Alban Berg: Lyric Suite

Program Note

The first performance of Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite was given in 1927 at the Baden-Baden Festival by the Kolisch Quartet. The piece was well received at its first hearing, with an audience demand for a second performance. Aaron Copland was also in attendance at the premiere, and later described the piece as “one of the best quartets written in recent years.” 

The work’s narrative flow is immediately apparent: its six movements present a dramatic sweep of character and gesture, from a spirited introduction leading through passion and outpouring, concluding in desolation. Guiding this “emotional” structure is Berg’s first use of his former teacher Schoenberg’s twelve tone technique (a process of ordering all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale without overt repetition as a device for rendering structure). In the Lyric Suite this technique is rendered in audible ways, namely as a melody at the outset by the first violin, and as small melodic fragments governing the harmonic language and structure throughout. With the drama are musical quotations, in the fourth movement from Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony (also a family acquaintance of Berg) and, in the sixth movement, a quotation from the opening of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The philosopher of music and aesthetics Theodor Adorno, who studied with Berg, famously referred to the entire Lyric Suite as a “latent opera”. 

After fifty years of performances, and heralded as one of Berg’s greatest works, the Lyric Suite was granted another prospective dimension of understanding largely through the initial discoveries of composer-scholars George Perle and Douglass Green. A published score of the Lyric Suite, annotated by Berg and given to his mistress Hannah Fuchs-Robettin, outlines specific elements in the music itself rendering their “secret” affair. Among them: the initials of Alban and Hannah as the motive A-B(b)-B natural-[German ‘H’]-F throughout the work, especially in the tumultuous third movement; the nickname of Hannah’s daughter Dorothea (“Do-do”) rendered rhythmically as a repeated note C, especially in the second movement; the pervasive use of the numbers 23 and 10 representing Alban and Hannah respectively (all metronomic indications in the six movements save one are multiples of 23 or 10); and, in the final movement, a setting of Baudelaire’s “De profundis clamavi” [“From the depths I cry out”], in German translation, with a vocal line split among members of the quartet. All of this ‘secret program’ would certainly seem to lend the work an extra dimension, as a deeply profound and personal reflection of the course of an affair destined to be unfulfilled (with the Wagner quotation being entirely appropriate). While these discoveries shed light on an overtly dramatic work (with the added attraction of a composer’s “intentions” seemingly laid bare), Berg’s program was clearly meant to be secret, with the work’s latent drama remaining as powerful as felt by the audience at its first performance.

—Stephen Coxe