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

By Taylor, Benedict | Studia Musicologica, March 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

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


Taylor, Benedict, Studia Musicologica


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- the 'conservative' and 'backward-looking' composer with a nostalgic hankering for a vanished tonal past - has been replaced by a Berg who not only seems strikingly relevant to present-day concerns, but whom we can claim, as George Perle does ...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. The leanings to the past - seen above all in the tonal allusions which if anything appear to increase with the adoption of the 12-note technique - are not 'regressive', but constitute mastery of tradition in the sense of T. S. Eliot's notion of the modern.

- The unresolved ambiguity. Berg as naughty 'subversive' postmodern, playing with tradition ironically (as everything must be). In a milder form this can be read as a form of modernism (as postmodernism can be), such as the view Arnold Whittall sets out, that the unresolved tension between differing viewpoints, aesthetics and techniques is itself to be celebrated as fundamentally modern.4

Of course, these viewpoints can be blurred and held simultaneously; thus Adorno can be seen to inhabit all three to a greater or lesser extent. Nevertheless, this is how the basic schools of thought on this subject appear to pan out. I would further argue that all three positions have some merit and truth to them. However, I incline more towards the second, as much as anything through distrust of the unconscious ideological underpinning of the other two.

This study will explore further the relationship between the historical tendency in Berg's music and modernity, namely the idea of synthesis between old and new, conservative and progressive. …

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