Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata, Op. 1 begins with a yearning, upward-reaching line which dreamily recalls the opening of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Soon, we hear restless autumnal strains which seem to have drifted out of late Mahler. Composed in 1908, this is music which basks in the brilliantly hued twilight of Romanticism. Harmonically, the key of B minor maintains a tenuous hold in a chromatic and whole-tone sea, awash in shifting key centers and moments of near atonality. Glenn Gould, who recorded the piece no less than eight times, described it as “expansive, pessimistic, and unquestionably ecstatic.”
By 1908, the excesses of nineteenth century Romanticism had been stretched to a near breaking point. Mahler’s sprawling Ninth Symphony, begun in 1908 and completed the following year, failed to find a transcendent resolution. While the Symphony is set in D, its final movement is an Adagio which reaches a halting conclusion in D-flat major, a half step lower and a world away. A similar sense of disintegration and lament is present in Berg’s Sonata.
Originally, Berg intended to write a traditional sonata in four movements. Ultimately, the Piano Sonata was published in 1910 as a single movement, lasting just over ten minutes. Arnold Schoenberg, with whom Berg studied, suggested that in this single movement, the young composer “had said all there was to say.” The Piano Sonata unfolds with Schoenberg’s developing variation technique. With its compressed drama and pathos, perhaps it can be heard as an epilogue to Romanticism.
- Berg: Piano Sonata, Op. 1, Mitsuko Uchida Amazon
- Glenn Gould’s 1959 recording
- Murray Perahia’s recording
Featured Image: “Four Trees” (1917), Egon Schiele