Berg, Alban: Adagio from Kammerkonzert

The word ‘romantic’ is often apologetically applied to the music of ALBAN BERG, like a conceptual pillow, but it is hard to avoid the fact that, however ‘romantic’ it may be in some aesthetic, technical, or historical sense, Berg’s music is unapologetically esoteric. It is full of codes and quotes and secrets, messages to friends, numerological biographies, and geometrical tricks with its tone-rows. The Kammerkonzert (Chamber Concerto), for example, was designed around musical representations of himself and his friends Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg. “If it became known how much friendship, love and a world of human and spiritual references I have smuggled into these three movements,” he wrote, “the adherents of programme music – should there be any left – would go mad with joy.”

The second movement of the Chamber Concerto bears a special code referring to the decline and death of Mathilde Schoenberg (wife of Arnold, to whom the work is dedicated), who was devastated by the loss of her lover Richard Gerstl, who committed suicide after she left him to return to her husband. The central technique is to use a palindrome – music playing forward, then backward – around central bell-chords in the piano, showing music winding-up and then unraveling.

To get lost in these codes is not a fault – it is, in fact, part of the aesthetic. The meanings are as much symbolic as systematic (as much numerological as mathematical), and even Berg’s friends were not entirely privy to their contents. And we must also recognize, broadly speaking, that all music would have a hard time escaping mystery and numerology even if it wanted to. Imagining meaning in apparently arbitrary number-relations is an inescapable fact of our being emo- tionally, physically, and intellectually susceptible to pitch, harmony, and pattern. “Lines, circles, mysterious figures,” sings Berg’s Wozzeck, “if only one could read them.”

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