I can tell you, dearest friend, that if it were known how much friendship, love and a world of human and spiritual references I have smuggled into these three movements, the adherents of program music—should there be any left—would go mad with joy.
—“Open Letter” from Alban Berg to Arnold Schoenberg, February 9, 1925
The Vienna of Schoenberg and his students was also the Vienna of Sigmund Freud and the birthplace of psychoanalysis. What would Freud have made of the tendency of Berg to construct his compositions around elaborate, secret stories, using musical codes and numerology to represent people in his life? Or of Berg’s near-obsessive use of sordid stories from his and others’ intimate lives as a source of inspiration?
After Berg's widow, Helene, died in 1976, his private papers became available to scholars, and the full extent of Berg's “secret programs” started to become clear. It turned out, for example, that his Lyric Suite for string quartet (1925-26) was a “latent opera,” telling the story of Berg's extramarital affairs with Hanna Fuchs-Robbetin, the wife of a friend, and with a young servant girl who bore him a child. His last completed work, the Violin Concerto, has a “public program” that conceals another secret tribute to Fuchs-Robbetin.
Similarly, the Kammerkonzert has a public program, announced by Berg in an open letter to Schoenberg, published in the Viennese musical journal Pult und Taktstock in February 1925. In this letter, Berg dedicates the work to Schoenberg as a 50th birthday present (although he's several months late), and describes how the melodic material of the work is derived from the musical letters in the names of Schoenberg and his two pupils, Berg and Webern.
The form of the work as a whole is dictated by the idea of “trinity,” or multiples of three: the work is in three movements, there are three performing units (piano, violin and wind ensemble) and three combinations thereof (piano and winds, violin and winds, both soloists and winds); the first movement consists of a theme and five variations (making six sections altogether); the number of measures in each movement is a multiple of three; the slow movement is in ternary form, and even the tempo markings are all multiples of three. There are also references to Berg’s “number of fate,” 23, and to 5 (which represents the sum of the digits, 2+3). Berg knows this may be a bit much, and jokes about it: “I realize that—insofar as I make this generally known—my reputation as a mathematician will grow in proportion (…to the square of the distance) as my reputation as a composer sinks.”
The three movements of the work are played without break (although Berg did create alternative endings for the first two movements, to allow them to be performed individually). At the head of the work stands a five-bar musical motto, which itself is headed by “Aller guten Dinge…” the first words of the German proverb “Aller guten Dinge sind drei” [All good things come in threes]—but notice also that it contains three words and three dots. The motto itself (which bears the indication “These five measures must not be conducted, but must be played”) contains the names of the three composers, translated into musical notation. In German notation, B is our B-flat, H is our B, and Es (rendered here simply as S) is our E-flat. Thus we have ArnolD SCHoenBErG, played on the piano; Anton wEBErn, played on the solo violin; and AlBAn BErG, played on the horn. (While Schoenberg lived in Vienna, he spelled his name with an umlaut on the “o,” thus the motto does not include the extra “e.”)
This elaborate “public program,” however, is only a smoke-screen for the real story. The three movements have secret titles: “Friendship,” “Love” and “World”—to which Berg made the oblique reference in his open letter, quoted above.
The references in the first movement are straightforward: each of the five variations in the first movement is a portrait of a different member of the Schoenberg circle. The third variation, for example, has the awkward gait and aggressive character of Josef Polnauer, the “bouncer” who forcibly ejected audience members who heckled performances of Schoenberg’s works. The movement remains in triple meter throughout, and, as is the case with so much Viennese music from that time, the waltz is always present.
In contrast, the Adagio (in duple meter throughout), tells a tortured tale of infidelity and suicide. At the center of the plot are two wives—Mathilde Schoenberg, who was prone to entanglements with young men, and Helene Berg, who facilitated her friend’s affairs (while unaware that Mathilde’s paramours may have included her own husband).
In 1908, Mathilde had an affair with 25-year-old Richard Gerstl while he was a student of her husband's. When Schoenberg discovered the affair, Gerstl killed himself and Mathilde returned home. Some of the ground-breaking work on the secret program of the Kammerkonzert suggested that the second movement told this story—partly by introducing themes from Schoenberg’s tone poem Pelleas und Melisande. The work, however, was a birthday present for Schoenberg, and a celebration of these events would certainly be a bizarre tribute.
