Berg’s Opens in Zurich Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Alban Berg’s opera Lulu, written in a personalized version of the twelve-tone compositional style, premiered in Zurich in truncated form; the completed version would not premiere until 1979.

Summary of Event

The performance history of the opera Lulu is one of the most complicated in musical history. It took three quarters of a century between the opera’s conception and its world premiere in the definitive form intended by its composer, Alban Berg, before an audience could comfortably say it had seen the “real” Lulu. The tortuous stage history of Lulu involves the composer’s premature death, a world war, a succession of provocative but inadequate productions, a good deal of scholarly bickering, and even a ghost. [kw]Berg’s Lulu Opens in Zurich (June 2, 1937)[Bergs Lulu Opens in Zurich (June 2, 1937)] [kw]Lulu Opens in Zurich, Berg’s (June 2, 1937) [kw]Zurich, Berg’s Lulu Opens in (June 2, 1937)[Zurich, Bergs Lulu Opens in (June 2, 1937)] Lulu (Berg) Opera;Lulu (Berg) Music;opera Theater;opera [g]Switzerland;June 2, 1937: Berg’s Lulu Opens in Zurich[09510] [c]Music;June 2, 1937: Berg’s Lulu Opens in Zurich[09510] [c]Theater;June 2, 1937: Berg’s Lulu Opens in Zurich[09510] Berg, Alban Berg, Helene Wedekind, Frank

As a young man, Alban Berg was deeply impressed by a May, 1905, performance of Frank Wedekind’s play Die Büchse der Pandora (pr., pb. 1904; Pandora’s Box, 1918). Pandora’s Box (Wedekind)[Pandoras Box] Wedekind himself had been inspired by reports of the gruesome murders of Jack the Ripper in London and wrote a play on the topic. To avoid almost certain difficulties with the German censor, in 1895 he published only the first three acts of the play as Der Erdgeist (Earth Spirit, 1914), and eventually the remaining portions of the play were published as Pandora’s Box. Like Freud before him, Wedekind discovered that German and Austrian audiences at the turn of the century were not willing to tolerate his radical views. What made the work so shocking was its implicit call for complete female sexual freedom and its depiction of human sexuality as an endlessly disruptive force. One prominent scholar has called Wedekind’s plays “sex tragedies par excellence, a ferocious battle in the Nietzschean sense between the sexes and ultimately a conflict between spirit (man) and flesh (woman).”

When Berg died on Christmas Eve, 1935, he had completed the short score for the entire opera, but not the full orchestral score. Erwin Stein Stein, Erwin had prepared the complete piano-vocal score (the reduction of the full score for voice parts and piano), but the engraving by Berg’s publisher, Universal Editions, was halted by the onset of World War II and never completed. Although he was not Jewish, Berg was denounced by the German press for sharing the “decadence” of the Arnold Schoenberg circle of composers.

For the opera’s world premiere in Zurich, Switzerland, on June 2, 1937, at which Nuri Hadzic sang the role of Lulu and Robert Denzler conducted, the musicians had full access only to the first two acts of the piece. In place of the crucial third act, the musicians made use of fragments from Berg’s previously published Lulu Symphony, which was a sort of advertisement for the opera in progress. (The Lulu Symphony had premiered in Berlin in November, 1934.) The woefully truncated third act, used until 1979, consisted of twelve minutes of music, ending with the murder of Lulu and her companion, the Countess Geschwitz, by Jack the Ripper. The use of fragments of the Lulu Symphony was a stage director’s attempt to round out the action and had not been sanctioned by Berg.

The first concert performance of Lulu after the interruption of World War II occurred in Berg’s native Vienna on March 16, 1949, and the first postwar stage production took place at Essen, Germany, on March 7, 1953, still with the truncated, improvised third act. This was the version that served for the production of the Hamburg State Opera, a version that was widely influential during the 1960’s, for the American premiere, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on August 7, 1963 (sung in English), and the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere, on March 18, 1977 (in German).

What had become of Berg’s third act? Why did forty-three years elapse between the composer’s death and its premiere? The answer lies with a misguidedly loyal widow. Helene Berg was determined to prevent the completion of her late husband’s final opera. A spiritualist, she claimed to be in constant contact with the ghost of her husband, who, she said, urged her to prevent any attempts to complete the score, and she preserved the Bergs’ residence in the way that it stood on the day of Alban’s death. She also claimed to have been told by Berg’s friends, the composers Schoenberg, Anton von Webern, and Alexander von Zemlinsky, that the opera was “unfinishable.” Although her word was accepted as fact for many years, the few critics who gained access to the manuscript materials reported that the score was basically complete and could easily be performed; it remains puzzling why Universal Editions collaborated with the widow’s obstinacy.

Not until Helene Berg’s death in 1976 did the publisher relent and allow wider access to the manuscript. The Austrian scholar Friedrich Cerha Cerha, Friedrich was chosen to examine and complete the orchestral score, and the Paris Opera was chosen to offer the world premiere on February 24, 1979, with the soprano Teresa Stratas in the title role and Pierre Boulez conducting; the production was staged by Patrice Chereau. Despite some complaints about Chereau’s direction, the production was widely celebrated as a success, and it confirmed the integrity and vision of Berg’s total conception.


For his first opera, Wozzeck, Wozzeck (Berg) which premiered in 1925, Alban Berg reordered the scenes of Georg Büchner’s tragedy Woyzeck (wr. 1836; English translation, 1927); when he began to compose Lulu in 1929, Berg had to cut an enormous amount of material, shorten the dialogue, and combine Wedekind’s two Lulu plays into one. The surprise is that Berg was able to compress Wedekind’s vast and philosophically meaningful materials into seven long operatic scenes that critics generally regard as more coherent and dramatically effective than the Lulu plays. Although Wozzeck remains one of the monuments of twentieth century music, Berg’s goals for Lulu were even greater. Critic George Perle has argued that “between Wozzeck and Lulu Berg’s musical language was transformed.”

