Agnetha Eichenholz, shown above, is Lulu in this production of Berg’s opera.
Apr 22, 2011


When I started doing this section of the blog, it was my intention to devote it mostly to blues and jazz, but I also like classical music, including opera, so I’m going to make some observations about operas that I like. I’m fairly sure that I won’t be writing musical reviews. A review, as Craig Wright describes it in in his Yale class on Listening to Music says, focuses on the performance. This means that the reviewer has some prior conception, some ideal, which may or may not be resident in that heaven of forms described by Plato, prior to hearing that particular performance. Since I do not have sufficient musical knowledge to have formed an ideal conception of how Beethoven’s 14th string quartet should sound, I can’t say whether the violinist takes a tempo too fast or too slow. So I’ll probably be talking about what the music evokes, or about the non-performance aspects of the piece. Any comments on performance will be on the aspects that I feel comfortable with talking about.

When I blogged about Gerbert I did not go into much detail about medieval education or the liberal arts, though The Abacus and the Cross does contain some detail about education during that period. The trivium consisted of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. These are the language arts, and they govern thought and the communication of thought. The quadrivium was arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. This last one seems odd. What’s music doing in there with the hard sciences? All four are mathematical in nature. Music theory originates, in the West, with the Greeks, and at the time of the medieval universities was primarily harmonics.

Berg’s Lulu is a twelve-tone or serial composition. That means that each note in the chromatic scale, the black and white keys on the piano keyboard, must be played before it can be repeated. Now while standard compositional techniques will allow for an essentially unlimited number of patterns, because notes can be repeated, as in the opening of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, the number of patterns that can be produced using 12 tone techniques is large (12! or about 400 million), but nowhere near as large as those available outside of this methodology. It would seem that music produced using 12 tone methods would be cold and unaffecting, but Berg’s use of it in Lulu and in his Violin Concerto is anything but unemotional.

Berg starts from a basic pattern that looks like this:

Out of this trope he generates what is called a tone row. The tone row is the sequence of notes that will form the basis of the composition. The row is capable of being manipulated through inversion, retrogradation, and inverted retrogradation. This yields 48 rows based on the original. Berg in Lulu forms rows for several of the characters. So here is Lulu’s row.

Here is Alwa’s tone row:

These rows will function much as the leitmotifs of Wagnerian opera function. All of the opera’s harmonics will be built upon the various tone rows.

Lulu is a largely passive character. She rarely acts. Events happen around her and she suffers. The picture of Agnetha Eichenholz shows Lulu’s suffering pretty well. Lulu experiences a rise and then a degrading fall into prostitution and murder at the hands of Jack the Ripper, but unlike a play such as Mrs Warren’s Profession, which has a polemical purpose, Lulu seems to me to be more about the largely mythic character of Lulu in her various roles as temptress and seducer than as sexual adventurer, which she is not, or victim of capitalist exploitation, as in Mrs. Warren. Berg’s Lulu has more in common with the heros and heroines of medieval tragedies based on the fall of princes or the wheel of fortune than she does with modern social movements.

There are various productions of Lulu out, and this one is minimalist. The stage is essentially empty and undecorated. The characters, after dying, simply get up discreetly and walk off the stage. This is disconcerting at first, but you can get so you accept it as part of the technique.

This is a moving, and affecting production of Berg’s opera.