüre es, wenn man die Oper, den Zusammenhang nicht kennt, man  kann die  Spannung nicht so lang halten, besonders nicht im ersten Stück!!“)

It may be that Berg also used this hand copy when attending the rehearsals in Vienna for the first performance under the baton of Oswald Kabasta. However, there is no recording of that performance to verify this.

Without exaggerating the true value of this kind of non-scientific fact finding it seems to be quite clear from the above that Abbado decided to make that cut; but what was the musical argument to do so? Anyone who is familiar with the work will underline the ruinous effect of Abbado’s decision. From a purely musical point of view no one really needs to substantiate that, adding to this that w hen Berg composed his Lulu Suite it did not belong to the ‘canon’ of western European music, as it does today. Almost every orchestra of some importance has it on its repertoire.
Even more so, the omitted bars comprise the most accessible and Mahlerian episode – apart from the first movement of his Violin concerto – Berg ever wrote. We may even distinguish the key of F sharp minor, the very same key which Mahler adopted in his unfinished Tenth symphony. There is another ‘encounter’ with Mahler’s last symphony in the Suite’s final Adagio: the famous ‘Todesschrei’* is shaped as a massive twelve note chord akin to the cluster-like climax in the Adagio of Mahlers Tenth.

The correspondence back and forth with Abbado and his assistant proved fruitless. His assistant in Bologna, Diego Ravetti, informed us repeatedly that Abbado would reveal his thoughts about the matter, but nothing came from it.

Unfortunately, the same must be said of Universal Edition. They could neither tell us whether a so-called ‘Revisionsbericht’ was in preparation nor that the composer’s cut in the printed score was ‘incidental’ (needless to say that if not there should be correspondence, e.g. a letter by the composer confirming that).

The Lucerne Festival artist’s management failed to verify that the cut had or had not been mentioned in the concert’s program notes. There was some vague reference to the printer of the booklet; needless to say that the DVD booklet does not contain any reference to the cut. Thus it happens to be that those who do not know Berg’s masterpiece very well are not (made) aware of two missing minutes of music in the first movement of the piece.

One might argue that the cut does not show much respect for Alban Berg's musical heritage; and that Abbado's dicision was taken at random. Therefore, it is a pity that our contacts with Claudio Abbado proved fruitless at the end. He could have given his answers, but he preferred not to.

In all his previous recordings Abbado performed the Lulu Suite in its completed form, without any cut. He only changed his mind for his performance in Lucerne, but we believe that this is alarming indeed as it may have set the course for future abridged performances, be it by Abbado or by other conductors..

Maarten Brandt

* The ‘Todesschrei’ is not to be expressed literally: the voice has to remain silent (unlike Prohaska did in this performance).