As a student and disciple of the German composer Arnold Schoenberg, Schoenberg, Arnold Berg was a proponent of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone Twelve-tone system[Twelve tone system] compositional theory, known as serialism. Serialism Schoenberg’s theory challenged the traditional use of tonality in Western music by advocating the complete equality of twelve tones in the musical scale. The basic melodic strategy of the opera would be dictated by Berg’s choice of tone row (a nonrepeating series of the twelve tones of the scale) to depict the character of Lulu. Berg’s devotion to Schoenberg’s ideal, however, was tempered by his own lyrical and melodic gifts. Although expressionism as an artistic style, whether in music or painting, is often accused of exaggerating the horrific and grotesque, Berg’s musical expressionism shows a preference for the lyrical and romantic, resulting in the often-repeated critical putdown that Berg is the “twelve-tone Puccini.”

Having made the basic decision that character would determine the musical structure, Berg then made the even more provocative decision that the tone row associated with Lulu (the twelve notes of the scale, used in equal measure) would determine the entire musical action of the opera. All the other characters in the opera are lovers, victims, or attempted manipulators of Lulu. In her key aria in the second act, usually called “Lied der Lulu,” Lulu asserts her innocence, depicting herself as a natural woman who cannot help being universally desired.

Among the victims of Lulu are Doctor Goll, who succumbs to a heart attack; a painter, who slits his throat in a fit of jealousy; and Doctor Schon, the most important male figure in the opera, who is shot by Lulu with the very pistol with which he demands that Lulu kill herself. In the descending half of the opera, Lulu finds that even as a prostitute she is less and less in demand. By selling her sexual favors, she has repudiated her claim to be free and has set the pattern for her ultimate victimization when both she and her lesbian admirer, the Countess Geschwitz, are stabbed by Jack the Ripper. Lulu’s death scream (“Todesschrei”) and Geschwitz’s subsequent tender death song (“Lulu, my angel”) bring the opera to its conclusion.

That scream, like its famous visual counterpart, Edvard Munch’s painting The Cry (1893; also known as The Scream), is practically the signature of the expressionist style, and the cry of Lulu, like the opera to which she lends her name, provides vivid articulation of the desire and suffering of mankind in the twentieth century. As Douglas Jarman notes in his study of Berg’s music, the third act of Lulu is largely recapitulatory, bringing Lulu from her amoral innocence of the first act to her final degradation and death at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Jarman’s thesis, that Berg’s obsession with symmetry in his composition reflects his pessimistic assessment of life (with characters who are trapped in a cycle of ascent invariably followed by descent and death), perhaps offers a hint at the true motivation of Helene Berg: By preventing the release of the third act, she could keep hidden the bleak pessimism of Berg’s vision of life. The complete version of the opera perhaps reveals Berg’s indebtedness to one of his philosophical heroes, Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche, Friedrich According to Nietzsche’s theory of “eternal return,” mankind is doomed to enact endless repetitions of the events of life; in this light, the actions of Lulu, her lovers, and her victims are irrelevant. All one can do, argued Nietzsche, is affirm life, for all its pain and problems; and the affirmation of life, finally, is what Lulu glowingly provides. The opera has increasingly been recognized as one of the towering artistic masterpieces of the century, and even as serialism has declined in prestige, popular appreciation of Lulu has continued to grow. Lulu (Berg) Opera;Lulu (Berg) Music;opera Theater;opera

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carner, Mosco. Alban Berg: The Man and the Work. 2d rev. ed. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1983. Solid musical and dramatic study, with Freudian hints, by the most prominent student of Giacomo Puccini. The dissimilar composers, near contemporaries, shared only the determination to depict sexual neuroses on the operatic stage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grout, Donald J., and Claude V. Palisca. “Atonality, Serialism, and Recent Developments in Twentieth-Century Europe.” In A History of Western Music. 6th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. Covers the full range of Schoenberg’s innovations and provides a balanced overview with examples, illustrations, and bibliography. Accessible to the general reader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jarman, Douglas. The Music of Alban Berg. London: Faber, 1979. Argues that Berg’s music reflects his deeply pessimistic view of life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perle, George. Lulu. Vol. 2 in The Operas of Alban Berg. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Exhaustive study by the American composer and musicologist who argued tirelessly for the release of the third act of Lulu.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. 6th ed., rev. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Excellent treatment of twelve-tone technique intended for readers with background in music.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reich, Willi. Alban Berg. Reprint. New York: Vienna House, 1974. Useful introductory study of the life and works of Berg by a Viennese friend.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosen, Charles. Arnold Schoenberg. 1975. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Lucid and sympathetic introduction to the seminal figure in musical expressionism and serialism. Includes illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schmidgall, Gary. Literature as Opera. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. A provocative study of the literary sources of great operas. Claims that the difficult playwrights Büchner and Wedekind find their ideal musical interpreter in Berg, as Berg’s style is marked by “rootlessness and flexibility, extreme distortion and nervous tension.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simms, Bryan R., ed. Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern: A Companion to the Second Viennese School. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Examines the works of these composers in the context of earlier Viennese musical developments and compares the modernism in their music with that in the nonmusical arts in Vienna during the same period. Includes bibliography and index.

Schoenberg Breaks with Tonality

Webern’s Six Pieces for Large Orchestra Premieres

Schoenberg Develops His Twelve-Tone System

Berg’s Wozzeck Premieres in Berlin

Categories: History