- Narratives of Identity in Alban Berg’s Lulu by Silvio J. dos Santos
In 1925, Theodor Adorno recognized a fundamental flaw in critics’ portrayal of the composer Alban Berg. True to form, he called attention to it in the course of a polemic: “this prattling on about the ‘Schönberg pupil’ must stop” (13). Ninety years later, textbook authors and compilers of syllabi frequently reinforce the marginalizing rhetoric of those critics, casting Berg as an eternal student and artistic subordinate of his iconoclastic teacher, Arnold Schoenberg. As Silvio J. dos Santos duly notes in his monograph Narratives of Identity in Alban Berg’s Lulu, Berg himself wrote of his debt to Schoenberg so frequently as to make this historiographic tic inevitable.
Many scholars have rejected the tendency to treat Berg as a derivative Kleinmeister, and dos Santos furthers this project—but without recourse to tired platitudes about originality. Quite the opposite: dos Santos frames his new study as an investigation of the intellectual influences at play in Berg’s life and music. Works by a number of playwrights, philosophers, and musicians informed Berg’s personal conduct and [End Page 179] meticulous compositional craft. But the narratives of identity to which dos Santos refers in the title arise in part from the legacy of an artist whose exact role in Berg’s thought has heretofore gone uninvestigated: Richard Wagner.
In the first half of his study, dos Santos examines the role of Berg’s Wagnerism in his personal and professional life. This may strike readers as a substantial digression in a book about the opera Lulu, but, as dos Santos explains in his introductory comments, Berg tended to regard his later pieces as camouflaged works of autobiography. Lulu, with its lovelorn “composer of Wozzeck” character Alwa, is no exception. In order to understand the musical products of Berg’s last decade, we must become acquainted with the figure of Alban Berg as we encounter it therein—Wagnerian posturing and all. As a student, Berg showed allegiance to Schoenberg alone, and publicly scorned the “Wagner-worshippers” of Vienna’s art world. In his first chapter, dos Santos writes of the identity crisis that Berg faced in 1925, the consequence of a growing rift between mentor and former student. Berg’s appropriation of the character and philosophy of Wagner began under the withering gaze of Schoenberg, whose influence Berg privately described as “the problem of my life” (23).
Scholars have long known of Berg’s epistolary love affair with Hannah Fuchs-Robettin, the woman whose musicalized initials permeate the Lyric Suite for string quartet of 1926. In his second chapter, dos Santos argues that Berg’s need to maintain the affair amounted to a metaphysical imperative. Wagner had written of redemptive but impossible love in Tristan und Isolde; his concept of Erlösung durch Liebe (salvation through love) arose from his own passionate affair with the married poet Mathilde Wesendonck. The Viennese philosopher Emil Lucka wove Wagner’s ideals of metaphysical love into his own writings, which Berg read with enthusiasm and annotated.
Having studied Berg’s correspondence, notebooks, and manuscripts, dos Santos has concluded that the composer consciously modeled his affair after Wagner’s most famous liaison, as part of an effort to access the heightened passions and creative energies available to the romantically frustrated. We may therefore read Berg’s febrile twelve-tone pieces as chapters of an extended confession: of impossible, forbidden love, and of a secret proclivity for Wagnerian aesthetics. In his third chapter, dos Santos delves into the score of Lulu and explains the quotation of Tristan und Isolde at the heart of the rondo scene, in which Alwa, a musical descendant of Tristan, confesses his love for Lulu. In the latter three chapters of the book, dos Santos examines Berg’s construction of musical and dramatic identities in Lulu, including that of the famously elusive title character. Musicologists, theorists, and critics have posited a number of answers to the enigma of Lulu’s identity...