As a counterpoint to the new production of Lulu in October, Lothar Koenigs is conducting a captivating concert of work by the composers who were contacted by Alban Berg’s widow to complete the third act of Berg’s unfinished opera: Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alexander von Zemlinsky. At their side is Johannes Brahms, who was described by Schoenberg as "Brahms the Progressive". This Viennese programme is led by a conductor who makes no secret of his fascination with his capital city’s glory days.
Surely it cannot be a coincidence that just at the time when you are conducting Berg’s Lulu you also put together a concert of music by Schoenberg, Webern and Zemlinsky?
You’re right. The programme does have many connections with Lulu. After Alban Berg’s death, his widow Helene asked three composers -Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Webern - to finish the third act of Lulu. All three assured her that it was possible to complete Berg’s unfinished opera, but all three declined to undertake the project, albeit for very different reasons. Arnold Schoenberg stumbled upon a passage in the third act of the Lulu libretto where there is a reference to “Saujud” (“dirty Jew”), which he found unacceptable in that period of mounting antisemitism. As for Anton Webern, his idea of composing was very different from Berg’s: he would spend days working on a piece which might last no more than eleven seconds. At that pace, he would never have finished the Lulu score or have been able to compose music of his own. Alexander von Zemlinsky is another story again: he was not at all at home in the world of the twelve-note system. Zemlinsky never abandoned the harmonic, late-romantic idiom in his compositions. Though in some he did take harmony to the extreme, he was never atonal!
So how does Brahms fit into the story?
We wanted to combine work by the three above-mentioned composers with work by a composer who served as a shining example for the Second Viennese School, i.e. good old Johannes Brahms. For numerous reasons – and not only reasons of form – Schoenberg praised Brahms in his lessons as one of his role models. And he often used Brahms’ scores in his teaching. In this Schoenberg ran counter to the prejudices of many of his contemporaries who regarded Brahms as a conservative composer – he saw him more as “Brahms the Progressive”. That’s why we brought together these four composers.
And why Brahms’ Second Symphony?
A sombre atmosphere pervades the three pieces by the composers approached to complete Lulu: Webern’s Passacaglia, Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony and Zemlinsky’s Maeterlick Lieder. I felt we should contrast that atmosphere with something more cheerful and the choice fell on Brahms’ Second Symphony. Though not exactly what you would describe as “cheerful”, its colour clearly sets it apart from Brahms’ other three symphonies. However, the real reason could be that I just love this Second Symphony! (laughs)
Why did you choose late-romantic works by Schoenberg and Webern rather than works from their twelve-note period?
The stylistic unity of the programme was the deciding factor. Though characterized by innovation, the works we chose clearly link up with the late-romantic. Webern wrote his Passacaglia Opus1 as a graduation piece after completing his studies with Schoenberg, as indeed Berg did his Klaviersonate Opus1. To me Webern’s Passacaglia seems very modern: it is true that the piece is in the scale of D minor, but the fifth note is discordant in this tonality (A flat does not normally occur in D minor!) so that from the outset the work anticipates the future. The same applies to Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony: in terms of harmony it is still clearly on familiar ground, but because of its complexity, bold polyphony and expansion of tonality, it is also a watershed after which the composer could no longer continue along the same path, save by taking the logical step to atonality.
Is there also a musical link between these works and Zemlinsky’s Maeterlinck Lieder?
Not on the same level, but there is undoubtedly a strong link. Just as Schoenberg gave Webern and Berg instruction in composition, so too Zemlinsky taught Schoenberg for a while. We chose his Maeterlinck Lieder because I believe they are among his finest works. Lieder also bring a different colour to the programme.
So does this programme reflect Berg’s romantic spirit more than the modernity of his composition technique?
You might say that, but really the programme came together more pragmatically. The three composers invited to complete the third act of Lulu were our starting point, but after that it was really a question of the conductor’s preference. I am fascinated by the post-fin-de-siècle Vienna. There is no other age I would prefer to have lived in! Besides the Second Viennese School, so much else was going on in music, literature, painting, etc. at the time too. Shortly after Schoenberg had written his First Chamber Symphony, Stravinsky started work on his early ballets with The Firebird as his breakthrough piece, Debussy composed his great impressionist works, and Rachmaninov was still working in a high-romantic style, and all this at an incredibly high level. We have not witnessed such productiveness since. I am really pleased with this programme, because it paints the perfect picture of the time in which I feel most at home.
Recorded by Reinder Pols