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Alban Berg: 7 Early Songs

  • for high voice and orchestra
  • 2 2 3 3 - 4 1 2 0 - timp, perc, hp, cel, str
  • Duration: 17’
  • Soloists:
    high voice
  • Instrumentation details:
    1. flute
    2. flute (+picc)
    1. oboe
    2. oboe (+c.a)
    1. clarinet in B
    2. clarinet in B
    bass clarinet in A
    1. bassoon
    2. bassoon
    1. horn in F
    2. horn in F
    3. horn in F
    4. horn in F
    trumpet in F
    1. tenor trombone
    2.tenor trombone
    violin I
    violin II
  • Composer: Alban Berg
  • Editor: Rudolf Stephan
  • Text author: Carl HauptmannNikolaus LenauTheodor StormRainer Maria RilkeJohannes SchlafOtto Erich HartlebenPaul Hohenberg
  • Original language: German
  • Translator: Eric SmithJacques Fournier
  • Table of contents:
    Nacht/Night (Carl Hauptmann) 3min 20s
    Schilflied/Song Amongst the Reeds (Nikolaus Lenau) 2min
    Die Nachtigall/The Nightingale (Theodor Storm) 1min 40s
    Traumgekrönt/A Crown of Dreams (Rainer M. Rilke) 2min 20s
    Im Zimmer/Indoors (Johannes Schlaf) 50s
    Liebesode/Lovers' Ode (Otto Erich Hartleben) 1min 35s
    Sommertage/Summer Days (Paul Hohenberg) 1min 20s
  • Dedication: Meiner Helene

Work introduction

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)


Sample pages

World première

Wien (AT)
Robert Heger
Main soloists:
Claire Bern, Sopran

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