The Labyrinth in Berg’s Der Wein

Alison Maggart
University of Southern California

Insofar as a work of art translates an abstract idea into an object comprised of discrete elements, it can be interpreted as a symbol representing something otherwise ineffable. However, the more a work of art engages with archetypes and conventions tacitly understood by its audience, the richer its meaning becomes. By either exploiting or subverting the significations of preexisting archetypes, an artist can endow a work with new referential meaning. In music many different compositional techniques and devices have accrued symbolic value through their continual usage and modification. These symbols, which rely on an evolving history, continue to accumulate meaning with each new transformation. One of the oldest and most persistent musical symbols is the palindrome. Its structural recursiveness—the “backward” progression—both negates progressive temporality and underlines a separation between exteriority and interiority. Thus, it points to something beyond itself—something intangible that seems to come into focus at the moment of the palindrome’s vanishing point.

During the Medieval period and Renaissance, systems of circuitous motion in music, such as canons and retrogrades, denoted an array of allegorical meanings associated with the image of the labyrinth.[1] As theologians attempted to reconcile classical philosophy with Christianity, the legend of the Minotaur was assimilated into church doctrine. The inward and outward progression of the labyrinth easily translated into a symbol of Christ’s recursive journey into and out of hell, and its cyclic recurrence suggested a parallel to the conception of God as the atemporal Alpha and Omega. Thus, the labyrinth became a site for narratives of regression and renewal, conflated sacred and secular spheres, and suspended time. The fact that Medieval composers set the Agnus Dei or other texts from the Easter liturgy to works containing palindromes suggests that the symbolic implications of the musical structure were codified and recognized.[2] While the musical palindrome mirrored the Easter celebration of cyclic renewal in audible terms, these composers tended to be esoteric in their designs. The palindromes in these works arguably functioned as “secret programs,” as composers frequently embedded musical symbols within their works that would be evident only to an elite and privileged cognoscenti.

While composers continued to employ palindromes through the 16th and 17th centuries, its usage steadily declined. In fact, musical palindromes became virtually obsolete after the Renaissance; there are only a few examples in all of the music of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods.[3] In the early twentieth century, however, a renewed interest in early music developed within the burgeoning field of musicology. This revival had wide-ranging effects, influencing not only early music performance practice but also contemporary compositional procedures. Whether under the banner of Neoclassicism or otherwise, many composers reinstituted medieval and renaissance forms and techniques within a modern idiom. Traditional procedures, such as canon, retrograde imitation, and other structures that underscore symmetry and proportion began to reemerge, particularly in the works of the Second Viennese School. Anton Webern, who studied musicology under Guido Adler at the University of Vienna and whose dissertation included a transcription of the second volume of Isaac’s Choralis Constantinus, usually serves as the locus for discussions regarding modern appropriation of Renaissance musical devices.[4] However, while for Webern and Arnold Schoenberg such devices were viewed primarily as abstract, technical methods, for Alban Berg they carried symbolic importance.[5]

Given both the pervasiveness of the labyrinth allegory in contemporary art and Berg’s exposure to Renaissance music, it is hard to believe that when Berg employed palindromic forms in his music he was not also engaging with the web of associations that the musical device connoted. The allegorical dimension in Berg’s palindromes is the result of an engagement (consciously or not) within a long history of musical symbolic codes. In this essay, I will illustrate how the presence of specific and historically rooted musical conventions derived from labyrinth mythology permeate Berg’s twelve-tone works. Though I will argue that Berg’s twelve-tone palindromic works reflect the issues embodied in the Medieval and Renaissance labyrinth archetype, I do not mean to displace other theories concerning the meaning of the palindrome in Berg’s music. Rather, because the affective power of Berg’s works lies in their multiple levels of interpretation, I hope to assimilate the image of the labyrinth into the discourse.

Berg’s symbolic musical language consistently implemented large-scale symmetrical structures, often involving unconventional transformations of the row form, which themselves entailed extracting specific intervals by systematic rotation and other cyclic procedures. Though the strict execution of these methods varies greatly from work to work, nearly all of his output displays cyclic structural devices. The Seven Early Songs (1905-08), Piano Sonata, Op. 1 (1907-08), and String Quartet, Op. 3 (1910) conclude with material recycled from their beginnings, returning back to their initial points of departure. Vier Lieder, Op. 2 (1909-10), Altenberglieder, Op. 4 (1912), Three Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6 (1914-15), Wozzeck, Op. 7 (1914-22), and the Chamber Concerto (1923-25) embed loose palindromic structures within movements or sections. Finally, the Lyric Suite (1925-26), Der Wein (1929), and Lulu (1929-35) organize their overarching structures by strict palindromes.[6] Douglas Jarman notes how these structures are not “technical conceits but, like Berg’s use of ciphers and number symbolism, . . . objective intellectual restraints which hide a deeply subjective significance.”[7] The symbolic import of the palindromes in Berg’s music, however, is not reducible to mere subjectivity. The palindrome’s history as a symbol endows it with multivalent, culturally instituted meanings that perpetually remain in attendance. This is the case whether or not he intended the historical significations or whether the primary audience immediately recognized those significations.

