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Serial Drama: Bard Music Festival celebrates composer Alban Berg by Peter Aaron

Making the case for 12-tone serialism to those whose ears are only partially open can pose a challenge. As with avant-garde jazz, the music generally eschews a tonal center and rarely offers the listener the lifeline of a recurring melody. But just as the shrill, fiery blasts of Albert Ayler impacted the more accepted work of John Coltrane, the music of Alban Berg (1885-1935)—the focus of this year’s Bard Music and SummerScape Festivals—and his Modernist companions of the Second Viennese School, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, has had a strong influence on many pivotal composers who followed—Stravinsky, Bartok, Satie, Boulez, Gershwin, and Glass, to name a few. And though the early 20th-century Austrians’ output makes no apologies for its potential esotericism, it’s also music beloved for the impressionistic Romantic style passed down from an earlier local, Gustav Mahler. Berg’s compositions, however, are known as the most Romantic of the latter Vienna scene, though the tag pertains more to his music’s highly expressive, lyrical side, rather than any literal allusions to romantic love. But those are in there, too—for one who knows where to listen.

“Berg’s music can be very autobiographical, there are a lot of secrets and personal clues hidden within his pieces,” says professor Christopher H. Gibbs, Bard Music Festival’s co-artistic director, who will oversee two talks on Berg for the event. “For instance, his most famous work, the [1935] Violin Concerto, is said to have encrypted references to a mistress he had. Some of the keys he would use would be the initials of a girlfriend, and so on.” Additionally, his 1926 Lyric Suite has been shown to contain elaborate ciphers alluding to a clandestine affair, and for literal romance the opera Lulu (1935)—Berg’s “sexual horror story”—was highly controversial.

But of his many mesmerizing works Lulu was by no means the only one that caused a kerfuffle; 1912’s Five Songs on Picture Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg sparked riots when it was premiered the following year, and the performance had to be halted. His first opera, Wozzeck (1922), a tale of jealousy and murder with music that evokes insanity, was savaged by critics when it was first performed in 1925, although it eventually became a hit and is now considered one of the 20th century’s most important works. Unsurprisingly, Berg’s music, along with that of his fellow Modernists, was banned by the Nazis for its “degenerate” properties.

The son of a salesman, Berg learned piano from his aunt and at a young age began writing songs without any formal studies. A moody and undisciplined teenager, he flunked school and endured a doomed love affair and the death of his early hero, composer Hugo Wolf, all of which led to an unsuccessful suicide attempt. Had it not been for his brother Charley, who took his compositions to Schoenberg, Alban might have languished in his day job as an accountant. The elder Schoenberg took Berg on as a student, and, after the young composer did a brief stint in the army, he completed Wozzeck, followed by his Chamber Concerto (1925) and Lyric Suite (1926), the latter marked with a sung tribute to a “secret” lover, Hanna Fuchs-Robertin. (Berg had married the singer Helene Nahowski in 1911.)

Berg’s last efforts include his most popular work, the divinely elegiac Violin Concerto, which was hailed for its incorporation of tonality within the 12-tone form, and was written in 1935 in remembrance of Alma Mahler’s departed daughter. Out of work due to Nazi blacklisting and unable to afford medical care, Berg himself died from blood poisoning later that year, before he could finish the above-mentioned Lulu. (The opera’s partially written third act was completed in 1976 by composer Friedrich Cerha.)

In addition to SummerScape’s enticing calendar of Berg-related films and theatrical and dance productions, for the 2010 installment of the Bard Music Festival, which this year runs through August 22 and centers on a different composer each season, the campus will host talks, panels, symposiums, and, of course, concerts. But besides performances of Berg’s music, the programs, several of which will be conducted by Bard’s president, Leon Botstein, will also feature works by Berg’s contemporaries, composers he influenced, and those who influenced him.

“People say Berg is like Mahler on drugs,” says Gibbs with a laugh. “He’s been called one of the least audience-friendly composers, but at the same time his music is very lush, very lyrical, full of drama. And then you have all of these hidden subtexts about his private life, which I think are palpable even if you don’t know the stories. [With the SummerScape program] we’re aiming to refocus his image, to get the audience to look at him through a different light.”

Christopher H. Gibbs will moderate the panel “Berg: His Life and Career” at Olin Hall on August 14 and give a pre-concert talk for the program “Modernism and Its Discontent” at Sosnoff Hall on August 21. All events take place on Bard College’s campus in Annandale-on-Hudson. A full schedule is available at 845.758.7900.

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