Friday, September 10, 2010

Berg and His Legacy

It's probably not usual to have one's earliest exposure to opera be those of Alban Berg's, but they were for me. The small but prescient Darien Library of my youth had the superb Deutsche Grammophon recording of Wozzeck, conducted by the underappreciated Karl Böhm, and I must have taken it out ten times, eventually asking my family to buy me the similarly cast discs of Lulu (which took me longer to appreciate. But at age 17, having seen not much more than The Gondoliers, La Bohème, and having heard little more than I Pagliacci and Il Trovatore, these works were a leap off the mountain into ice cold waters of the twentieth century. These works grew in depth for me the more one read about them. Initially, the Theodor Adorno book on Berg, which I learned was a bunch of hooie (and suspected it pretty early on); and finally the two monumental books by George Perle, which convinced me that if anyone wants to understand Berg, especially his two operas, they must read these volumes. Probably no one thought more about the works, or synthesized more intellectual threads than the late Professor Perle (whose own musical compositions I am rather indifferent to). Nonetheless, Berg at his most emotional is terrific - terrifying, really. That last interlude from Wozzeck, after the murder of Marie, and just before the children's ring-a-rosie scene, it is the culmination of all the musical ideas in the opera:

And while it meanders into one atonal, lunatic phrase after the next, it starts and ends in D minor (and is called an 'invention on a key'), and apparently is based on an earlier, tonal, abandoned work that Berg managed to meld with themes that have preceeded it in the opera.

When I was growing up, there was very little about Alban Berg available (except for that awful book by Adorno). One had to listen and make judgments based on observation. I bought the score to Wozzeck ("Are you going to play this?" said the incredulous man behind the counter at Schirmer's), and tried to study it in the light of twelve-tone music, and, very frustrated, learned from Perle's book that it wasn't twelve-tonal at all (damn), but freely tonal, reined in by many constricting parameters. Inventions, dances, a passacaglia, a chorale. It was so full of inventiveness that I thought "he was Schoenberg's pupil?? -- he should have been his teacher!"

But then, as in so many other things, others caught on, and now every opera house does one opera or the other, and the audience is either all devotées, or hostile and walk out before the good parts. And once the regies take over, suddenly it's not about what we all though it was about any longer. In this scene, Margaret, who is supposed to be a simple woman singing in a tavern, is luridly gawking and looking like a boil on the face of the drama--or do I overstep?

Johann Woyzeck, the historical Wozzeck, was as simple as can be. Now it's up to the Great Complexicators to show us he's something else.

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