Program Notes

Seven Early Songs


BORN: February 9, 1885, Vienna, Austria

DIED: December 23, 1935. Vienna

COMPOSED: Between 1905 and July 1908 as songs with piano; Berg revised and orchestrated them in 1928, completing that task by the end of April. The piano versions were published in 1928, the orchestral score not until 1969

WORLD PREMIERE: “Die Nachtigall,” “Traumgekrönt,” and “Liebesode” were performed by Elsa Pazeller and Karl Horwitz on November 7, 1907 in Vienna at a concert of music by pupils of Arnold Schoenberg. The first performance of all seven songs was given by Lisa Frank with the composer at the piano on a broadcast from Radio Berlin on February 27, 1929. The first performance of all seven songs in the orchestral version was given in Vienna on November 6, 1928, by Claire Born with Robert Heger conducting

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—June 1995. Solveig Kringelborn was the soloist and Herbert Blomstedt conducted. MOST RECENT—May 2009. Michelle DeYoung was soloist and Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, trumpet, 2 trombones, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, triangle, tam-tam, cymbals and suspended cymbal, harp, celesta ad lib., and strings

DURATION: About 15 mins

THE BACKSTORY Obviously no young composer sits down and writes a work to which he then gives the title of Seven Early Songs. Alban Berg was in his forties when he culled these seven songs for publication and performance from the eighty-six he had composed between 1900 and 1908. In 1928, Berg was the celebrated composer of Wozzeck, which had been staged in Berlin in 1925, and of the Lyric Suite for String Quartet, introduced in Vienna in 1927. He had embarked on a second opera, Lulu. But this, he could see, would occupy him for a long time (he was in fact still working on Act 3 when he died), and he thought it useful to have a new work to present to his suddenly large and interested public. So it was that Berg came to combine these inspired and spontaneous utterances of his young years, when he was in the thrall of Hugo Wolf, late Bruckner, Mahler, and Debussy, with the orchestral gorgeousness and fantasy of his post-Wozzeck maturity.

In his superb study The Music of Alban Berg, Douglas Jarman points out Berg's lifelong preoccupation with symmetry. In the ordering of the Seven Early Songs, this takes the form of imposing "a symmetrical shape upon the group by scoring the third song for strings and the fifth for wind alone, the second and sixth for reduced orchestra, and the first and seventh songs for full orchestra, so that the whole set pivots around the central fourth song." 

THE MUSIC The first song, "Nacht," written in the spring of 1908, is one of the last of the seven to be composed. The music suggests the subterranean mysteries of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande as well as Schoenberg's Gurrelieder (not yet orchestrated, but almost certainly known to Berg). The poet, Carl Hauptmann (1858-1921), was of the Naturalist school in his young years, but moved toward Expressionism.

The unhappy Nicolaus Lenau (1802-50) is best known for his Don Juan, the basis of Richard Strauss's tone poem. Berg's delicate setting of his "Schilflied," contemporary with "Nacht," brings to mind the composer's passionate love of Mahler.

"Die Nachtigall," on verses by the Romantic poet Theodor Storm (1817-88), is a song of glorious sweep and richness. Berg composed it in the spring of 1907. This is where he comes closest to the nineteenth century in spirit and sound. The scoring for strings is richly elaborate, each section (except the basses) being divided in two, half muted, half not.

By contrast, the elaborate "Traumgekrönt," to a disturbing poem by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), is the song that leans furthest into the twentieth century. It is dated August 1907.

"Im Zimmer," the briefest of these songs and almost as French Impressionist in sound as "Nacht," was written in the summer of 1905 and is the earliest piece Berg was willing to admit into the official canon. The poet, Johannes Schlaf (1862-1941), was one of the most popular German lyricists of the day. Another of Berg's preoccupations was with the number 23 and its multiples; Jarman remarks that when Berg published "Im Zimmer," he changed the metronome mark from quarter-note = 82 to 69. This is the song that is scored without strings, though Berg does include harp and suspended cymbal. Mahler's Rückert song "Um Mitternacht," for winds with timpani, harp, and piano, is a likely model here. 

"Liebesode," composed in the fall of 1906, is impassioned, yet at the same time held in. Here Berg sets a nocturne by Otto Erich Hartleben (1864-1905), forever associated with Schoenberg as the German translator of Pierrot Lunaire. Here, too, Berg changed his metronome mark, in this instance from 63 to 46.

The cycle closes with what is in fact the last of these songs to be composed, "Sommertage," from the summer of 1908. Its melancholy music leans to Romanticism as much as does the poem of his school friend Paul Hohenberg (1884-1944).—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music

Recordings: Renée Fleming with Claudio Abbado conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Jessye Norman with Pierre Boulez conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical)  |  Jane Eaglen with Donald Runnicles conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical)

Reading: Alban Berg, by Karen Monson (Houghton Mifflin)  |  The New Grove Second Viennese School, with the section on Berg written by George Perle (Norton)  |  The Music of Alban Berg, by Douglas Jarman (University of California Press)

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