ALBAN BERG – Lyric Suite

Austrian composer Alban Berg [1885-1935] wrote two works for string quartet. They were his String Quartet – Op. 3, and the work under consideration. The Lyric Suite was written using the twelve-tone methodology, developed by Arnold Schoenberg. Although I have some knowledge of the basic techniques of this method, I don’t claim to understand the detailed workings of the system, so I am going to discuss it in my usual manner, concentrating on my emotional response to the piece. To me, this is a work of total abstraction and I love it! It is in six movements.

The first movement opens in a slightly optimistic mood as the first violin takes centre stage. A pizzicato section sets up a backdrop for the violins to make their musical statements. Melodies do occur, but they tend not to be developed. The end is a flourish. This is a brief movement as are most of the others.

The second movement, marked andante, begins with a lamenting violin played above a sparse background. This is a marvellous soundscape. Now a tempo is introduced and the instruments clash briefly before settling back into a supportive musical environment. A very quite moment ensues and there is some very peaceful, subtle playing. It is almost Romantic, and very alluring. The energy returns with several instrumental flourishes, but there are moments of great peace with the end coming as a surprise.

The third movement features string sound effects for a sustained period. The ensemble beaver away for over a minute, before any recognisable music can be detected. The feeling is quite intense for a time and the sound effects return. It finishes as it started, totally unintelligible but ultimately rewarding.

The next movement, an adagio, develops a sense of gentle abstraction from the start. It is a great place to be. Violins make random statements and an intensity develops; there are melodies to be found here. Now comes a very serene passage, which gradually grows louder with cello interjections, before dropping back into serenity. This, again, is an almost Romantic sound until Berg inserts some microtones for a dissonant effect. The movement ends quietly.

The fifth movement is quite aggressive with dissonant violin thrusts, before it too, drops into serenity. String sound effects abound in this passage. The aggression returns, and the violins seem to whirl in ever diminishing circles. More serenity follows; what a fabulous sound. String harmonics add to the mood. Now we have a return to the previous intensity and the cello is very powerful. A hurried passage takes us to the conclusion.

The final movement starts quietly, I didn’t hear any music for 25 seconds. Assorted scraping noises accompany the violin’s languid melodic lines. Surprisingly, a female soprano voice enters, singing in German. The voice is that of Dawn Upshaw, made famous for her performance of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. The vocal alternates with the ensemble, which offers sound effects as support. The piece becomes very dynamic for a time, then recedes back to a graceful mood with the violin featured. There is another short soprano section, before the music recedes into the distance.

You probably have no idea of how this piece sounds; there are many technical analyses to be found, but I doubt if you will be any the wiser. Apart from Wikipedia, which is a good place to start, there is quite a complex discussion here. However, this is music to be experienced. Overall, I didn’t find it very confronting, but I do enjoy pure abstraction. It’s worth noting that Berg also arranged this piece for orchestra.

One of my friends refers to Berg as ‘the unfortunate smoker’ as he was shot by mistake, after WWII had ended, smoking a cigarette outside his tent.

This music is easily obtainable; Amazon UK has eight pages of current recordings. There is a version on Naxos, Berg: String Quartet / Lyric Suite / Wolf: Italian Serenade, performed by the New Zealand String Quartet, which is at a very nice price. There are several versions on Spotify and YouTube, which has an extraordinary version by the Juilliard String Quartet from 1950.

Listenability: Not as difficult as we are led to believe. It makes me wonder what all the fuss is about.

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