Skip to main content

Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

Alban Berg

BORN: February 9, 1885. Vienna, Austria

DIED: December 24, 1935. Vienna

COMPOSED: Summer 1913 through Autumn 1915, orchestration revised in 1929. Dedicated “to my teacher and friend Arnold Schoenberg, in boundless gratitude and love”

WORLD PREMIERE: The first two movements on June 5, 1923, in Berlin, with Anton Webern conducting; the complete set on April 14, 1930, in Oldenburg, with Johannes Schüler conducting the revised orchestration

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1978. Edo de Waart led. MOST RECENT—January 2015. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 4 flutes (doubling piccolos), 4 oboes (4th doubling English horn), 4 clarinets (3rd doubling E-flat clarinet) and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, contrabass tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, 2 suspended cymbals (1 attached to bass drum), large and small tam-tam, tenor drum, triangle, large hammer (with a non-metallic sound), glockenspiel, xylophone, celesta, 2 harps, and strings

DURATION: About 19 mins

THE BACKSTORY Alban Berg did not get off to a promising start. A terrible student, he had to repeat two separate years of high school before he could graduate. A fling with the family’s kitchen-maid led to his attaining fatherhood at the age of seventeen. Though passionate about music, he was clearly not cut out for academic success, and he sensibly accepted a position as an unpaid intern for some civil-service position.

The decisive step toward his eventual career arrived in the autumn of 1904, when he and Anton Webern signed up for composition lessons with Arnold Schoenberg, who had placed a newspaper advertisement in the hope of attracting pupils. Schoenberg, who was a little more than ten years older than Berg and was not yet famous, stopped offering formal classes after a year, frustrated that most of his pupils showed no aptitude for composition. But the talented students, including both Webern and Berg, stuck with him. Schoenberg did not mandate that his students adopt his own compositional methods; indeed, Webern and Berg developed strikingly individualistic voices.

Berg made immense progress during his formal studies with Schoenberg, which continued from 1904 until 1911. Writing to his publisher in 1911, Schoenberg remarked: “Alban Berg is an extraordinarily gifted composer, but the state he was in when he came to me was such that his imagination apparently could not work on anything but lieder.…He was absolutely incapable of writing an instrumental movement or inventing an instrumental theme.”

That shortcoming was rectified by the time Berg composed his Three Pieces for Orchestra in the span of 1913–15. The work fully demonstrates his fluency in manipulating a huge orchestra toward an expressive end. Direct inspiration for the piece seems to have come from Berg’s witnessing the posthumous premiere of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in June 1912. One might fairly say that he picked up where Mahler left off; the Three Pieces for Orchestra takes Mahlerian transformation and exaggeration to an extreme, all overlaid upon a structure of traditional dance-types, such as ländler, waltz, and march.

Berg had hoped to present the set to Schoenberg as a fortieth-birthday present, that day falling on September 13, 1914. The work went slowly. “I keep asking myself, again and again,” he wrote to his mentor, “whether what I express [in this piece], often brooding over certain bars for days on end, is any better than my last things.” Berg offered them to his teacher along with a letter that speaks volumes about their relationship: “My hope to write something…I could dedicate to you without incurring your displeasure has been repeatedly disappointed for several years.…I cannot tell today whether I have succeeded or failed. Should the latter be the case, then in your fatherly benevolence, Mr. Schoenberg, you must take the goodwill for the deed.”

THE MUSIC Everything is meticulously organized in these complex movements, which are unified by the careful interweaving of thematic material. The first two pieces perfectly balance the length of the third. In fact, the first two movements were premiered as a pair (not until 1923), but even then Marsch had to be delayed due to insufficient rehearsal time and was not heard until seven years later. (The published score allows that the first two movements may be presented without the third.) The Three Pieces for Orchestra grew out of a project Berg had intended to be a symphony, and he never entirely relinquished that connection.

When the set was premiered in its entirety, in 1930, he characterized Praeludium as a symphonic first movement, Reigen as encompassing a “scherzo and slow movement (in that order!),” and Marsch as a symphonic finale—at least if one wanted to view it as a “fictitious symphony.” Certainly this work’s proportions and thematic treatment are very different from those of traditional symphonies. Berg pushed the symphonic envelope very far.

Praeludium begins and ends with the sounds of percussion, soft and shadowed. In between, the music builds through several episodes (passing through a solo violin passage of arresting beauty) and reaching an impressive sonic climax in the middle—a large-scale arch that is easily apprehended by the listener.

The title of the second movement, Reigen, has undergone considerable scrutiny. Though it is usually translated into English as “Round-dance” and sometimes as “Rounds,” which are not incorrect equivalents, the musicologist Derrick Puffett has argued that a more telling connection may be to Arthur Schnitzler’s famous (and scandalous) play Reigen, which traces the sexual connections among ten characters. Berg owned a copy. In the play, character A connects to B, B to C, C to D, and on until I connects to J and finally J to A, bringing the cycle full circle. Although Puffett does not find in this movement any rigorous reflection of Schnitzler’s structure, he notices enough hints to lead him to wonder: “Could it be that Reigen is really a set of variations?” Berg suggested that this movement served as point of departure for the Inn Scene (Act II, Scene 4) in his Wozzeck, the opera he had set aside temporarily in order to compose the Three Orchestral Pieces. Its hazy opening gradually coalesces into a drunken waltz—a nineteenth-century ideal run amok in the period of World War I (thus prefiguring Ravel’s La Valse, composed only a few years later).

In his 1968 analytical study Alban Berg, the critic, philosopher, and Berg pupil Theodor W. Adorno reported on his first encounter with Marsch from the Three Pieces for Orchestra:

Berg let himself go with complete abandon in the March from the Three Pieces for Orchestra, an absolutely stupendous work….When he showed me the score and explained it I remarked of the first visual impression: “That must sound like playing Schoenberg’s [Five] Orchestral Pieces and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, all at the same time.” I will never forget the look of pleasure this compliment—dubious for any other cultured ear—induced. With a ferocity burying all Johannine gentleness like an avalanche, he answered: “Right, then at last one could hear what an eight-note brass chord really sounds like,” as if convinced no audience could survive such a sonority….

It is a jaw-dropping conclusion to this set, sonically powerful, emotionally concentrated, and tipping its hat to Mahler by including hammer-strokes to intensify the sense of catastrophe, much as Mahler had done in his Sixth Symphony. —James M. Keller

LISTEN AGAIN: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media)

PODCASTS: For more on Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra visit…