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The Seven Early Songs as they appear here are revisions, or to be even more precise, revisions of reworkings of Berg’s own compositions. Together with many others, the songs were composed during the years 1905 to 1908, that is, at a time when Berg was already studying with Arnold Schoenberg. They were not a part of these studies but nevertheless cannot be seen as completely independent of Schoenberg’s influence, since three of them, Die Nachtigall, Liebesode, and Traumgekrönt, were first performed publicly on 7 November 1907 in a concert of Schoenberg’s students. In that same decisive year for Berg, the very beautiful and much admired Helene Nahowski, who later became his wife, entered his life. Even before he met her personally, he sent her the manuscript of an extravagant love song.
To celebrate this occasion ten years later in 1917, Berg prepared a scrupulously corrected final version of a selection of Ten Songs. Aside from the seven, which are all included here (although in a different order), this manuscript contained the compositions Schliefe mir die Augen beide by Theodor Storm, Gustav Falke’s Die Sorglichen and Gleim’s Leukon. We can safely assume that these ten songs had a special meaning for Berg – possibly even one that goes beyond musical considerations.
As a composer who worked slowly and concentrated on a few compositions for performance, Berg decided to rework these early compositions yet again ten years later. This was an important period in Berg’s life when several major changes took place: The first successful performances of Wozzeck and Schoenberg’s move to Berlin. Berg was probably thinking of the example of Gustav Mahler when he set several of these songs both for voice and piano, as well as with orchestra. How many of these should be finished was still uncertain at that time but there were finally seven. Perhaps the title given by the publisher to a collection of posthumous songs by Mahler, Seven Last Songs, which had just been published (and had later been abandoned), had a certain influence on Berg’s choice.
When the composer revised his songs in 1927, he made his choice with the determination of developing their musical content better while at the same time making them more effective. Berg had already revised the song on the poem by Storm in 1925 as a first attempt at writing a dodecaphonic composition. His revisions included occasional changes in the melody (for example in Nacht and Die Nachtigall), expansion of the ending (Schilflied), text changes (Sommertage) and other general enrichment of the musical texture. He decided however not only to make these revisions and improvements in the songs, but he also wanted to create a cyclic unity in spite of the differences of the poetic material. He had to transpose several of the songs to create a convincing unity of keys, and to achieve a well-balanced series of the moods expressed in the songs, he was forced to change their order several times. The most important artistic element employed to make a convincing cycle out of this simple series of songs was the instrumentation, i.e. the orchestral disposition. The full orchestra including the subtle use of percussion instruments was reserved for the outer songs to create a framework. The second, fourth and sixth song employs a reduced orchestra: Schilflied (No. 2) requires only brass and a solo string quintet without percussion; Traumgekrönt (No. 4) uses muted, divided strings and cymbals but no clarinets, bassoons or trumpet; Liebesode (No. 6) has no flutes, oboes or trombones but once again muted strings and a small drum; finally Die Nachtigall (No. 3) requires only strings but they are used very subtly, and Im Zimmer (No. 5) there is a pure but reduced brass accompaniment. Thus we can see a certain symmetry: Songs 1 and 7 require the full orchestra; 2, 4 and 6 a reduced orchestra, and 3 and 5 just a section of the orchestra. The reduced orchestra is different in each case and achieves additional ‘colour’ by using a variety of percussion instruments. Theodor W. Adorno, who studied with Berg, chose this particular aspect of the work as the central element of his considerations in his article Klangfiguren of 1959, reprinted in Gesammelte Schriften, volume 16.
The Seven Early Songs are dedicated to Berg’s wife, ‘Meiner Helene’. They are testimony of an everlasting and inspiring relationship.
The first performance of the Seven Early Songs with orchestra was sung by Claire Born and conducted by Robert Heger on 6 November 1931. The score was first published posthumously in 1959. A new critical edition appeared as part of Berg’s Complete Edition as: Alban Berg, Orchestergesänge, Sämtliche Werke, I. Abteilung, volume 6 in 1997.
Rudolf Stephan, June 1997
(Translation: Robert Lindell)