Lulu

February 4, 2016

No one ever dies in chamber music. The thought occurred to me while I was on the way to the opera. People die right and left in opera. Madame Butterfly, Tosca, Carmen, Romeo and Juliet—they all die. I’ve played in a professional string quartet most of my life, but nobody dies there. Yes, there are lows as well as highs in the repertoire, desolation as opposed to exuberant optimism, but at no time have we in the Guarneri Quartet unsheathed fake stilettos and enacted murder during a late Beethoven string quartet.

Someone coming directly from the opera world to a string quartet concert might feel sorry for the listener. Four musicians play away on the stage, but why aren’t they singing and where are their costumes, the full orchestra, the stage sets, the stories, the drama, and—now and then—the murders?

I think of the string quartet form as music boiled down to its most essential and meaningful. As Albert Einstein once said, “Things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.” In that sense, there is nothing more moving than a Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, or Bartok string quartet.

Especially coming from my musical background where less can sometimes be more, I am thrilled to go to the opera now and then where more can often be, well, more. And so, there I sat expectantly the other day at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera as the conductor gave the downbeat for Alban Berg’s Lulu. I was not going to be disappointed. With the clamor of brass braying in a seconds-long splash of atonal sound, the curtain parted and out stepped the opera’s circus animal trainer. “Come on in to the menagerie,” he boldly announced, and then went on to describe its animals: tigers, bears, monkeys, and, finally, as the curtain opened, the snake. Of course, the menagerie was a thinly disguised description of humanity with all its warts, and the snake was Lulu—the source of evil, fated to murder without leaving any clues.

For the record, there would be five murders and a suicide in the course of the four-hour opera.

The impression made on nineteen-year-old Alban Berg by Karl Kraus’s production of the German playwright Frank Wedekind’s two Lulu plays, Pandora’s Box and Earth Spirit, was overwhelming and long lasting. Lulu, half innocent, half predator, lures both men and women sexually and emotionally to their eventual deaths and, finally, to her very own. After the international success in 1926 of Berg’s first opera, Wozzeck, he set to work fashioning Wedekind’s Lulu plays into his next opera, Lulu. Like Wozzeck, Berg desired to explore the dark and twisted corners lurking in the human heart.

There would be one more death associated with Lulu and that was of the composer himself as the opera neared completion. An insect sting that had become infected was the senseless cause of Berg’s tragic death but the opera might nonetheless have been finished if not for the young American violinist Louis Krasner. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they deemed Berg, his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, and many other forward-thinking artists as degenerate—in effect closing the door to Berg’s future concerts and thus to a source of income. Krasner, whom I knew late in his life as a musician’s musician, offered Berg fifteen hundred dollars to write a violin concerto for him. Temporarily setting Lulu aside, Berg accepted Krasner’s commission, giving us a glorious violin concerto in the process but leaving Lulu’s third and final act not quite complete. The opera was only finished by other hands decades later, based on the composer’s sketches.

As the performance of Lulu that I was watching got underway, Berg’s atonal language seemed dense and forbidding at first (a single twelve-note series allotted to Lulu apparently determines the entire opera’s musical action). But gradually the music revealed its true post-Wagnerian angst and an almost reckless romanticism, aided by the unusual addition of piano, saxophone, and vibraphone to the full orchestra. The sheer abandon of the performance by both orchestra and singers reminded me of a personal encounter with Berg’s music, one only a step removed from the great master himself. Several years ago, my friend and mentor, the violinist Felix Galimir, attended a Guarneri Quartet performance of Berg’s String Quartet, Opus 3. I called Felix the next day for his opinion of our rendition. For easily half an hour, he explained over the phone in great detail what he had liked, where we had failed to sufficiently honor Berg’s detailed instructions, and where we could have been more rhapsodic above and beyond the printed notes.

Indeed, this is what Berg himself had done with the young Galimir Quartet (comprised of Felix and his sisters, Adrienne, Renee, and Marguerite) during their rehearsals of his music in Vienna. Felix told me that although Berg, who sat in on all rehearsals, was a stickler for following his detailed musical instructions, ultimately it was the music’s sheer sweep and romanticism that mattered most to him.

