Wine – Concert Aria

Following the successful Berlin premiere of his opera Wozzeck (December 14th 1925) Alban Berg found himself a famous composer virtually overnight. His opera was staged at many of Europe's top opera houses, and the profession eagerly awaited new works from him. Financially he did not fare too poorly either. He was one of the few creators able to buy his own motorcar in the 1920s (characteristically, Stravinsky was the other car owner among the great composers), and could afford to be selective about commissions. A well known singer, Ruzena Herlinger, approached Berg with the request that he create a bravura concert work for a readily acceptable fee. Although Berg could never be described as one of the more speedy and prolific artists, the commission interested him. He had conceived the principal character of his new opera, Lulu, as a coloratura soprano, and Ruzena Herlinger had just this kind of voice.


For this concert aria, Berg selected three verses by one of his favourite poets, Charles Baudelaire, from the five part Wine cycle published originally as part of Les Fleures du Mal. Berg did not read them in the French original but rather in Stefan George's wilful translation. He left out the more extreme verses (for example, the Murderer's Wine). He composed strictly dodecaphonic music to the three verses – but he chose a dodecaphonic note row the first seven tones of which imply the tonality of D minor. Therefore the work begins with decidedly tonal music, and this is it how it concludes. The verses follow one another attacca, and the entire composition is symmetrically constructed. Within this, the first section functions as a sonata exposition, while the third is a truncated recapitulation. The central section has a palindromic structure – as the vocalist sings the “Lovers' wine” verse, the musical material reverses itself note for note, and is heard in a crab form (the vocal line that has already been head is repeated instrumentally). What makes this procedure so interesting is that the listener barely notices, and rather senses the forward motion of the music and its further development. Another more conspicuous feature of this work is that we can hear jazz elements on numerous occasions. In Berg's artistic world, jazz is a symbol of decay – and this is how he uses it in Lulu as well. The work, completed in 1929, fulfilled the hopes of both composer and commissioner, and its premiere was an undisputed success.

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