In this week's issue of The New Yorker I have a column — available to subscribers and digital readers only — on the Berg and His World festival at Bard College. Included also are discussions of Franz Schreker's Der ferne Klang (The Distant Sound) and Othmar Schoeck's song cycle Notturno, two highlights from the welter of repertory surrounding Berg's oeuvre. I've uploaded two brief excerpts of these pieces. First, the bird-song passage from Scene 9 of Schreker's opera, which anticipates Messiaen by many decades:
Thomas Harper, tenor, with Michael Hálasz conducting the Hagen Philharmonic; Naxos 8660074-75.
And the beginning of the great C-major chaconne that ends Schoeck's cycle:
Christian Gerhaher, baritone, with the Rosamunde Quartet; ECM 2061.
The text of Schoeck's coda comes from the Swiss poet Gottfried Keller, who, just before the end of his life, wrote a poetic fragment beginning with the words: "Heerwagen, mächtig Sternbild der Germanen" ("Army wagon, great constellation of the German tribes"). Ernst Bloch, in The Principle of Hope, described this text as a prayer for "dissolution in the infinite universe," a symbolic joining of the wayward individual spirit with the eternal procession of the stars.
Schoeck's most famous fan was James Joyce, who heard the orchestral song cycle Lebendig begraben — another Keller setting — in Zurich in 1935 and was so impressed that he looked up the composer's address. As Chris Walton recounts, in his meticulous and stylish biography of Schoeck, "A couple of days later, a man dressed as a tramp knocked at the door of Schoeck's home on the Lettenholzstrasse. When the door opened, he asked, in German, 'Does the man live here who composed Lebendig begraben? I'd like to meet him.'" Joyce proceeded to invite Schoeck and his wife out for a typically raucous dinner. As Walton shows, Schoeck was himself a disorderly, bohemian character who stayed up late, drank too much, slept with many women, and generally failed to fulfill stereotypes of the Swiss character. Leon Botstein, the president and chief musical officer of Bard, will revisit Schoeck in October, when he features Lebendig begraben on a Joyce-themed concert with the American Symphony. The cycle is the monologue of a man who has been buried alive. Will there by a tie-in with the Ryan Reynolds film Buried, opening that same week?
Christopher Hailey edited an excellent essay collection to accompany the Bard festival. He writes sagely in his preface: "To regard Viennese musical modernism as a saga of harmonic evolution from late-Romantic chromaticism through atonality to serialism is to dismiss nine-tenths of all that this rich musical culture produced." The volume includes a translation of Hermann Watznauer's memoir of the composer in his youth (a strange document that reads sometimes like a Musil tale); a translation of Berg's newly discovered 1915-17 dramatic sketch Nacht (a Strindbergian dream narrative); Antony Beaumont's essay on Bergian orchestration (noting his tendency to "create small, continually shifting islands of tonal or quasi-tonal harmony"); Douglas Jarman on musical palindromes; Margaret Notley's translation of correspondence between Berg and Erich Kleiber, showing that Berg had his careerist moments (in 1934 he churlishly encouraged Kleiber to propagate the idea "that Strauss is by no means a prototypically German, Aryan composer"); Botstein's intriguing proposal that Berg's Lulu is inspired in part by Alma Mahler; and much else.