Berg’s Lulu

On May 6, 1934, a year and a half before his death, Alban Berg wrote to his close friend and fellow composer Anton Webern that he had completed the composition of Lulu but would still need “two or  three weeks” to “overhaul” the work and to fill in a few gaps before starting on the orchestration. Of the time that remained to him, he spent about three months writing the Violin Concerto. The rest he devoted to scoring the opera, beginning with excerpts for a concert suite that includes the Intermezzo from Act III and extensive sections of the finale. He then scored the remainder of the work consecutively from the beginning but died before completing the full score of the last act.

In an article on Lulu in the October 1936 issue of Musical Quarterly, the composer’s biographer, Willi Reich, wrote: “Berg left a complete and very carefully worked out preliminary score of Lulu. Only the instrumentation of a few places in the middle of the last act was not finished and this could easily be carried out from the given material by some friend familiar with Berg’s work.” Erwin Stein’s vocal score of Acts I and II was published in the same year with a prefatory note by the publisher, Universal Edition, stating that the vocal score of Act III would be published “at a later time.” Stein’s reduction of the final act was, in fact, completed, but the publication was interrupted after 70 pages had already been engraved. The Nazi takeover of Austria was imminent and there was no longer a German or Austrian opera house where Lulu could be staged. On June 2, 1937, the opera was performed for the first time, in Zurich. Of the music for Act III, only those portions that Berg had incorporated in the Lulu Suite were presented, as “background” music to an adaptation of the final episode of the drama: the murder and death of Lulu and the Countess Geschwitz.

The completion of the scoring by another hand could have but one purpose—the preparation of the opera for performance. But in the following years of political reaction and war this can hardly have seemed a matter of urgency. Under Hitler and Stalin, “atonal” music was banned as an expression of “Jewish Bolshevism” on the one hand and “bourgeois decadence” on the other. Even where there was no political repression, “neo-classicism” had come more and more to dominate the world of contemporary music from the late 1920s to the end of the war. The first revival of the opera at the Venice Biennale in 1949 does not seem to have aroused much attention. In 1952 a concert version recorded in Vienna was released by Columbia Records, and in the following year there was a second staged revival, the German premiere of the opera in Essen. The preparation of a performable third act was again becoming a matter of practical interest. In the meantime, Stein’s vocal score of Act III remained unpublished.

The musicologist Hans Redlich had been allowed to examine it in connection with his study of the composer’s life and work published by Universal Edition in 1957. He argued in the strongest terms for a completion of the score. At the insistence of the composer’s widow, however, he was required to insert a statement that badly undercut his own position. It was to the effect that Schoenberg, Webern, and Zemlinsky—three of the finest musicians of the age, and among Berg’s closest friends and colleagues—had each been shown the material of Act III and had declined to complete the orchestration because they found the material inadequate to this purpose. All three were dead by this time, and Helene Berg’s supposed recollections were the sole source of their reported opinion.

The question of scoring and the question of performing the third act are interdependent, and if Mrs. Berg’s refusal to allow either was to be respected, then one could infer the elimination of the possibility or necessity of the other. But the implications of her position were interpreted to mean much more than this. Not only was the vocal score of Acts I and II reissued with the original prefatory reference to a forthcoming publication of Act III deleted, but Stein’s partially engraved reduction and all other unpublished materials of Act III were suppressed, in that all access to them was refused. Through the good offices of one of the directors of Universal Edition, the late Dr. Alfred A. Kalmus, this ban was temporarily lifted in the 1960s, and subsequent investigation confirmed Redlich’s conclusions (and the original representations of the publisher) that Berg had indeed completed the opera and that completion of the full score of Act III by another hand was entirely feasible.