Berg frequently specifies the significations of certain ciphers and numbers in his annotated scores, critical writings, and letters. In his open letter to Schoenberg on the Chamber Concert, he writes:

In a musical motto that precedes the first movement the letters of your name, Webern’s and my names have been captured—as far as is possible in musical notation—in three themes (or motifs) which have been allotted an important role in the melodic development of this music. This already announces a trinity of events, and such a trinity . . . is important for the whole work.[8]

In a letter to his lover, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, he specifies (in regard to the Chamber Concerto): “A composition begun earlier . . . is to be completed . . . The most beautiful movement, the middle one, starts—how prophetically!—with our initials.”[9] In the annotated score of the Lyric Suite, he identifies the numbers that dictate structural divisions in the work—23 and 10—as his and Hanna’s respective numbers. Though palindromes dictate the larger formal designs in both these works, it is significant Berg never assigns a signification to them. The closest that he comes to describing their meaning is in a letter written to Schoenberg in regard to Der Wein. He elusively writes: “The return of the retrograde repetition after the IInd song is supposed to correspond to the return from the realm of this song to that of the IIIrd song, which is the same as that of the first.”[10] The difficulty in assigning meaning arises from the fact that the palindrome, rather than being a purely subjective symbol, engages with a long and evolving history of significations of which Berg was aware.

Many of Berg’s works have multiple levels of embedded “secret programs” that are often unrelated to one another. While these secret programs have frequently been analyzed through a biographical lens, it is just as reasonable to apply other methods of interpretation that rely on universal conventions and structures. Berg’s unconventional use of the twelve-tone method, for example, gathered meaning by superimposing multiple programmatic layers on top of one another. By assigning specific symbolic meaning to pitches, numbers, or transformations of the row form, he frequently layered programmatic content within otherwise “absolute” instrumental compositions. As the foregoing quotes show, the Chamber Concerto not only references Berg’s relationship to Schoenberg and Webern, it also functions in the composer’s mind as a premonition of his love for Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. This disposition was due in part to the fact that Berg, more than the other Second Viennese School composers, was influenced by Viennese fin-de-siècle esotericism, which oversaw “an enormous growth of interest in numerology, astrology, the occult, and in mystical and quasi-mystical religions.”[11] In Berg’s social circle, where the pseudo-scientific theories of Paul Kammerer and Wilhelm Fliess and the mystical theosophy of Madame Blavatsky abounded, belief in astrology, numerology, mysticism, and submerged meaning in coincidence was pervasive. Consequently, these beliefs are frequently cited as the point of departure for Berg’s implementation of “pseudo-scientific” symbolic devices in his music.[12]

Berg’s interest in hidden meanings also had an ethical dimension. Though he does not seem to have been particularly dogmatic in his religious beliefs, a certain amount of religious glossing is frequent in his (and Schoenberg’s) discussions on aesthetics, which may be partly attributable to his being raised in a strict Roman Catholic household. According to Carl Dahlhaus, Schoenberg’s aesthetic writings are often couched in theological language, transplanted into a secular domain.[13] Regarding Berg, John Covach states:

When one considers Berg’s interest in mystical ideas along with the music and theories of both Schoenberg and Hauer, it becomes clear that each composer is fascinated with the spiritual realm while having a distinct manner of invoking it . . . Berg’s music seems not to be so much concerned with offering a vehicle for the spiritual experience as much as representing such an experience.[14]

In Berg’s works, the conflation of secular and sacred is most apparent in his operas, in which anti-heroes (Wozzeck or Lulu, for example) are cloaked in religious undertones. The ambiguous quality of these characters, which can be interpreted within the framework of classical tragedy or, as has been suggested, as Christ-figures, underscores the modern anxiety of the artist in contemporary society.

