Today’s post represents something of a departure for this blog. Unlike the music I have featured previously, the Piano Sonata by Alban Berg is not a piece I love. In fact, it is music that I’m still hoping someday to enjoy.
I believe wholeheartedly that we owe it to ourselves to listen to new music. How many times have we come to appreciate a piece of music only over time, music which at first failed to move us? To give just two examples from my own experience, when I first heard Samuel Barber’s monumental piano sonata, or Scriabin’s epic Sonata No. 5, their language was foreign to me. I wouldn’t have thought it possible that they would ever become personal favorites, but they did. We need to learn not always to trust our first impressions, and to give new and unfamiliar music – music which may not invite a second hearing – a second and even a third chance before allowing ourselves to form an opinion. Some music simply requires more time.
I say this as much as a reminder to myself as to you, dear reader. Although my musical tastes run from Bach to Barber, I have never counted any music by Berg, Webern, or Schoenberg (with the exception of Verklärte Nacht) among my favorites. Their music has always felt alien to me; I didn’t understand it, and it didn’t resonate with me emotionally. Today I see my lack of appreciation for their music as a personal failing, the result of a gaping hole in my music education. This post is an attempt to begin to fill that hole. If I needed additional encouragement to listen to this sonata, surely the fact that it has been championed by such eminent pianists as Alfred Brendel, Glenn Gould, and Marc-Andre Hamelin, to name just three, would be reason enough.
The following notes are reprinted from the website of the International Music Score Library Project (http://imslp.org). The complete score of this sonata is also available at IMSLP, one of the internet’s most valuable resources for classical musicians and music lovers.
The early sonata sketches of Berg while being a student under Schoenberg eventually culminated in this sonata; while considered to be his “graduating composition”, it is one of the most formidable initial works ever written by any composer (Lauder, 1986).
This sonata consists of a single movement centered in the key of B minor, but Berg makes frequent use of chromaticism, whole-tone scales, and wandering key centers, giving the tonality a very unstable feel. The piece is in the typical sonata form, with an Exposition, Development and Recapitulation, but the composition also relies heavily on Arnold Schoenberg’s idea of developing variation, a method to ensure the unity of a piece of music by deriving all aspects of a composition from a single idea.
Schoenberg stated that the unity of a piece is dependent on all aspects of the composition being derived from a single basic idea. Berg would then pass this idea down to one of his students, Theodor Adorno, who in turn stated: “The main principle he conveyed was that of variation: everything was supposed to develop out of something else and yet be intrinsically different.” The Sonata is a striking example of the execution of this idea — the whole composition can be derived from the opening quartal gesture and from the opening leitmotif.