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This new edition of Alban Berg’s Altenberglieder op. 4 is based on a wider variety of documentary sources than were available at the time of publication by Universal Edition of the first orchestral score (UE 12124, 1966) or the piano-vocal score (UE 12126, 1953). This fact has added further complexities to an already complicated documentary foundation. The complete manuscript orchestral score, in the archives of Universal Edition, Vienna, which is the principal source for the present edition as well as the earlier editions, is not a unified document; much of it (Songs I, II, III) is in pencil, and only Song V is a complete fair copy in ink in Berg’s hand, while Song IV, though a fair copy, is partly in Berg’s hand and partly in that of an unknown copyist. No continuous fair copy by Berg is known to exist; possibly he did prepare one for his teacher Arnold Schönberg, but the copyist’s score that he sent to Schönberg in January 1913 seems to have been lost.
Nevertheless the editing process has been aided substantially by the discovery of additional documentary sources, of which the most important is Berg’s complete autograph Particell in ink of Song I, now in the Archiv der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna.11
Berg finished the Altenberglieder in late 1912, but he may have begun sketching them as early as November 1911; a notebook with a few sketches, mostly of Songs I and II, contains jottings about Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, which Berg heard in its premiere performance at that time (20 November). Beyond a few measures here and there in various documents, no sketches for Songs III, IV, or V have been found.
It is well known that the premiere performance of two of the Altenberglieder on 31 March 1913, in Vienna, precipitated a riot in the audience; the event has been known ever since as the ‘Skandalkonzert’. It seems equally certain that Schönberg, who conducted the concert, disliked Berg’s songs. This disapproval from his beloved teacher, and the disastrous public reception of his first orchestral work, wounded Berg’s feelings so deeply that he never again tried to get a performance for them, although he did publish Song V as a piano-vocal score in 1921. It is easy to speculate that, if circumstances had been more favorable, Berg would have eventually prepared a definitive fair copy of the orchestral score for publication and seen it through the engraving and proof stages for printing.
Complete performances of the Altenberglieder did not occur until 1952 and 1953 (Paris and Rome, under the direction of Jascha Horenstein). Since then the songs have gradually been accepted as an important part of the twentieth-century repertory, although, perhaps because of their difficult birth, they have not achieved the popularity of Berg’s operas or the Violin Concerto.
At the same time, close study of the score has revealed the remarkable sophistication and originality of the architecture of the Altenberglieder. The careful organization of motives relating Songs I and V is perhaps the most impressive aspect of this architecture; the relationship of the twelve-note passacaglia theme in Song V and the viola melody beginning at m. 12 of Song I is an adumbration of Schönberg’s serial technique of a decade later, while the harmonic relationship of two five-note chords at mm. 14-15 of Song I, which appear in reverse order at mm. 50-55 of Song V, defines an overall arch-form for the entire cycle. It is structural aspects like these that mark Berg’s Altenberglieder as a work of particular importance in the historic development that culminated in Schönberg’s twelve-tone technique; that discovery, which has had such profound influence on composers ever since, can now be seen as the result of a search for structural coherence and comprehensiveness in which all three of the great Viennese, Schönberg, Berg, and Webern, shared.
Mark DeVoto, May 1997
1) Further information is found in Alban Berg, Sämtliche Werke, Vol. I/6, Orchestergesänge, a complete description of the available sources in the Commentary Volume (Vol. I/6b).