Despite Berg’s predilection for numerology, mysticism, and multivalent significations, as well as the prevalence of retrogrades and inversions in his music, many scholars have viewed him as unaffected by Vienna’s emerging Medieval and Renaissance scholarship.[15] Rather, most interpretations of the palindromes in Berg’s music rely on contemporary theories and philosophies, generally concerned with either the negation or transcendence of temporality. The perceived temporal disruption enacted by a musical palindrome, in combination with its consequent thematic cyclicism, leads many to relate Berg’s retrograde structures to either Nietzsche’s philosophy of “eternal recurrence” or to Swedenborgian mystical philosophy of numerical proportion (particularly as filtered through Balzac’s novel Séraphita). These theories are compelling but nevertheless shortsighted. By relying solely on contemporary theories of temporality, they obscure the fact that these same issues had a history in the allegorical space of the labyrinth. In fact, most scholars dismiss the influence of Medieval and Renaissance composers on Berg’s compositions because they fail to take into account that palindromes and retrograde imitations were not merely scholastic structural devices in the works of the Netherlanders; they also functioned as symbols. Likewise, the palindrome functions in Berg’s music as a type of secret program, endowing individual compositions with deeper and richer meanings than heretofore recognized. While integrating contemporary philosophies within its symbolic purview, it also retained its original connotation of the labyrinth.

In the early twentieth century renewed interest in Medieval and Renaissance history instigated the reemergence of classical symbols, archetypes, and mythologies in literature and the arts. Artists and poets frequently appropriated classical mythology in order to metaphorically politicize contemporary events.[16] The imagery of the Secession School and the Surrealist painters, for example, frequently relied on mythological allusion. In the writings of Karl Kraus, which Berg avidly read, “mythic patterns repeatedly reinforced the satire.”[17] Within this climate of reinvigorated classical archetypes, the legend of the Minotaur regained traction. Walter Benjamin, a close friend of Berg’s student, Theodor Adorno, would describe the city itself as a labyrinth, which “includes as one would expect, an image of the Minotaur at its center.”[18] The labyrinthine narrative was easily assimilated into contemporary Freudian and Nietzschian philosophies of the subconscious and man’s dual nature.[19] To enter the labyrinth was to enter the realm of the subconscious; to defeat the Minotaur, the product of carnal and unnatural sexuality, was to confront one’s own animalistic impulses. As powerful irrationality resided within the logical and ordered architecture of the labyrinth, man’s id remained submerged by his ego: “Theseus represented the conscious life of reason and order, and his journey into the labyrinth—the passageway to the inner psyche—to confront the Minotaur was considered analogous to the artist’s search for the unknown in the depths of his mind.”[20]

While the vast majority of Berg’s works contain palindromes at some level, the Lyric Suite, Der Wein, and Lulu are generally viewed as the paradigms of Berg’s palindromic form.[21] In these three twelve-tone works, retrogrades influence large-scale structural forms and most clearly underscore Berg’s fascination with symmetry and proportion. In the Lyric Suite, the six movements form a temporally-interlocking expanding and contracting wedge: movements one, three, and five progressively increase in tempo, while movements two, four, and six progressively decrease in tempo. Themes are cyclic throughout, often involving quotations in one movement from the preceding movement, and the work ends with an extended quotation of the first movement in the last.[22] The palindrome occurs in the central movement, interrupted by a trio estatico. In Lulu the palindrome occurs in an interlude at the midpoint and climax of the opera, at which point Lulu has shot and killed her third husband, Dr. Schön. In Der Wein a strict palindrome occurs in the central section, though cyclic procedures recur at the end of the work as well.

Alban Berg, manuscript of Der Wein, center of the palindrome.


The palindrome of Der Wein is particularly striking in the visual layout that Berg insisted upon from the editors of Universal Edition: the midpoint of the palindrome is placed squarely in the center of the page, book-ended by extended harp figurations and phrase markings that reinforce the visual effect of the structural break. In each of these pieces an interruption—either a new musical interlude (as in the Lyric Suite) or by a fermata (as in Der Wein and Lulu)—underscores the climactic moment at the center of the palindrome.

Interestingly, in the Lyric Suite, Der Wein, and Lulu one finds all the issues that the labyrinth had come to embody in the twentieth century: a conflation of classical and theological myths; a suspension of temporality; the juxtaposition of exteriority and interiority; and a narrative of regression and renewal. Furthermore, these three works are thematically, textually, and musically interrelated. Each projects a sense of profound disillusionment with and dislocation of modernity realized through allusions to classical mythology and Christianity. In addition, these are the only three pieces in Berg’s entire output to explicitly set texts or themes derived from classical mythology. The Lyric Suite and Der Wein are both settings of, or are accompanied by, poems from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1857), in which Baudelaire frequently juxtaposes Christian and pagan themes.[23] Although Lulu does not use Baudelaire poems, it also relies upon allusions to Greek and Christian mythologies. The two Wedekind plays of which the libretto is comprised—Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora—draw connections between the myths of Pandora and the Fall from the Garden of Eden. As Pandora’s curiosity brought evil into the world, so too did Eve’s curiosity lead to Man’s ruin. Lulu is introduced as a snake in the prologue and is referred to as “Eve” by Schwartz. Musically, the three works are related by similar pitch collections and thematic transformations. The Lyric Suite and Lulu contain the same source hexachords, [024579], and at prominent transposition levels they share common hexachordal unordered pitch-class content.[24] The prime row of Der Wein suggests Lulu’s leitmotif, and new methods of row derivation first realized in Der Wein are implemented throughout Lulu. Indeed, Der Wein is sometimes viewed as a preparatory study for Lulu. Because Der Wein functions as the locus of connection between the three pieces, it will serve as the exemplary work in the following discussion with the understanding that many of the conclusions reached can also be applied to the Lyric Suite and Lulu.

