“So, either then or later, Helene Berg remembered the song and at some point desired, in order to ‘quieten’ her inner turmoil, to ‘give it to the world’. Then, as if by fate, Willi Reich comes to see her. He discusses with her the biography of Berg he is preparing. He was a student of Berg’s and so it is entirely believable that she wants to help him in any way she can. Hesitatingly, he asks if he can include one of Alban's early songs. She agrees readily and perhaps he is surprised that she needs no persuasion. He would have known that Berg didn’t want any of the early songs published. Perhaps it says something about Reich’s scruples, too, knowing Berg's wishes. Maybe he shouldn't have asked her in the first place. Again, I am not going to judge. Nevertheless, they look through the songs together. Why not publish this one, she suggests, showing him An Leukon. And so he does, thereby carrying her tragic and heart-felt grief (and possibly her prayer for Alban’s forgiveness) with it in the little book about Berg – in the form of the poignant little song which Berg wrote as a ‘she loves me – she loves me not’ exercise and as his expression of his feelings for her in 1907.”
Excerpt from “A Difficult Decision – The Story of An Leukon” Chris Gordon (c) 2009
Four Berg Song Orchestrations
An Leukon (Gleim) (1907)
Die Sorglichen (Falke) (1907)
Schliesse mir die Augen beide (Storm) (1907)
Das stille Königreich (Busse) (1908)
Audiences have loved Berg's orchestrations of his Seven Early Songs for as long as they have known them. They shine out as beacons of his youthful art: from the naïve simplicity of Im Zimmer (Johannes Schlaf) to the almost overblown sumptuousness of Sommertage (Paul Hohenberg), they have inspired and delighted. It is no surprise that they are dedicated to his wife, Helene, who cherished them just as much as concert-goers today cherish and love them.
Rudolf Stephan writes in the Preface to the Universal Edition's new publication of the Seven Early Songs that in 1917, Berg prepared a special collection of songs for his wife, Helene, as a 10th ‘anniversary’ present. This collection, by a remarkable coincidence, consisted of the 7 early songs plus An Leukon, Die Sorglichen and Schließe mir die Augen beide. 10 years later (in 1927), he orchestrated 7 songs from the original collection. Why 7 and not 10? The reason is clear to me: by 1927, he was ‘romantically involved’ with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (née Werfel), the sister-in-law of Gustav Mahler’s widow, Alma. Her third husband was Hanna’s brother, Franz Werfel, the novelist and playwright. Berg assigned the number ‘10’ to their liaison. So, in view of the fact that the songs were to be for Helene (the Seven Early Songs are dedicated to her – ‘Meiner Helene’ – ‘for my Helene’), my belief is that Berg dropped An Leukon, Die Sorglichen and Schließe mir die Augen beide, leaving the 7 songs because he was offering them as a gift to his wife and a gift of 10 songs would seem, to him, to be a gift for Hanna, too. In Berg’s code, the songs were ‘HBA’ (representing Helene and Alban) rather than ‘HFAB’ (representing Hanna and Alban).The last song, Sommertage, is ‘riddled’ with their combined initials – HBA and HA abound. And what about the number 7? I think it represents the year they first met, 1907.
We mustn’t forget the importance of his teacher and father-figure, Arnold Schönberg, either. The last chord of the last of the seven songs, Sommertage, is a chord of C minor (c-Moll), in the centre of which is an E-flat (Es) = S which represents SCHÖNBERG.
The discovery of An Leukon, published in Willi Reich's little biography of Berg (1937), was like finding a handful of doubloons buried on a tropical island! This was at a time before Universal Edition published their 2 volume set of Berg's early songs in the 1980s. I could sense the magic of its gently pulsating power, which spoke of a deep love, underneath harmonies which were otherwise unremarkable. It wasn't until UE published my orchestration of An Leukon in 2006 that I discovered that it had a hidden code and, with a little detective work, I think I have solved the puzzle why Helene allowed Willi Reich to put this song in his book. Helene Berg, apart, from this one instance, kept her promise to her husband never to publish the early songs (about 100 of them). They stayed in a box under her bed until her death in 1976. The complete story of ‘An Leukon – A Difficult Decision’ - can be read here.
The other three song orchestrations followed quickly on the heels of An Leukon. Die Sorglichen (Gustav Falke) yielded up one or two secrets of its own. The similarity of its setting of comic text and of its ‘outline’ to Arnold Schönberg’s song, Galathea (Frank Wedekind), which Schönberg had written as one of a set of songs for the Überbrettl cabaret in Berlin in 1900/1, is too striking to be a mere coincidence. Berg seems, amazingly, to have composed a cabaret song! I think of it as more of a comic or ‘patter’ song. It has, though, a dark, even poignant, perhaps, little secret at its heart. Why should we be surprised? He loved knockabout comedy as much as he loved heart-rending tragedy. To him, life was a Mahlerian mix of light and shadow; joy and remorse.
Schließe mir die Augen beide (Theodor Storm), the piano version of which is coupled with Berg’s later (1925) serial setting, is a paean of love to Helene. In it, a lover’s hand slowly soothes away pain. I have tried to convey this image in my orchestration, an image which Storm paints so beautifully in his tiny poem – the waves of pain gradually fading away to nothing.
Finally, there is Das stille Königreich (Karl Busse). Another rare ‘gem’ from Berg. Here he tries out Schönberg’s technique of basing a song on a tiny cell. In Das stille Königreich it is made up of 3 notes – a whole-tone followed by a major third. These three notes are then transposed, turned upside down and back-to-front throughout the song. This was a brand-new technique at the time the song was written and it acts as a unifying device. The text by Karl Busse is a young person’s ‘flight of fancy’ or flight from reality, shall we say. Somewhere to go when life gets too difficult. Who hasn't dreamed that from time to time?
With the publication of the An Leukon, Die Sorglichen and Schließe mir die Augen beide, Universal Edition has recreated Alban Berg’s original gift to the woman he loved from their very first meeting at the Vienna Royal and Imperial Opera in 1907 (Gustav Mahler's last season as Director of the Opera) until they were parted by Alban’s death on 24 December 1935.
These three songs, with the addition of Das stille Königreich, represent different aspects of Berg’s maturing musical personality – with two of them speaking to ‘his Helene’ of his undying love for her at a time (1907) when it is deepening. Yet, he also expresses in these songs his need to be sure her love for him is deepening, too.
These four songs, as well, as the original Seven Early Songs orchestrated by Berg, are now offered for high or for medium voice. In September 2008, UE published the Seven Early Songs for medium voice arranged by Heinz Stolba (UE 33931), which preserve the integrity of Berg's cycle by transposing all the songs down a minor third. The four additional songs are likewise offered for high voice or a minor third lower for medium voice – with the exception of Das stille Königreich which is available in G minor, the original key, (for medium voice) and A minor (for high voice) i.e. a tone higher.
An Leukon was given its world première by Renée Fleming (soprano) with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda at the BBC 2007 Proms on 6 August 2007 in the Royal Albert Hall, London. Watch a video here.
An Leukon has also been performed by Petra Lang (mezzo-soprano) with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding in Ferrara, Italy, and also in Frankfurt and Cologne, Germany in October/November 2007.
© Chris Gordon 2010