Program Notes for an Arthur Berger Memorial concert at New England Conservatory, 2014

April 28, 2017

The first American performance of the Rite of Spring was given by the Philadelphia Orchestra and Leopold Stokowski at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1930. Arthur Berger, age 18, was at that performance, and he later wrote that the work on that concert which had the profoundest effect on him was not the Stravinsky, but rather its companion work on the program, Die glückliche Hand by Schoenberg. Next to the “length and high dynamic quotient” of the Stravinsky, the Schoenberg seemed to him to be “delicate, ever so tenuous and elusive,” and he was overwhelmed by it. He began writing “in a manner that was my own notion of what twelve-tone music must be” for the next few years. By 1933, though, he had reached a compositional impasse. His leftists political views demanded that composers write music which was palatable to and understood by the masses. His inability to reconcile those views with the music he was writing, and his sense that the techniques of twelve-tone composition, as it was called at the time, were inseparable from the aesthetics and sounds of German music, which did not appeal to him, caused him to call a moratorium on his composing music. During this time he became a graduate student at Harvard, where he studied theory with Walter Piston and musicology with Hugo Leichtentritt, and was in the circle of the aesthetician W. D. Prall, along with Delmore Schwartz, Robert Motherwell, and Leonard Bernstein, among others.

After he received a degree from Harvard, Berger joined the faculty of Mills College. He resumed composition at Mills, the path being opened for him by the neo-classic music of Stravinsky. When Darius Milhaud became his colleague the following year, he followed the example of his friend and fellow faculty member Charles Jones and began to show the French composer his compositions, becoming, for all intents and purposes, Milhaud’s student. Berger wrote one of his first experiences with Milhaud: “When I brought Milhaud the music I was writing for a Mills dance group he threw up his hands, shouted “merveilleux,” and embraced me. To have such a reaction from a world-class musician was all I needed to restore my faith in my composing. It was only later that I became aware that Milhaud was unburdening himself of a favorite locution that he would as readily use for the most primitive attempt of a freshman.” A year later, when Berger’s position at Mills was terminated, Milhaud sent him to Los Angeles to ask Schoenberg if there were any employment opportunities at UCLA, where he was teaching; Milhaud sent the greeting, “Mille baisers pour petit Arnold,” (a thousand kisses for little Arnold) which Berger, confronted with Schoenberg’s “austere and sour” expression, felt he simply could not deliver.

The Woodwind Quartet in C major, one of the first of the works to result from Berger’s resumption of composition, is one of the pieces that defines American neo-classic music. Dedicated to Aaron Copland, who is as much of a god father to the style as Stravinsky was, it remains Berger’s best known and most performed work. Berger considered the first movement to be a Sonata movement, with the exception that the second theme remained in the tonic, only starting on the dominant chord, in the exposition and is also the tonic in the recapitulation, which is compressed. The slow movement was referred to by Berger as “cowboy tunes,” but evokes urban, jazzy landscapes just as much as prairies. The last movement is a breathless, whirling three part movement.

Over the late 40's and early 50's Berger developed a method of working with three note cells (C, E, F in the ‘Cello Duo first movement, for instance, or F, Ab, Bb in Ideas of Order), from whose transformations and transpositions he developed both the melodic and harmonic materials for his music. It was the music written in this method that Milton Babbitt, writing in The Saturday Review in 1954, described as ‘diatonic Webern.’ Since the cells he used were diatonic, the music had the surface of tonal music, despite the fact that the procedures were in many respects serial, harking back to Berger’s original interest in ‘twelve tone’ music at the beginning of his compositional career.