Der Wein is a concert aria, composed on the commission of Rozena Herlina in 1929. Its first performance was on June 4, 1930. Its text is comprised of three of the five poems from the “Le Vin” section of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal in the Stefan George translation. In literature, Les Fleurs du Mal occupies a special place between classicism and modernity. Strict poetic forms and meters are juxtaposed against modern subjects; allusions to Christian allegory and Greek myth are pervasive; the overall tone is characterized by subversive eroticism. Epitomizing modern anxieties, Les Fleurs du Mal examines the degradation of contemporary society, the dualistic nature of Man, and the internal struggle created by Man’s conflicting inclinations toward both God and the Devil.[25] As Abraham Avni writes, the frequent evocations of antiquity in Les Fleurs du Mal “pays unalloyed tribute to the glories of antiquity, with corresponding deprecation of the contemporary world.”[26] Wine alludes to Christian ritual and Dionysian hedonism, as well as functions as a gateway into the artist’s subconscious. It serves as a temporary escape from life, though the narrative suggests, “Only death will constitute the final release.”[27] One wonders whether Berg felt an affinity with Baudelaire, since his frequent reference to tonality within a twelve-tone language creates a similar conflict between tradition and modernity.

Of the four poems from “Le Vin” that were translated into German, Berg set “Die Seeles des Weines,” “Der Wein des Liebenden,” and “Der Wein des Einsamen,” and transferred “Der Wein der Liebenden” from last to central position. This was an important structural decision, since for Baudelaire the poems represented the “fleeting, the ephemeral, the contingent,” and Berg’s reordering creates a narrative of descent and ascent and underscores a structural cyclicism.[28] The first and third poems present a solitary narrator, whereas the second poem presents the journey of the narrator with his beloved. The first and third poems are in traditional alexandrine verse (in Stefan George’s translation either ten or eleven syllable verses), whereas the second is truncated to octosyllabic verses. The first and third poems both contain a “God” refrain in the final line, while the second is the only poem in all of Baudelaire’s “Le Vin” section in which there is no “God” refrain. Thus, Berg’s reordering creates a poetic arch that is absent in Baudelaire’s arrangement; his reordering, as it sequences through death, descent, and resurrection, fundamentally reverses the narrative implications.

“Die Seele des Weines” introduces the connection between wine, divinity, and poetry. Wine represents both the internal power of man to create poetry as well as the sacrificial and redemptive Christ. The poem narrates the resurrection story, though conflicts are created in the blurring of Christian and Greek mythologies (“Vegetal ambrosia, precious grain scattered”), implied correlation between sacrifice and militancy (“I shall be for that frail athlete of life/The oil that hardens a wrestler’s muscles”), and erotic undertone (“I shall light up the eyes of your enraptured wife”). In the second stanza, the personified Wine draws a metaphor between itself and the crucified Christ: “I know the cost in pain, in sweat/And in burning sunlight on the blazing hillside,/Of creating my life, of giving me a soul.” In the third stanza, Wine descends into the “pleasant tomb” of man’s breast, while in the fourth stanza, “choruses resound on Sunday,” and we are invited to “glorify [Wine] at the table.” And then, in the final stanza, the poetry born of wine will “spring up toward God like a rare flower!” Invoking the image of the Sower, the final stanza also alludes to Apocalyptic Judgment. In the Gospel of Matthew, the Sower spreads the Word, and for those who are by the wayside, “Satan cometh immediately,” while those who receive the Word on fertile soil, “bring forth fruit.”[29] Hence, “Die Seele” introduces the primary Christian significations of the labyrinth that were codified in the fourteenth century: namely, that of Christ’s death and resurrection and that of Apocalyptic a-temporality. At the same time, it also portends new and more modern significations. Drawing a connection between descent and man’s inner nature—it is in man’s “warm breast” that Wine finds a tomb—the poem implies that man gains knowledge of his inner self through Wine. This corresponds to the related belief that true knowledge resides within our deepest, irrational or most primitive self.

