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Composed: 1913-14

Orchestration: 4 flutes (all=piccolo), 4 oboes (4th=English horn), 4 clarinets (3rd=E-flat), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani (2 sets), percussion (bass drum with attached cymbal, cymbals, glockenspiel, large hammer, large tam-tam, small tam-tam, snare drum, tenor drum, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps, celesta, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 23, 1969, Pierre Boulez conducting

About this Piece

In mid-June of 1913, Alban Berg returned to his native Vienna after a visit with his mentor, Arnold Schoenberg, in Berlin. Shortly thereafter, the younger man wrote a letter of thanks to Schoenberg for the many courtesies he was shown and the helpful advice he had been given regarding his work. Berg was, in reality, crushed by Schoenberg’s negative reaction to his latest works, the Altenberg Lieder, Op. 4, and the Four Pieces for solo clarinet, Op. 5, which were criticized for their “fragmentary” nature, with the explicit warning that they represented a crisis in Berg’s style.

Surprisingly, the otherwise morbidly sensitive Berg did not founder, but took Schoenberg’s advice to heart, writing (or starting to) “a large one-movement symphony,” as Berg called it. Its execution, however, proved elusive, and the idea was scrapped in favor of another of Schoenberg’s notions, a “suite of character pieces for large orchestra,” the first two—March and Prelude, in that order of composition; the third, Round Dance, not being completed until 10 months later—sent to Schoenberg as a 40th-birthday present (September 13, 1914), accompanied by a letter:

“For years it has been my secret but strong wish to dedicate something to you. The works written under your supervision… the [Piano] Sonata [Op. 1], Lieder [Op. 2], and Quartet [Op. 3], were automatically eliminated, having been received from you. My hope to write something more independent and yet as good as these first compositions, something I could dedicate to you without incurring your displeasure, has been repeatedly disappointed for several years… I cannot tell today whether I have succeeded or failed. Should the latter be the case, then in your fatherly benevolence, Mr. Schoenberg, you must take the good will for the deed.”

A severe, at times terrifying, totality, Berg’s Op. 6 opens with soft, mistily pulsating waves created by the percussion battery. The other instruments enter mysteriously, as from afar, with the principal theme—slow and molto espressivo—emerging in the violins and bassoon. The theme is developed, finally fading back into the mists. Piece two is a demented, Mahler-like waltz, or Ländler, of the sort that Berg would later utilize to such stunning effect in the tavern scene of his opera Wozzeck. Piece three, the longest, is harrowing to say the least, with a series of bone-jarring climaxes, the most intense of which, announced by the timpani, is again Mahlerian, and possibly refers to the “hammer blows” of the finale of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. —Herbert Glass