Further work by John Covach and Michael Votta, however, reveals that the “secret love story” may actually be a reference to a novel by Balzac, Seriphitá, that was a favorite of both Schoenberg and Berg. This novel deals with transformation through love and sublimation into a supernatural state of grace. According to Covach, this gives a more hopeful interpretation of Mathilde Schoenberg’s return to Schoenberg, and according to Votta it integrates the secret program with the pitch structure of the work in significant ways. (It was also the inspiration for the idea of “the unity of musical space” which led Schoenberg to his 12-tone theory)
The movement is in ternary form: A1-B-A2, in which the music of A2 is more or less the music of A1 inverted. Immediately after A2 ends, the entire ternary structure is repeated, in reverse: A2-B-A1. Berg loved large-scale palindromes like this; almost all of his mature works employ such a structure. In this case, the palindrome represents Mathilde's return to Schoenberg after her time away, as well as Berg’s wish, perhaps, that time could run backward and that Mathilde, who is connected to the unfaithful Melisande in the first part of the movement, could, like Seriphitá, attain a state of grace in the end. The point where the palindrome reverses direction (and where Mathilde transforms from Melisande to Seriphitá) is marked by an extraordinary gesture: the piano, which is silent throughout the rest of the movement, plays a low C-sharp twelve times, like an ominous timepiece striking midnight. This occurs at measure 361, a reference to the Köchel number of Mozart’s “Gran Partita” for wind ensemble.
But there is, perhaps, more to the story.
In a 1920 letter, Berg asks his wife, "Is Schoenberg aware that you know about the 'X' affair?" Examining the original letter in Vienna, Raymond Coffer speculated that the 'X' was code for a crossed-out name beginning with 'B.' Delving into more archival material, Coffer suspected that a young student of Schoenberg's named Hugo Breuer had caught Mathilde's fancy.
Apparently Alban and Helene Berg aided and abetted this not-so-secret affair. Helene made phone calls to Breuer for Mathilde, and later wrote that Mathilde kept trying to get Breuer to meet her at the Bergs’ house so she could “rape Hugo on the divan.” An entry in the diary of Alma Mahler [wife of composer Gustav Mahler] talks about Mathilde being “man-mad for a few weeks.” Coffer was quoted in an article in the Baltimore Sun-Times: “Berg must have known that Schoenberg's wife was running around in a manic way to have sex with a 20-year-old…I can't believe that's not in the Chamber Concerto.” Breuer had a successful singing career for several years, and then emigrated to England in 1938 to flee the Nazi menace. After a few months, he too killed himself.
It has also been discovered that Mathilde consulted a seer shortly before her death in 1923. The seer had predicted the deaths of two of Mathilde's lovers, one by suicide, one by a mosquito bite. Berg died of an infection caused by an insect bite. We know that both Berg and Mathilde had numerous affairs—might they have been involved with each other? One clue emerges from the Kammerkonzert: The “rhythmic motive” that provides the unifying element in the third movement (the “world”) is a five-note figure introduced in the second movement just after the main “Melisande” theme, and there are numerous references to the number 5 in the finale. This could be an oblique self-reference by Berg, using 5 to represent his “number of fate” by adding the digits of “23.”
A compositional tour de force, the final Rondo ritmico combines the material of the first two movements, but casts it in a different formal scheme while combining the duple and triple meters with groups of fives. It is introduced by an elaborate cadenza for both soloists—the first time in the piece they play together—in which the violin's first statement announces the “rhythmic motive” (on repeated notes) that will dominate the entire movement. Berg's love of symmetrical structures soon comes to the fore again when, just before the movement's exact midpoint, the piano pounds out the rhythm on D-flat, recalling its “midnight” gesture in the second movement. After a moment's silence, the contrabassoon plays the rhythm on C-sharp (the same pitch as D-flat)—only in reverse—and the movement moves to a close recalling and resolving motivic fragments from the first two movements (“friendship” and “love”—Berg and Mathilde?). The final gesture is characteristically Bergian: The piano sustains four important pitches while the winds and violin play short gestures that eventually fade—as though a dream of a lost love is slowly dying away.