The central poem, “Der Wein der Liebenden,” depicts a descent into the dark recesses of the Dionysian subconscious. As Berg described in a letter to his wife Helene: “Then an image comes to mind: a man, intoxicated by delicious wine, leaning in rapture on the breast of his beloved, with vine-leaves in his hair, is transformed into a drunken beast.”[30] The shortened verses and closed rhyme scheme imbue the poem with a certain speed, conveying the uninhibited ride on horseback of the narrator and his lover. Though the ride ostensibly leads to heaven, the poem’s ironic tone calls the genuineness of the text into question. Additionally, the drunken horseman was an image in Anacreontic poetry associated with a ride to bacchantic hell.[31] In the first stanza of Baudelaire’s poem, the lovers ride “without bridle or bit or spurs.” The unbridled horse has since the Renaissance been a symbol of uncontrollable passion, and in Christian doctrine, it leads man, not to heaven, but to hell. In the second stanza, Baudelaire expands the metaphor, likening the two riders to “two angels who are tortured,” and again we are invited to question whether this ride is really taking the lovers to heaven or to the dominion of Lucifer, the first fallen angel. The allegorical descent, as opposed to the denoted ascent, is accentuated in the final stanza when the journey no longer becomes one of flight, but rather of swimming. Though “swimming” perhaps seems apposite in describing a state of intoxication, since for Baudelaire “nager” carried dark connotations. In “De profundis clamavi,” which Berg set in the Lyric Suite, it is from the “depth of the dark pit where my heart has fallen” where “through the night swim horror and blasphemy.”[32] That the depths actually reside within the individual’s subconscious is underscored by the reversal of pronouns in the final line of “Der Wein der Liebenden.” While the narrative follows two lovers, the “paradise” reached is of the author’s singular dream. This reversal is conspicuous in relation to the first and last poems. Though the narrator is solitary in both “Die Seeles des Weines” and “Der Wein des Einsamen,” the final stanzas extend into the reader’s domain. In the first, poetry is born from “our love;” in the third, wine endows men with pride, which makes “us triumphant.” Finally, “Der Wein der Liebenden” is the only poem in “Le Vin” that does not include the word “God” in its final couplet.

In the third poem, “Der Wein des Einsamen,” the narrator achieves godlike status through intoxication. Sardonically, the prostitute Adeline, who mediates the journey, carries Marian significations: she turns “toward us like the white beam/which the undulous moon casts on the trembling lake.” By invoking love, music, and death (“A lustful kiss from slender Adeline;/The sound of music, tormenting and caressing,/Resembling the distant cry of a man in pain”), Baudelaire suggests a Schopenhauerian subversion of the Will and ultimate transcendence. However, it is only through the power of Wine that the narrator, along with the reader, becomes “equal to the gods!” Wine allows us to transcend ourselves. Thus, Berg’s reordering of the poems brings the regressive and transcendent narrative of the labyrinth into relief. One achieves a higher realm of being only after having sacrificed himself, descended into the subconscious, and reemerged from the depths.

Berg’s music reflects not only this labyrinthine narrative, but also the poem’s satiric and erotic undertones. In the music of Der Wein, Berg reinforces the narrative of descent and ascent by large-scale palindromic structure, cyclic transformations of the row form, allusions to tonality, and pitch-specific signifiers. The work is in an ABA’ pseudo-sonata form, in which formal divisions are dictated by the poetic structure: the first poem corresponds to an exposition, the second poem corresponds to a scherzo (replacing the development section), and the third poem corresponds to a condensed recapitulation and coda. Within each section musical divisions reflect stanzaic divisions. Both the cyclic return of themes in the conclusion and the arch-like trajectory of the melodic and rhythmic contours emphasize its ternary form. Rhythmically, the first and third sections share two common motives: an upbeat comprised of three eighth notes and introduced by the vocal entrance and a syncopated tango rhythm associated with the second theme group. By contrast, the central section has a unique rhythmic motive: a dotted-quarter—eighth—quarter-note figure, usually accompanying thirteen-note rows.[33] Though the work is twelve-tone, the prime row, <24579T1680E3>, implies D minor and major tonalities. The first six notes of the prime row, <DEFGABb>, allude to a D minor ascending scale, while the last six notes in the RI-7 transformation create an ascending D major scale. In addition to typical row derivations, Berg experiments with new methods of row manipulation that play an important role in the row derivations in Lulu. In general, these new derivations isolate collections of interval cycles. Frequently, this involves either an interweaving of multiple rows or a reformulation of extracted pitches (either every other or every third) from the prime row.[34]

