- Alban Berg and Hanna Fuchs: The Story of a Love in Letters
Constantin Floros's Alban Berg and Hanna Fuchs is an installment in the still growing literature on Berg's affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin and the incorporation of its details into his music, especially the Lyric Suite. Information about the affair began to appear in print in 1977, and it is now the subject of more than twenty books and articles, a BBC documentary, and at least two novels. Briefly, here's what happened. In mid-May 1925 Berg visited Prague for a festival of modern music at which his Wozzeck Fragments were to be performed, and he accepted an invitation [End Page 507] from Herbert Fuchs-Robettin—brother-in-law of his friend Franz Werfel—to stay with him and his family in the Prague suburb of Bubenec.. Berg was in high spirits during the festival: his music was enjoying success as never before, and just as he arrived he learned from the conductor Erich Kleiber that Wozzeck would definitely receive its premier performance at the Berlin Staatsoper in the near future. "My brain is on fire," he wrote to his wife, Helene. Berg was especially charmed by the Fuchs-Robettins' two children and fascinated by their luxurious life style. "My hosts spoil me," Berg wrote to Helene on the day after he arrived. "Room with hot water, glorious view, Roger Galet soap, Venetian blinds so that you can sleep with the windows open at night" (Alban Berg, Letters to his Wife [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1971], 337).
In his letters to Helene, Berg did not, of course, mention the principal attraction during his stay—Fuchs-Robettin's wife, Hanna, who was pretty, at thirty some ten years younger than her husband or Berg, and known as something of a flirt. Soma Morgenstern described her as a "scharfe Dame," and Adorno summed her up as an opportunist, "a bourgeoise through and through, who was once touched by the possibility of being other, without ever being able to realize that possibility" (p. 128). Judging from Berg's later correspondence with Hanna—all that is known is given in this book for the first time in English—the flirting between the two got heavier during his weeklong stay, leading in all likelihood to a sexual encounter, ("that blissful half hour," as Berg described it), probably on the morning of 20 May. After the festival, the composer returned to Vienna to finish the Chamber Concerto, prepare for the Wozzeck premiere, and take on new compositional challenges.
The correspondence that passed between Berg and the Fuchs-Robbetins after the incident in Prague is the centerpiece of this short book by Constantin Floros. Thirteen of the items are passionate and rambling letters that Berg wrote privately to Hanna between June 1925 and December 1934. They are filled with rapturous professions of love, hopelessness and despair, and some contain information about Berg's enshrinement of the affair in his music. These letters, which were acquired in 1992 by the Austrian National Library, plus thirteen additional pieces of correspondence between Berg and the Fuchs-Robettins, first appeared in the Österreichische Musikzeitschrift (50 [special issue, 1995]: 30–71), edited by Floros. They were republished in 2001 in Floros's Alban Berg und Hanna Fuchs: Die Geschichte einer Liebe in Briefen (Zürich: Arche, 2001) where Floros added a concise historical background and interpretation of the relevance of the letters to the Lyric Suite and aria Der Wein. This is the work that is given here in an excellent and careful English translation by Ernest Bernhardt Kabisch.
Few readers in the present day will find Berg's adventure in Prague in May 1925 to be all that unusual. How many composers facing middle age have had affairs with younger women, often leading to a renewed level of productivity? On the surface, at least, Berg's affair is not that different from...