Berg’s “Altenberg Lieder”: Five Orchestral Songs on Postcard Texts

The year 1913 was infamous for riotous musical premieres.

The May 29, 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in Paris remains the most famous example. Yet, an equally scandalous event occurred two months earlier on March 31 at Vienna’s Musikverein.

The program, conducted by Arnold Schoenberg, included Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6, Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9, and two of Alban Berg’s Five Orchestral Songs after Postcards by Peter Altenberg, Op. 4. Berg’s songs (Nos. 2 and 3) were received with “loud laughter,” and then a full-blown riot erupted. The event’s organizer, Erhard Buschbeck, purportedly slapped a concertgoer in the face, leading to a lawsuit. The operetta composer, Oscar Straus, witnessed the alleged assault and testified that the percussive slap was the most harmonious sound of the evening. The police were called, and what became known as the Skandalkonzert concluded before the final work, Mahler’s Kindertodtenlieder, could be performed. 

The twenty-seven year old Alban Berg withdrew the Five Orchestral Songs (also known as the Altenberg Lieder) and issued a letter of apology to his teacher and mentor, Schoenberg. When Schoenberg dismissed the work and encouraged his student to move in a new direction, Berg’s confidence was shaken further. It was not until 1950, fifteen years after Berg’s death, that the Altenberg Lieder would be performed again.

The five-song cycle, composed for mezzo-soprano, inhabits a dreamscape of shimmering orchestral color. Its fleeting duration lasts only twelve minutes. We hear echoes of Mahler and an homage to nineteenth century Romanticism. At the same time, the tonal center is cut adrift. The musicologist Mark DeVoto suggests that the Altenberg Lieder was an “amazing leap into the visionary unknown” which anticipated Schoenberg’s twelve-tone rows by a decade. Structurally, the piece is a marvel of symmetry. The text is a setting of five poems by Peter Altenberg (1859-1919), an eccentric Viennese modernist who sent brief verses to friends on postcards.

The songs are:

  1. Seele, wie bist du schöner (“Soul, how much more beautiful are you”)
  2. Sahst du nach dem Gewitterregen den Wald? (“Did you see the forest after the rainstorm?”)
  3. Über die Grenzen des Alls (“Beyond the boundaries of the universe”)
  4. Nichts ist gekommen (“Nothing has come”)
  5. Hier ist Friede (“Here is peace”)

This recording features soprano Halina Lukomska with conductor Ernest Bour and the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra:

Recordings

  • Berg: Fünf Orchesterlieder, Op. 4, Halina Lukomska, Ernest Bour, Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra Amazon

Featured Image: “Portrait of Alban Berg” by Lilly Steiner

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

3 thoughts on “Berg’s “Altenberg Lieder”: Five Orchestral Songs on Postcard Texts”

  1. many thanks for the comments. I can only say that I too laughed at this work, we know Anton Berg was a great admirer of Gustav Mahler, but I feel that he was a bit over the top with these songs,- and I hope that the rendering of “Kindertotenlieder was not ruined by these songs., – because Mahler`s songs are a masterpiece, as are all his symphonies

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  2. This is my favorite piece of music, but Lukomska and Bour’s performance is not. The tempi are slow, the phrasing is slack, and the singing lacks precision. Listeners who find it less than satisfying should look – or listen – elsewhere. Claudio Abbado, who led many concert performances of this music over the years, is to my ear its most effective exponent, and Renée Fleming’s performance with his Lucerne Festival Orchestra is as good as it gets.

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