In the first and third sections, Berg frequently manipulates the row form in order to create triadic harmonies or melodic motives that suggest tonality. For example, the first theme group (measures 15-23), introduced at the vocal entrance, ascends the first six notes of the D minor scale over harmonies that allude to a circle of fifths progression.[35] Berg uses the second theme, a sensual tango (measures 31-72), to set the text ironically beginning, “Do you hear the choruses resounding on Sunday?” The juxtaposition between the religious allusions in the text and the degenerate connotations of the tango create a jarring discord appropriate to the satiric tone of Baudelaire’s poem. The third section is a condensed recapitulation of the first section, though one in which the first theme never resurfaces. Measures 1-5 are restated in measures 173-177, while measure 178 consolidates measures 24-30. Two-measure cells from the tango theme continue to be recalled, though not in a strict order. This time, however, the tango’s setting aptly portrays the text, which describes “gambler’s fingers” and the “lustful Adeline.” It is typical of Berg’s music that the narrative moment of transcendence is represented by musical and poetic concurrence, rather than subject matter alone. Furthermore, the fact that the most degenerate music and vile characters (gamblers, prostitutes, and boastful drunkards) accompany the transcendence aligns with Berg’s predilection for ironic reversal. By elevating the lowest to the highest he draws our attention to the impossibility of pure transcendence within corrupt, modern society. The coda (measures 208-216) repeats measures 8-14. Thus, the ending does not so much conclude the work as return to the beginning.[36]

The central section diverges from the framing ones in regard to pitch collection, tempo, and rhythmic motives. The palindrome occurs in this section, book-ended by allusions to the tango theme. It begins in measure 112, reaches a climax at measure 141 and concludes in retrograde at measure 172. The palindrome’s apex does not coincide with the midpoint in the text, but rather coincides with the midpoint of the work as a whole. Consequently, the influence of the palindrome extends beyond the limits of the central section and into the outer sections. The intensity of the melodic ascent, which culminates at the center of the palindrome, underscores the ambiguity of ascent and descent in the poem’s text (the combination of “swimming” in the text and melodic ascent within a referentially D minor work is reminiscent of the ascending orchestral interlude in Wozzeck, following Wozzeck’s suicidal drowning). Harmonically, in contrast to the tonal allusions of the outer sections, the central section emphasizes semi-chromatic scales and the interval of a tritone with increasing density. The derivation of the tritone from the row displays Berg at his most unconventional. In a sketch given to Willi Reich, Berg describes how he abstrusely extracts the tritones. By segmenting the inversion of the row into three groups, which he designates “5-tone major,” “3-tone minor,” and “4-tone major/minor,” he is able to extract either major or minor triadic subsets (designated by upward stems) or a series of tritones spanning the space of either five-, four-, or three-note distances (designated by downward stems).

Figure 1, Berg’s Sketch for Willi Reich

Berg's sketch for Reich

Such elaborate justification for the presence of an interval in the row suggests that Berg conceived of using the tritone before he created a method for its extraction. This also suggests that the tritone carried symbolic relevance. In abstraction, the tritone (the pitches of which outline the polar relationships in the circle of fifths) might itself be interpreted as a cyclic symbol. Taking into account the historical significations of the tritone, it can also be interpreted as a symbol of imperfection or of the Devil. Thus one can also interpret the central section as the innermost point in the cyclical narrative, as the space of the Minotaur or Satan. That the abundance of tritones should be defeated by “the softest accord of B and F major”—the unification of Berg and Hanna Fuchs-Robettin’s pitch signifiers—thus can also be interpreted as a triumph of love.[37] However, the central “accord” is undermined by the presence of a D-flat, the registral extreme of the work and the only pitch in the collection without an explicit signification.

There is little literature on the significance of D-flat for Berg. Headlam suggests that it subverts the overriding D-minor tonality, though he does not extrapolate on the particular signification of D-flat in Berg’s output as a whole. However, examining other scores, particularly those in which palindromes are significant structural devices, it appears that D-flat did have a particular meaning to Berg. In fact, he consistently implemented it at climactic moments in isolation. At the central point of the palindrome in the Chamber Concerto, an isolated D-flat is repeated twelve times in the low range of the piano (this also marks the only time in the movement that the piano plays.) At the midpoint of the palindrome in Lulu, D-flat appears in the highest register under a fermata. In Wozzeck, Hauptmann’s character is represented with pitch collections alluding to D-flat, leading Allen Forte to suggest that D-flat represents the repression of Hauptmann over Wozzeck, whose associated key is D minor. Jarman describes a similar symbolic implementation in Lulu: “The figure of Dr. Schön, in particular, is specifically associated with the primary tonal center of D-flat major.”[38] Dr. Schön, like Hauptmann in Wozzeck, is the primary antagonist to the central character, as he represents monetary power over Lulu. In Berg’s life, as a fictionalized representation of Schoenberg, Dr. Schön also represents cultural power. Thus, the predominance of D-flat in Der Wein and these other works suggests that for Berg it signified oppression or struggle. In Der Wein, the appearance of D-flat at the center of the palindrome can thus be interpreted not only as a depiction of literal descent from the central tonality, but also as a level beneath Berg’s everyday consciousness (represented by D minor). In metaphorical terms, it can also be seen as a musical symbol for the Minotaur.