As Redlich had pointed out, this task is greatly facilitated by the formal design of the final scene, which is based on large-scale recapitulations of earlier episodes that were fully scored by the composer. But beyond this, Berg’s overall dramatic conception is a radical departure from Wedekind’s, in all-important respects that had not been previously noted. The substitution of a fragment of the play accompanied by “background” music taken from the Lulu Suite not only misrepresents Berg’s own version of Act III, but retrospectively misrepresents both the music and the drama of Acts I and II as well. And the published edition of Acts I and II, in deriving its list of dramatis personae from Wedekind’s drama instead of the music and libretto of the complete opera, was in itself a misrepresentation of the composer’s intentions. Berg emphasizes the relative anonymity of the subordinate roles by depriving them of the names assigned to them by Wedekind, identifying them instead only by their titles or professions. Only the five principal roles—Lulu, Schigolch, Dr. Schön, Alwa, and Countess Geschwitz— are designated in the opera by their proper names. Thus, the distinction that Wedekind himself had made between the identity of Lulu, each of whose three husbands has his own name for her, and that of the other characters is sharpened in Berg’s libretto. Each of Lulu’s three victims in the first half of the opera— the Physician, the Painter, Dr. Schön—is respectively paired with one of the three clients whom she brings in from the street in the final scene—the Professor, the African Prince, and Jack the Ripper. They function as symbolic avengers of those who have lost their lives because of their love for Lulu. It is these doublings, in fact, that explain the musical recapitulations noted by Redlich.

These multiple roles are essential to the dramatic structure of the opera. But others that are merely a matter of convenience and economy are also highlighted by musical means—leitmotifs, serial connections, vocal range and style, musical quotations. Practical performance problems that are presumably the province of the director rather than the composer are thus mapped into the work itself. This is consistent with the change that Berg made in Alwa’s profession. In the play Alwa is a writer who does a bit of composing on the side, as Wedekind himself did (the “Procurer’s Song” of Act III is one of Wedekind’s own cabaret tunes), and he is explicitly identified as the author of Earth Spirit. In the opera Alwa is by profession a composer, and allusions to two of Berg’s own compositions, Wozzeck and the Lyric Suite, identify him as the composer of the very work we are witnessing.

In these revisions of Wedekind’s Lulu plays, Berg was influenced by the revolutionary developments in the German theater that followed Wedekind’s death in 1918. A technical innovation of the period was represented in the composer’s introduction of a film sequence in his original libretto. This served as a bridge between Part I of the opera (Act I–Act II, Scene 1), based on Earth Spirit, and Part II (Act II, Scene 2–Act III), based on its sequel, Pandora’s Box. Part I shows Lulu in her ascendant phase, culminating in her marriage to Dr. Schön, the newspaper publisher and powerful man of affairs whose mistress she has been for many years. It concludes with the murder of Dr. Schön. This he brings upon himself when he discovers Lulu with his son, Alwa. In a state of final desperation—as a mad climax to his earlier attempts to marry her off, so that some external power would enforce the break with her that he is too weak to effect—he hands her his revolver and demands that she shoot herself.

An orchestral interlude between the two halves of the opera represents the action implied between the conclusion of the first play and the beginning of the second: Lulu’s arrest, trial, imprisonment, removal from prison because of illness, commitment to the hospital, and escape. Part II shows Lulu in her descendant phase: after her escape from prison, she returns to the murdered man’s apartment to meet Alwa, who has helped to plot her escape. They find refuge in a gambling salon in Paris, from where they are forced to run away a second time when the Marquis threatens to turn Lulu in to the police if she persists in her refusal to be sold into slavery. The opera ends with Lulu’s first and last evening as a common streetwalker in London, where she dies at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

Shortly after Helene Berg’s death on August 30, 1976, it was revealed that Viennese composer Friedrich Cerha had fulfilled the publisher’s secret commission to complete the score while she was still alive, and that the premiere performance had already been promised to the Paris Opera. It is in the nature of things that one cannot anticipate the insights, judgments, and second thoughts of genius, so we can never know to what extent and in what respects Berg’s own orchestration might have differed from Cerha’s. But nowhere does one have the impression that a hand other than the composer’s has had to take over the instrumental realization of the unscored portions of the third act. In spite of Helene Berg’s attempt to perpetuate her ban beyond her own lifetime through the stipulations of her will, the materials for an authentic performance of this masterpiece of the lyric theater were at last available.


—George Perle