The Dodecaphonists


Berg: Lyric Suite / Webern: 5 Pieces & 6 Bagatelles

Julliard String Quartet

RCA Victor Red Seal LSC-2531

I regard Alban Berg as a musical swindler and a musician dangerous to the community.

-Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective

Arnold Schoenberg started a musical revolution with his 12-tone system just before the outbreak of WWI. His approach was to throw a wrench into “classical” composition by reordering the musical scale along deterministic lines. Each of the keys are given equal importance in his schematic, favoring “rows” to classify the various pitches, where rhythm, melody, development are forsaken for mathematical symmetry.

And the music of the Second Viennese School, as Schoenberg and his disciples are sometimes called, is like listening to a scientific theorem, or a bad dream about one–not exactly pleasant on the ears, but with a dynamic precision whose beauty is in the method more than the medium.

Two of Schoenberg’s closest adherents to serialism are coupled on this Columbia recording. Alban Berg was a soft-core 12-toner, but his Lyric Suite is very much a step-child of Schoenberg’s system. The work is in the sonata form, but bears little resemblance to any sonata you’ve ever heard, where no one theme is developed and yet, in the first movement, as Rene Leibowitz said, “everything is developmental” without reaching synthesis. Technically, it’s all hexachords, secondary sets, tretrachordal passages, cycles of fifths, etcetera, that would take an expert musicologist to explain adequately. (Theodor Adorno, just such a critic, called it “a latent opera”.) Inversions and sets-within-sets, mirrorings that recapitulate and transform earlier bars–it’s like Kurt Godel turning to music.

Later, Berg transcribed the 2nd, 3rd and 4th movements for string orchestra, as did Anton Webern, for his more accessible works for quartet. Atonalism is certainly the gist of the Pieces and Bagatelles, but imbued with snippets of harmony and exceptionally haunting sounds from the cello.

The Julliard, with a background in Schubert and Beethoven, dampens down the harsher elements, situating the composers in their historical milieu as both extensions of and heresiarchs to classical forms, especially in the Webern. Still, in their hands, the quartets retain an abrasiveness that still sounds uncomfortably new.

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