Was this Berg’s intention? Taking my cue from Theodor Adorno, I would suggest that intentionality does not necessarily matter. Nor do I believe, however, that Berg would be displeased by such an interpretation. Berg was an avid believer in the symbolic importance of coincidence. For example, in a letter to Schoenberg, he writes: “[The number 23] has great significance for me… I received your first telegram (to go back to the beginning) on 4/6 (46=2×23). The telegram contained the number Berlin Südende 46 (2×23) 12/11 (12+11=23). The second telegram contained the numbers 23/23 and was sent at 11.50 (1150=50×23).”[39] In a letter to Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, he writes: “Can you think it a mere coincidence that the same fate that tore us asunder in the very same hour also linked us together, through our numbers 10 and 23, in the no.1023—of all conceivable numbers!—on my ticket, the ticket which thus could increase only the bodily distance between us!”[40] Without explicit reference to symbolic imagery in his correspondence, it is difficult to argue that Berg conceived of Der Wein as an explicit allegory of the labyrinth. However, knowing Berg’s awareness of and predilection for traditional musical imagery, the pervasive power of these historical musical conventions lends symbolic import to the work. Whether or not Berg was consciously engaging with the medieval musical devices of the labyrinth, he certainly seems to have internalized their significations, and in doing so created a narrative in Der Wein that is comparable to the narratives of earlier works that implemented the palindrome. The metaphorical potency of the labyrinth as an archetype allows it to accumulate meanings. Thus, in Der Wein one finds not only the allegory of Theseus or the resurrection of Christ, but also the journey of the modern artist, who by traversing into his innermost being is able to achieve transcendence.

Works Referenced

Adorno, Theodor W. Alban Berg: Master of the Smallest Link (1968). Translated by Julianne Brand and Christopher Hailey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Avni, Abraham. “A Revaluation of Baudelaire’s ‘Le Vin’: Its Originality and Significance for Les Fleurs du Mal.” The French Review 44, no. 2 (December, 1970): 310-21.

Bernstock, Judith E. “Classical Mythology in Twentieth Century Art: An Overview of a Humanistic Approach.” Artibus et Historiae 14, no. 27 (1993): 153-83.

Brand, Juliane, ed. The Berg-Schoenberg Correspondence. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Covach, John. “Balzacian Mysticism, Palindromic Design, and Heavenly Time in Alban Berg’s Music.” In Encrypted Messages in Alban Berg’s Music. Edited by Siglind Bruhn. New York: Garland Press, 1998: 5-29.

Covach, John. “The Sources of Schoenberg’s ‘Aesthetic Theology.’” 19th-Century Music 19, no. 3. (Spring, 1996): 252-62.

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Headlam, Dave. “Row Derivation and Contour Association in Berg’s Der Wein.” Perspectives of New Music 28, no. 1 (Winter, 1990): 256-92.

Headlam, David John. The Music of Alban Berg. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Jarman, Douglas. “‘Remembrance of things that are to come:’ Some Reflections on Berg’s Palindromes.” Alban Berg and His World. Edited by Christopher Hailey. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010: 195-222.

Jarman, Douglas. “Alban Berg, Wilhelm Fliess and the Secret Programme of the Violin Concerto.” The Musical Times 124, no. 1682 (April, 1983): 218-23.

Jarman, Douglas. The Music of Alban Berg. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

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Morgan, Robert P. “The Eternal Return: Retrograde and Circular Form in Berg.” In Alban Berg: Historical and Analytical Perspectives. Edited by David Gable and Robert P. Morgan. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991: 111-50.

Perle, George. The Operas of Alban Berg: Lulu. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

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Timms, Edward. Karl Kraus, Apocalyptic Satirist: Culture and Catastrophe in Habsburg Vienna. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

