Berg and Modernity: Ambivalence, Synthesis, and Remaking of Tradition in the String Quartet Op. 3

By Taylor, Benedict | Studia Musicologica, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Berg and Modernity: Ambivalence, Synthesis, and Remaking of Tradition in the String Quartet Op. 3


Taylor, Benedict, Studia Musicologica


Abstract: Alban Berg has long been seen as the most conservative member of the Second Viennese School, a 'moderate modernist', an accessible throwback to Romanticism for audiences afraid of the supposedly more radical innovations of Schoenberg or Webern, and hence for much of the 20th century has suffered from the stigma of a perceived lack of progressivism. Yet recent decades have witnessed a gradual shift in critical opinion on this issue, coinciding with a loosening of the claims of high modernity and arguably a move to a more 'postmodern' outlook. This paper explores further the relationship between the historical tendency in Berg's music and the complex notion of modernity through an analysis of the early String Quartet op. 3, his first large-scale atonal composition, focusing on the idea of synthesis between old and new, conservative and progressive - the nature of the modernity which arises out of his music's relationship with the past. This is the most problematic category in relation to advancing Berg's credentials as a modernist but thus possibly the most interesting, and also useful since it can ultimately allow a critique of the whole notion of the modern imperative.

Keywords: Alban Berg, String Quartet op. 3, atonality, modernity, Romanticism

It is almost a cliché of music history to view Alban Berg as the most conservative member of the Second Viennese School - a 'moderate' modernist, in the words of his pupil Adorno - the acceptable face of New Music to the general public, or conversely, to die-hard modernists a backward-looking Romantic traditionalist, whose sentimental attachment to the past compromised his modernity and therefore his status in the pantheon of 20th-century music. In fact, revisionist objections to this view have become almost as habitual as the view itself; Douglas Jarman, in the preface to The Berg Companion offers a typical example:

The 'free' and 'unsystematic' Berg of the earlier textbooks - the 'conservative' and 'backward-looking' composer with a nostalgic hankering for a vanished tonal past - has been replaced by a Berg who not only seems strikingly relevant to present-day concerns, but whom we can claim, as George Perle does ... to have been 'the most forward-looking composer of our century'.1

Berg is now, apparently, assured of his musical greatness due to his 'actual' modernity.

In discussing any argument concerning Berg's position vis-à-vis modernity we encounter the problem of defining what exactly this 'modernity' is supposed to mean. Indeed, going beyond the immediate confines of the discussion, we could well ask why modernity - however this is defined - should in itself be so important a criterion anyway. But such is the nature of deep-rooted aesthetic truisms that scholars are more likely to advance their personal composer's stature by attempting to fit them into a pre-existent critical category than try to explode the whole myth of such a yardstick itself, as Jarman's example shows. I can make out three basic categories of thought on Berg and modernity:

- The radical. Berg actually is a radical, modern composer. This viewpoint focuses in particular on the works from the Chamber Concerto onwards, with special reference to rhythmic and formal procedures (the use of Hauptrhythmus / constructive rhythms and Berg's peculiar predilection for complex, mathematically-conceived formal structures). Adorno's essay Berg's Discoveries in Compositional Technique is one of the finer examples of this outlook, laying out clearly the relevance Berg's procedures have to the avantgarde around 1960 when the model of Webern was proving rather a dead-end.2 Pierre Boulez's later recantation of his originally hostile viewpoint shows, alongside the practical example of Elliott Carter, the use such methods of large-scale atonal organisation could be seen to make.3

- The synthetic. Berg is not a radical, but is, not entirely in disagreement with the accepted opinion of this composer, a moderate modernist, whose technique and compositional craftsmanship effected a remarkable synthesis between the avant-garde and tradition. …

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