On May 22, 1911, a quiet funeral was held for Gustav Mahler at Vienna’s Grinzing Cemetery. A wreath, laid on the grave by Arnold Schoenberg and a group of his students, included a card which read, “This rich man through whom we have come to know the deepest sorrow—the loss of the saintly Gustav Mahler—has left us, for life, a model we cannot lose: his work and his works.”
Nowhere are the aftertones of Mahler more apparent than in Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6, written between 1913 and 1915. Scored for enormous orchestral forces, this music unleashes a turbulent and haunting drama. Swirling, irrepressible Voices, including fleeting ghosts from Mahler’s symphonies, enter into a wild, cosmic conversation.
Days before the posthumous June 26, 1912 premiere of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Berg was “immersed” in a piano score of the work. In a letter to Arnold Schoenberg he wrote, “This is music no longer of this world. Mysteriously beautiful and magnificent.” Allusions to the “failing heartbeat” motif of Mahler’s Ninth can be heard throughout the Three Pieces for Orchestra, which Berg began composing a year later. (Maarten Brandt shows that this motif occurs in other Berg works, such as the opera Lulu and the Violin Concerto, and draws additional parallels with the Trauermarsch from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung). Mahler’s Ninth, perhaps the ultimate “farewell symphony,” finds a strange catharsis in the disintegration of Romanticism and tonality. Berg’s Three Pieces ventures into the landscape on the other side of this breakdown. The conductor Michael Tilson Thomas describes it as “music which sounds like Mahler’s Thirteenth Symphony.”
As with Mahler’s music, Berg’s Op. 6 opens the door to a stream of disparate “characters.” Military marches blend with street music, the waltz, and the Ländler. The final moments revisit the searing trombone passage from the first movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony (19:47). The four-note fanfare motif which opens the Fifth Symphonies of both Beethoven and Mahler returns as a haunting presence. The piece concludes with the same fateful hammer blow we hear in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.
Berg dedicated the Three Pieces for Orchestra to his teacher, Schoenberg. The Three Pieces developed from a project that Berg intended to be a symphony. An underlying motivic unity suggests a “fictitious symphony,” as Berg called it in 1930. Following the initial Praeludium, the composer suggested that the second piece (Reigen) constitutes a “scherzo and slow movement (in that order!).” The concluding Marsch is as long as the first two pieces combined. Written during the outbreak of the First World War, it is distorted and surreal. The composer George Perle gave the following description:
Fragmentary rhythmic and melodic figures typical of an orthodox military march repeatedly coalesce into polyphonic episodes of incredible density that surge to frenzied climax, then fall apart. It is not a march, but music about a march, or rather about the march, just as Ravel’s La valse is music in which the waltz is similarly reduced to its minimum characteristic elements.
In 1968, Theodor W. Adorno, a student of Berg, wrote,
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….
David Afkham leads the Frankfurt Radio Symphony in this 2019 performance:
Featured Image: “Mandrill” (1913), Franz Marc