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[1]  Craig Wright, The Maze and the Warrior: Symbols in Architecture, Theology, and Music (Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 7.
[2]  Ibid., 106-7.
[3]  Exceptions that Douglas Jarman points to are: Bach’s Musical Offering; the Minuet al Rovescio of Haydn’s Symphony no. 47; Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Minuet in C Major for keyboard; the finale passage of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata; and Schubert’s Zauberharfe. For more see, Douglas Jarman, “‘Remembrance of things that are to come:’ Some Reflections on Berg’s Palindromes,” in Alban Berg and His World, ed. Christopher Hailey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).
[4]  For examples, see Robert Mark Lambert, “Isaac and Webern: Netherlands style in music of the ‘Second Viennese School’” (PhD diss., University of Wyoming, 1977); M. J. Grant, “Webern and Debussy,” in Serial Music, Serial Aesthetics: Compositional Theory in Post-War Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 103-30.
[5]  See Anton Webern, The Path to the New Music, ed. Willi Reich, trans. Leo Black (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1963).
[6]  Robert Morgan, “The Eternal Return: Retrograde and Circular Form in Berg,” in Alban Berg: Historical and Analytical Perspectives, ed. David Gable and Robert Morgan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 124.
[7]  Douglas Jarman, The Music of Alban Berg (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).
[8] Alban Berg “Chamber Concerto for Piano and Violin with Thirteen Wind Instruments,” Pult und Taktstock 2 (1925): 23-28, in Willi Reich, Life and Work of Alban Berg, trans. Cornelius Cardew (London: Thames and Hudson, 1965), 135-40.
[9] Alban Berg to Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (1925) in Constantin Floros, Alban Berg and Hanna Fuchs, trans. Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2008), 25.
[10] Alban Berg to Arnold Schoenberg (1932) in The Berg-Schoenberg Correspondence, ed. Juliane Brand (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987).
[11] Jarman, “‘Remembrance of things that are to come,’” 218.
[12] See John Covach, “Balzacian Mysticism, Palindromic Design, and Heavenly Time in Alban Berg’s Music,” in Encrypted Messages in Alban Berg’s Music, ed. Siglind Bruhn (New York: Garland Press, 1998), 5-29; Jarman, “‘Remembrance of things that are to come,’” 195-222.
[13] John Covach, “The Sources of Schoenberg’s ‘Aesthetic Theology,’” 19th-Century Music 19, No 3. (Spring, 1996): 253.
[14] Covach, “Balzacian Mysticism.”
[15] Jarman, The Music of Alban Berg.
[16] Judith Bernstock, “Classical Mythology in Twentieth Century Art: An Overview of a Humanistic Approach,” Artibus et Historiae 14, no. 27 (1993): 156.
[17] Edward Timms, Karl Kraus, Apocalyptic Satirist: Culture and Catastrophe in Habsburg Vienna (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 56.
[18] Though Passagenwerk was never published during Berg’s or Benjamin’s lifetimes, Benjamin did regularly correspond with Adorno while he was drafting it. The passage in which Benjamin relates the city to the labyrinth is in a larger commentary on Baudelaire. In the passage he also states that the labyrinth is given “a colored border” by prostitution. Though the space of this paper will not allow discussion of it, the relationship between Benjamin’s ideas and the themes Berg explores in Lulu suggests to me that Berg was aware of the appositeness of the palindrome in symbolizing the labyrinth.
[19] Bernstock, “Classical Mythology,” 175.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Morgan, “The Eternal Return,” 124.
[22] Jarman, The Music of Alban Berg.
[23] In the annotated score of the Lyric Suite, Berg copied “De profundis clamavi” under the melodic line of the sixth movement. In Der Wein, Berg sets three poems from the “Le Vin” section of Les Fleurs.
[24] Dave Headlam, “Row Derivation and Contour Association in Berg’s Der Wein,” Perspectives of New Music 28, no. 1 (Winter, 1990): 285.
[25] William Thompson, ed., Understanding ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’: Critical Readings (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1997).
[26] Abraham Avni, “A Revaluation of Baudelaire’s ‘Le Vin’: Its Originality and Significance for Les fleurs du mal,” The French Review 44, no. 2 (December, 1970): 424.
[27] Doranne Fenoaltea, The Ladder of High Designs: Structure and Interpretation of the French Lyric (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1991), 124.
[28] Baudelaire quoted in Christopher Hailey, “Berg’s Worlds,” in Alban Berg and his World, ed. Christopher Hailey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).
[29] Matthew 13:1-23.
[30] Alban Berg to Helene Berg (1910) in Letters to his Wife, ed. Bernard Grun (London: Faber and Faber, 1971).
[31] For example, in Antipater of Sidon’s poetry: “There is one road down to Hades for all/and if mine’s quicker, I shall see Minos all the sooner./Let us drink; for this is very true, that wine is a horse for the road,/While foot-travelers take a stony path to Hades.”
[32] Abraham Avni, “A Revaluation of Baudelaire’s ‘Le Vin,’ 316.
[33] Ibid., 300.
[34] For a complete discussion of row derivations see David John Headlam, The Music of Alban Berg (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 283-301.
[35] Headlam, The Music of Alban Berg, 292.
[36] Ibid.
[37] Alban Berg quoted in Jarman, “‘Remembrance of things that are to come,’” 211.
[38] Jarman, The Music of Alban Berg, 94.
[39] Berg quoted in Geoffrey Poole “Alban Berg and the Fateful Number” Tempo, New Series, No. 179 (December, 1991): 2.
[40] Berg to Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (no date, written after July 11 and before July 23, 1925) in Constantin Floros, ed., Alban Berg and Hanna Fuchs, trans. by Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2008), 25.

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