The lurid tale of Lulu is not for the faint of heart, and yet there was something mesmerizing about this performance’s journey into darkness, especially in light of the South African visual artist William Kentrich’s eerily spellbinding production. But the essence of the opera rests obviously with Lulu herself, here performed by the German coloratura soprano Marlis Petersen. Petersen, who has performed Lulu in ten productions over the past eighteen years has earned the right to call this her signature role. Vocally, Petersen was able to careen back and forth from sweetness and refinement to sheer raw power, while managing Berg’s jagged leaps of pitch that occasionally pierced the stratosphere with apparent ease. But more to the point, she seemed to actually become Lulu. Now forty-eight, she managed to exude the half-aware but unfolding sexuality of the fifteen-year-old Lulu, allowing men to build an image of the young girl based on nothing but their own fantasies.

Thanks to Peter Lloyd, my friend and colleague, I had been able to meet his long-time friend Marlis several years ago after a performance of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro in which she sang the role of Susanna. When we joined Marlis at a party after that performance, I found her to be charming, witty, independent-minded, and with pixieish qualities that seemed to lend themselves perfectly to the role of Susanna she had just performed so brilliantly.

But Lulu? Peter and I had gone backstage to see Marlis after her emotionally shattering performance. There she stood in her dressing room smiling broadly, and jumping up and down as if she were on a pogo stick when she saw the two of us approaching. Marlis had at least outwardly left Lulu on stage as she warmly greeted a throng of admirers, but I wondered about her connection to the role—clearly a deep-running one. Was Marlis, herself a beautiful and alluring woman, drawing inspiration from skeletons in her own closet—perhaps a string of lovers who had died or been murdered at her hands? Probably not. More likely, Marlis had fashioned the role of Lulu not only with her exceptional artistry, but also with an awareness of the darker side of the human condition that lurks in all of us. That is what Frank Wedekind wrote about, what Alban Berg composed, and perhaps why we continue to be drawn to Lulu, the opera and Lulu, the woman, at the safe distance of art rather than the grim reality of life.

I went to see Lulu a second time several days later. Coming from my intimate world of chamber music, the opera had almost overwhelmed my senses the first time around, but perhaps even the most dyed-in-the-wool operagoer would have felt the same. Alban Berg’s music, often dense, florid, and intense, requires full attention, as do the twists and turns of Lulu’s lurid story. Add to that the breathtaking singing and acting from the entire cast and William Kentridge’s wildly imaginative and affecting production, and you are wondrously in danger of sensory overload.

I was happy to have a second chance at taking in the opera’s complexities, but that’s not why I was there. This evening was to be Marlis Petersen’s last performance ever in the role of Lulu. Filing into the Met with the rest of the crowd beforehand, I heard the man behind me tell his wife, “You know she’s going to scream herself tonight.” There had been lots of media attention not only about this final performance by Marlis but also that she herself would let out the scripted bloodcurdling scream as Jack the Ripper murders her. To save her voice for future performances, a stand-in had always screamed for Marlis, but there would be no more future performances.

Marlis’s last scream was indeed bloodcurdling but the entire four-hour performance seemed to have a special edge to it. But perhaps this was only my overworked imagination, knowing that the intimate eighteen-year relationship between Marlis and Lulu with all its unimaginable implications was finally coming to an end.

Final curtain

Final curtain

At the post-performance party, I met several of the cast, some of whom according to Berg’s instructions had played multiple roles. I met bass-baritone Martin Winkler who was the theatrical animal trainer, bass-baritone Johan Reuter, the grisly Jack the Ripper, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, the lesbian Countess Geschwitz, baritone Franz Grundheber as Schigolch, possibly Lulu’s father or lover or both, and I met the young woman who sat at the piano stage right in the first act and who by the third act was IN the piano, now stage left, with her legs seductively protruding and moving bizarrely as accompaniment to the ghastly action being played out on stage. All of them, frighteningly convincing in their various roles, seemed so affable, so normal now in conversation. You might say that we string players also assume roles in the music we play, in the emotions or moods we try to convey, but sheer sound alone is quite removed from the reality of daily life. There we sat, Jack the Ripper and I, with glasses of champagne in hand, talking casually about his next gig only moments after the guy had, for God’s sake, just murdered poor Lulu.

