Alban Berg ‘Vier Stücke’: Charismatic Miniatures

Good day, readers! Today’s blog is on a composer who I admire very much – Alban Berg. Recently, I have been to a wealth of concerts in and around Sheffield which have inspired me to try to write more regularly on different musics so that they can be shared with as many people as possible. I attended a recital not long ago, and heard this Berg piece again and remembered how much I liked it – so today’s blog is on Berg’s Vier Stücke for clarinet and piano.

Berg was born in Vienna, 1885 to a family who were comfortable with their placing in society (although this did shift somewhat when Berg’s father, Conrad, died in 1900). As a child, and even at points in his young teenage years, Berg was more interested in literature than music. Around age 15 he started to teach himself how to read music so that he could have a go at composing. Berg had to grow up very quickly though, because age 17 he fathered a child with Marie Scheuchi, who was a servant girl in the Berg household. Purusing his musical interests further, Berg became a student of Arnold Schoenberg in 1904, where he received his first formal music education. With Schoenberg, Berg studied the basics of counterpoint, harmony and theory, and was a student of Schoenberg’s until 1911 (after which they stayed lifelong friends).

In his early composition career, Berg wrote songs and piano sonatas, with his Piano Sonata No. 1 becoming one of his most formidable early works. Similar to Schoenberg’s technique, Berg was taught the idea of ‘developing variation’, which means all aspects of a composition are derived from a simple single idea. Berg was a part of Vienna’s cultural elite during the turn-of-the-Century. In 1911, Berg married the singer Helene Nahowski. In 1913 his Five songs on Picture Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg were premiered in Vienna, conducted by Schoenberg. The songs were accompanied by a large orchestra, but the concert caused a riot and had to be stopped. This, of course, came as a massive blow in Berg’s self-confidence, so he withdrew the work, which is such a shame as it is perhaps his most innovative in his catalogue of orchestral works. This particular work was not performed in full again until 1952, over 20 years since the composer’s death, with it not even being officially published until 1966.

Between the years 1915-1918, Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian Army. During a period of leave in 1917, he started work on his first (and most certainly his most well-known) opera, Wozzeck. After the end of World War I, Berg settled back in Vienna and began working with Schoenberg with his Society for Private Musical Performances. Being a rather superstitious man, Berg had an affiliation with the number 23, and he based a few of his works around this number. It is not known for definite what this number meant to him, but one theory is that because his first asthma attack was on the 23rd of a month, it has stayed with him. Another theory is that it is based on Fliess’ biorhythm cycle, which is also 23 days.

Once World War II had broken out, it became much harder for the musical world in the 1930s in Vienna and Germany. The rise of antisemitism and the Nazi ideology meant that modernity was denounced. This also meant that Berg was in a bit of bother because he was a student under the Jewish composer, Arnold Schoenberg. After not very long, Berg’s music was place on the list of degenerate music, and he was not allowed to perform his music in public. In 1932 Berg moved to a secluded place in Carinthia, Austria, where he was able to work in seclusion. There, he worked on his Violin Concerto and Lulu. Berg’s music, much like Schoenberg’s, uses the twelve-tone technique which enables the composer to be creative tonality and atonality. Berg is remembered for being one of the most important composers of the 20th Century and is the most performed opera composer from the Second Viennese School. Interestingly, his works are seen as more emotional than that of Schoenberg’s, which infers he brought more ‘human values’ to his music. Berg composed with both Romantic lyricism and modernity in mind, which created a phenomenal amalgamation of works which kept the Viennese tradition of classical music, whilst still being innovative. Berg died from blood poisoning on 24th December 1935 in Vienna.

Vier Stücke was composed in 1913 and are perhaps Berg’s only true miniatures. His wife, Helene, writes that he composed them in June, which means it was in the same month as his fateful visit to his tutor, Schoenberg. It is recorded that this meeting was somewhat traumatic for Berg as Schoenberg supposedly heavily criticised his student for working on small-scale works and was insistent he worked on large extended orchestral works. It has also been researched and found that Schoenberg not only criticised Berg’s music, but also his personality, which knocked the young composer’s confidence even more so.

