Alban Berg: Vier Stücke
Vier Stücke was composed in 1913 and are perhaps Berg’s only true miniatures. His wife Helene writes that he composed them in June, which means it was in the same month as his fateful visit to his tutor, Schoenberg. It is recorded that this meeting was somewhat traumatic for Berg as Schoenberg supposedly heavily criticised his student for working on small-scale works and was insistent he worked on large extended orchestral works. It has also been claimed that Schoenberg not only criticised Berg’s music, but also his personality, which knocked the young composer’s confidence even more so.
Vier Stücke premiered in 1919 in Vienna. The four different pieces in the collection undergo constant changes in tempo, articulation and dynamics. The four movements are marked as follows:
- Sehr langsam
- Sehr rasch
The first and last movements are much longer than the middle two, with the second being a slow movement and the third being a scherzo-like movement. The set takes around 8-9 minutes to perform.
The first movement Mäßig, begins with a cheeky motif played by the clarinet, before the piano enters with an uneasy progression of chords. The clarinet and piano play different motifs which layer onto one another to create a wall of polyphonic sound.
The clarinet is using a wide range of notes, including those nearer the bottom the tessitura, which bring a very rich effect to the piece. Flutter-tonguing is also used to create a different timbral effect, and you can hear this on the motif that descends in the clarinet. There are hints of lyricism, but also that of mystery and uneasiness in the open chords that are played.
The piano plays a very high motif, which then descends to the bottom of the piano. The dynamic is very quiet at this point and the movement eerily dies away.
II. Sehr langsam
The second movement begins with delicately placed repeated chords from the piano. The clarinet enters with uncomfortable intervals, which creates a mystical aura around the soloist. The piano stays in the middle range for the first part of this movement, whereas the clarinet is up in its top range, which creates a much more piercing sound.
There are moments of silence from the piano, and then it returns once more to play against the clarinet. Slight pitch bending is used to nod towards the use of the twelve-tone scale. The piano plays the starting chords over again in a lower octave to round off this movement.
III. Sehr rasch
This movement is much quicker than the previous two, and it acts as the scherzo movement of the four pieces. It begins with a fast-paced motif from the piano which is soon interrupted by the clarinet. The tempo shifts from manic, to slightly slower and more controlled.
This movement is very colourful and the mixture of timbres between the piano and clarinet are really celebrated in this movement. The end of the movement is a burst of fast-moving motifs by both instruments, with the clarinet using flutter tonguing once more. The movement then ends abruptly.
The final movement of Vier Stücke is the longest of all the movements and starts at a very slow tempo. The piano plays repeated dissonant chords. The clarinet joins in with a solemn melody, which hints at Berg’s Romantic lyricism once more. This movement is ever so quiet and the control from the clarinet and piano make it incredibly eerie and towards the unknown.
Trills are passed from piano to clarinet and the two instruments work together to come back to a sort of reprise of the beginning of the movement. The piano plays the same chords, and the clarinet enters with a new motif. The tempo then changes very suddenly to a very quick and tempestuous pace. The clarinet races up to the piercing top range of the instrument, whereas the piano goes the opposite way and goes to the bottom of the piano. The thunderous sounds by the piano bring a very a new emotion to the front: anger.
Very quickly, again, the tempo starts going down to the first speed. The harmonics of the piano are left to ring, whilst the clarinet enters and plays a short lyrical motif. The piano plays again and the pair come to a very quiet end.
This blog is dedicated to my friend and clarinettist Beth Nichol.
Ⓒ Alex Burns