Storms of Emotion
When Alban Berg set out for the International Music Festival in Prague in May of 1925 at the invitation of Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, he could not have anticipated that this journey would provoke an emotional storm in him: “I am no longer myself since this greatest of events,” he confessed to his hostess later. “One thought alone animates me, one desire, one longing: you!” The secret love affair continued until the end of the year – in Berg’s Lyric Suite it reverberates until today.
Not until the letters between Berg and his “eternal love” as well as a score with handwritten notes by the composer were discovered in the 1970s did the work reveal its explosive secret programme. The title is a reminiscence of the song cycle Lyric Symphony by Alexander von Zemlinsky, to whom the Lyric Suite is dedicated. Berg set the stirring memories of his fateful encounter to music under the guise of an ostensibly innocuous string quartet.
A brief liaison
While the six highly expressive movements of the quartet capture this encounter in its entirety, from the carefree first meeting to the painful separation, the second, third and fourth movements, arranged for string orchestra by the composer in 1927, explore the amorous centrepiece of the brief liaison, climaxing with the passionate declaration of love in the Trio estatico. Disguising the work as an homage to his friend Zemlinsky, Berg twice quotes a melody from the Lyric Symphony to the words “You are my own”, and even the most nit-picking analysts were not able to discover the initials HF and AB woven throughout the intricate twelve-tone movement without the annotated score.
“More an expression of feeling than painting”
One of the first works to add lyrical content to abstract music was Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. Its programme was never a secret, however, but was already made public at its premiere under the title “Recollections of Country Life”. A contemporary critic reacted with astonishment and slight displeasure: “The path that [Beethoven] maps out is eccentric: he raises us above the ordinary and transports us, though rather roughly at times, into the realm of fantasy.” For Beethoven himself the composition of the “Pastoral” was a balancing act in which the music was never intended to be a mere illustration of the programme. Although he dared to imitate the calls of the cuckoo, quail and nightingale quite naturalistically, a musical menagerie such as that heard in Haydn’s Creation would never have occurred to him. Accordingly, he made it clear in the programme note for the premiere that the symphony was “more an expression of feeling than painting”.
It was no coincidence that Beethoven’s Fifth, known as the “Fate Symphony”, was performed at the same concert. He had worked on both symphonies at the same time, and they are complementary siblings: whereas the Fifth insistently builds up momentum until its triumphant finale, the relaxed flow of the “Pastoral” conveys tranquillity and expansiveness. The two symphonies were still played in reverse order in December of 1808; only later did Beethoven change their numbering. The turbulent introspection of the personal struggle with fate thus finds its energetic counterweight in the liberating external perspective of a universal experience of nature, which ends with “happy and thankful feelings after the storm”.