Alban Berg, String Quartet, Op. 3

November 10, 2019

Alban Berg, 1885-1935

String Quartet Op, 3, 1910

Alban Berg Alban Berg’s first string quartet is an extraordinary work for many reasons and, without reservation, an important work in the “canon” of great string quartets if not music in general. Historically, it is a milestone of the early 20th Century as it is the first feature-length quartet written in a strikingly new language of pervasive atonality. Despite its radical departure from a nearly 300-year-old tradition of music anchored in tonality, it leverages a consistent tradition of music for the string quartet including formal underpinnings, the centrality of the “motive” and a dense conversational web of imitative counterpoint. Fundamentally, it sounds almost like a late Romantic string quartet. Emotionally, it is among the most intense string quartets ever written. Combining elements of Wagner, Mahler and Schoenberg with his own unique sensibilities, Berg’s meticulous and laboriously labeled score produces a narrative of incredible emotional and psychological impact. Startlingly colored by a fresh palette of extended techniques, the rich expressivity of the string quartet speaks in a brave new language evoking a new realm of feelings.

Berg was a Viennese composer who, with fellow student Anton Webern and teacher Arnold Schoenberg, established the first-generation of the “New Viennese School.” Rooted in the late Romantic tradition of Brahms and Mahler, they boldly forged a path beyond tonality, first, with a period of “free-atonality” and eventually, onward into the “structured atonality” of Schoenberg’s 12-tone method. Each of the three composers found their own, unique voice within this discipline with Berg representing a blend of new and traditional elements for music that is the most accessible to the “uninitiated.” His first quartet was his last under the tutelage of Schoenberg, coming “through him” as Berg once remarked. With Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique still a good decade in the future, it follows Schoenberg’s own initial broach with atonality in his second string quartet a few years prior (1908) as well as Webern’s revolutionary “Five Pieces” just the year before (1909). Fifteen years later, Berg would compose his second string quartet, the “Lyric Suite”, a perfect bookend to the first string quartet illustrating Berg’s complete musical evolution. Ultimately, Berg’s celebrated works include his Violin Concerto and the opera Wozzeck.

The Op. 3 String Quartet comprises two movements of roughly equal length and though they are separated by a break, each with its own character, the second movement is “connected” to the first by virtue of shared musical material. The first movement has often been described as sonata-form with contrasting themes and recurrent motives, development and a recapitulation, but this layout is difficult to discern without listening many times. Initial encounters might simply savor the visceral feelings noticing a few short musical motives that recur kaleidoscopically throughout. Using a battery of techniques, complex dynamics and profuse expressive markings, Berg imbues a highly structured narrative with strange and wonderful colors. The second movement somewhat more clearly follows a rondo form: a bold and almost swashbuckling theme recurs several times (with great variation) between contrasting episodes. Some episodes evince a supple, Romantic lyricism while others feature harsh gestures and extreme emotional states characteristic of the Expressionist vein. Like an eruption of the subconscious, a dream/nightmare cast pervades throughout. Berg’s quartet is an immersion in the bristling avant-garde shortly before to the outbreak of WWI.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.