After the second World War the twelve tone and serial techniques of Schoenberg and his school began to be considered with new seriousness by many composers who had previously regarded them with indifference of outright hostility. Though the most striking and celebrated conversion to “the system” was Stravinsky, practically every composer came under its influence in some way or other. Berger’s interest in this music was long standing, and by the mid 50's he was writing what was essentially serial music, anyway, so his taking up those methods was a logical next step in his composition development. He only wrote what might be described as strict twelve-tone music for a short while, during which he produced three works, Chamber Music for Thirteen Players, his String Quartet, and Chamber Concerto. He ultimately found that manner of composition, however loosely applied, incompatible with his personal working methods. Throughout those years, anyway, he was seeking to attain a state of technical control described by his mentor, Prall, “...ideal aesthetic knowledge, absolutely ready response, would bury the whole system of discriminations in our nerves and habits,” which would make dependence on system unnecessary. He developed a music which still depended on three-note cells, but completely chromatic (C, C#, D, for instance), rather than diatonic. These cells were practically never used as clusters, but were deployed in widely spaced sonorities and increasingly fragmented, wide-ranging melodic lines. In place of the diatonic pitch collections that had allowed him to give variety and contrast to his music by suggesting different keys, Berger employed contrasting pitch fields to achieve similar effects.

There was also a gradual evolution of structure in Berger’s music after the 60's. Whereas his earlier music had suggested older tonal forms, mainly sonata form varied and played with in a number of ways, aspiring to a grand formal design, his twelve tone and post twelve tone music was concerned more and more with a highly fragmented and improvisatory kind of continuity which he thought of as ‘perpetual variation.’ Berger described perpetual variation as ‘ a form of ruminating over the same material, turning it this way and that, allowing it to fluctuate in mood and tempo within sections, and ultimatelyyielding, despite the sectional breaks (mere pauses for breath), one relatively long movement.’ He also wrote, ‘As I see it, perpetual variation need not be of a single idea. I think what I do is a bit like the movie--or better, the slick night-time soap opera, where a number of different plots, ultimately related, constantly cut into one another without transition. This is another way of describing the collage method. A single musical idea (perhaps varied) may crop up again and agin without transition to it, since it has been cut up like a sheet of colored paper to be used on a collage. I guess, as in ‘action painting,’ I do the organizing of the form in the process. Is that improvisation? Not really, but they may have something in common.” As well as being one of his very best pieces, the Trio for violin, guitar, and piano, is a prime example of this working method. In it very brief, clear musical ideas are presented and then restated, juggled, and developed in an uncanny way that is both clear and easy to hear, but at the same time extremely elusive, leading to an intense, clattering climax, which as in many--just about all--of his pieces, reminds me of a garbage can rolling down a flight of stairs.

After the wonderful Yeats songs, written in 1939, Berger wrote practically no vocal music until late in his career. He had always wanted to do setting of some poem of Delmore Schwartz, who had been a close friend of his, and when in 1982 Lorna Cook de Varon asked him to write a piece for the NEC Chorus, he availed himself of the opportunity. Berger had a copy of the poem in Schwartz’s first book, In Dreams Begins Responsibility, where it’s title and first line were “O Love, Dark Animal.” A revised version, published in Summer Knowledge, changed it to “O Love, Sweet Animal.” Berger set the later version, but worked the original line into the text of his piece.

In the Five Settings of European Poets, written in 1978 and 1979 and dedicated to his wife Ellen, Berger set poems in five different languages. In addition to being (excellent) settings of the texts, however, each of the first four songs is a evaluation/criticism/imitation of a style of vocal writing indigenous to the language in question, but filtered through Berger’s own compositional voice: the setting of Horace evokes the grand heroic Latin settings of Stravinsky in Oedipus Rex, Symphony of Psalms, and Canticum Sacrum, the Rilke sonnet setting mimics song settings of Schoenberg and Berg, Debussy’s and Faure’s songs are recollected in the Valéry setting, and the rambunctious setting of C. G. Belli’s poem about the Piazza Navona in Rome, a favorite place of both the Bergers, conjures up Italian opera buffo. (And also, climactically, the garbage can and the stairs). The texts for these songs are about music, love, life, and companionship. The last, the setting of a Christina Rossetti poem in English, is no longer imitation, in any sense, nor is it at any kind of critical distance. It is one of Berger’s most personal, serious, and moving works. The whole set is, as was Arthur himself, smart, witty, and erudite, and then, surprisingly, at last, direct, unaffected, warm, loving, and very lovable.