Vier Stücke premiered in 1919 in Vienna. The four different pieces in the collection undergo constant changes in tempo, articulation and dynamics, which make them very exciting. The four movements are marked as follows:

1. Mäßig

2. Sehr langsam

3. Sehr rasch

4. Langsam

The first and last movements are much longer than the middle two, with the second being a slow movement and the third being a scherzo-like movement. As these are minatures, the whole pan out only 59 bars, but within this Berg takes you through a wealth of different emotional states. The set takes around 8-9 minutes to perform and the work as a whole is much more ignited when given full attention from the listener.

  1. Mäßig

The first movement Mäßig, begins with a cheeky motif played by the clarinet, before the piano enters with an uneasy progression of chords. The clarinet and piano play very different motifs which layer onto one another to create the ‘blow your mind’ feeling. The clarinet is using a wide range of notes, including those nearer the bottom the tessitura, which bring a very rich effect to the piece. Flutter-tonguing is also used to create a different timbral effect, and you can hear this on the motif that descends in the clarinet. There are hints of lyricism, but also that of mystery and uneasiness in the open chords that are played. The piano plays a very high motif, which then descends to the bottom of the piano. The dynamic is very quiet at this point and the movement eerily dies away.

2. Sehr langsam

The second movement begins with delicately placed repeated chords from the piano. The clarinet enters with uncomfortable intervals, which I find create such an aura around the soloist. The piano stays in the middle range for the first part of this movement, where the clarinet is up in its top range, which creates a much more piercing sound. There are moments of silence from the piano, and then it returns once more to play against the clarinet. Slight pitch bending is used to nod towards the use of the twelve-tone scale. The piano plays the starting chords over again in a lower octave to round off this movement.

3. Sehr rasch

This movement is much quicker than the previous two, and it acts as the scherzo movement of the four pieces. It begins with a fast-paced motif from the piano which is soon interrupted by the clarinet. The tempo shifts from manic, to slightly slower and more controlled. This movement is very colourful and the mixture of timbres between the piano and clarinet are really celebrated in this movement. The end of the movement is a burst of fast-moving motifs by both instruments, with the clarinet using flutter tonguing once more. The movement then ends abruptly.

4. Langsam

The final movement of Vier Stücke is the longest of all the movements and starts at a very slow tempo. The piano plays repeated dissonant chords. The clarinet joins in with a solemn melody, which hints at Berg’s Romantic lyricism once more. This movement is ever so quiet and the control from the clarinet and piano make it incredibly eerie and towards the unknown. Trills are passed from piano to clarinet and the two instruments work together to come back to a sort of reprise of the beginning of the movement. The piano plays the same chords, and the clarinet enters with a new motif. The tempo then changes very suddenly to a very quick and tempestuous pace. The clarinet races up to the piercing top range of the instrument, whereas the piano goes the opposite way and goes to the bottom of the piano. The thunderous sounds by the piano bring a very a new emotion to the front: anger. Very quickly, again, the tempo starts going down to the first speed. The harmonics of the piano are left to ring, whilst the clarinet enters and plays a short lyrical motif. The piano plays again and the pair come to a very quiet end.

Vier Stücke is such a wonderful set of miniatures which highlight and celebrate the sound and different characteristics of the clarinet and piano. The different timbres, tones and registers are tested and the outcome is incredibly exciting. Berg is such a fantastic and influential composer, even if he does make your mind melt into jelly at times! This set of miniatures is definitely worth your time and attention – they’re so very intriguing.

I was reminded of Vier Stücke after attending a final MMus recital by my friend, Beth Nichol. Congratulations on becoming a Master of Music! What a fantastic recital – this blog is dedicated to you (and a massive thank you for all your help over the years!).

Happy Reading!

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