The party’s jubilant spirit finally reached the point where a spontaneous call went up for the triumphant but now exiting star of Lulu to speak. Marlis, claiming she had prepared nothing to say, nonetheless managed to find moving words to describe her long relationship with Lulu. She confessed how melancholy she had become as her second to last Lulu role came to an end in Munich, and that with the last scream on the Met stage, she and Lulu had finally made peace with one another. With a smile, Marlis told us she wished Lulu well as she took up residence perhaps on some distant planet.

Peter LLoyd, Marlis Petersen, and Arnold Steinhardt back stage

Peter LLoyd, Marlis Petersen, and Arnold Steinhardt back stage

On the way home from the party, Marlis’s last words brought me back to the world of chamber music and Arnold Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet with Soprano—the moment in which Schoenberg introduced the world, and his then student Alban Berg, to atonal music. Berg must have also known that the work’s radical harmonic language was in part an expression of Schoenberg’s painful personal story involving both adultery and suicide at the time of writing. (There is death in chamber music after all).

In the quartet’s last movement, Schoenberg provides the vocal part with an evocative poem “Entrückung” or “Transport” by Stephan George. The poem’s first line is “I feel air from another planet.”

For impressionable student Alban Berg, might such a planet have been Lulu’s birthplace and, in Marlis Petersen’s imagination, her final refuge?

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Comments

  1. From Letty Cottin Pogrebin on February 6, 2016

    Delightful blogpost, Arnold. Thank you!

  2. From Martha Potter Kim on February 6, 2016

    Your piece fondly evokes the ‘Second Vienna’ as only the special authenticity of a performer’s musings can. Thank you for this piece!

  3. From cecylia arzewski on February 6, 2016

    Thank you for writing this piece as well as your blog!
    I had the privilege of studying the Berg violin concerto with L Krasner before leaving the BSO in 1987. He was very generous with his time as well as many of hi stories. He mentioned how Berg interrupted composing Lulu in order to write the concerto.
    On the last day when leaving Krasner’s home in Brookline, I asked him how I could reciprocate for all the precious time he so generously gave me? His answer was very simple “go and play, perform the concerto. Do if for Berg as he has done so much for me”
    I performed the concerto six times and each time it was a new spiritual experience I will never forget!

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March 1, 2011

A Meditation on the Meditation

In the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria, the courtesan, Thaïs, reflects on her past life of worldly pleasure. Looking into the mirror, she worries that her beauty will soon fade. The monk, Athanaël, arrives at her palace, admonishing Thaïs that there is one kind of love she does not yet know. He exhorts her to [...]
Forty Year Story

February 3, 2011

Forty Year Story

In the spring of 1970, Judith Serkin, a cello student at the Curtis Institute of Music, told me that she and four other students at school, cellist Peter Wiley, violist Geraldine Lamboley, and violinists Lucy Chapman and Jill Levy, hoped to study Schubert’s Two Cello Quintet during the next semester. Judith asked whether I would [...]
Perfect Pitch Tablets from Tone Deaf Comics

January 3, 2011

Perfect What?

My daughter, Natasha, told me recently about a gifted young boy she knows who has learned to read at an early age and already plays the piano with astonishing originality. As if to offer a final and irrefutable proof of the boy’s extraordinary musical talent, Natasha added one more thing. “You know, he’s got perfect [...]
David Soyer

December 6, 2010

Dave

David Soyer, cellist and founding member of the Guarneri String Quartet, passed away on February 24, 2010—one day after his 86th birthday. Michael Tree, violist, and John Dalley and I, violinists, the other founding members, played in the quartet with Dave for almost forty years and we knew him for close to fifty. Peter Wiley, [...]
Paganini's Birthday

October 27, 2010

Paganini’s Birthday

Today, October 27th, is Niccolo Paganini’s birthday. Below is a reprint of an article I wrote on this occasion which appeared in the October issue of The Strad magazine. Next, as an attachment, is Caprice #24.25, my arrangement of Paganini’s 24th Caprice. Finally, I include a letter that to my great astonishment Paganini just wrote [...]
Photo from Opus

October 4, 2010

Opus

I saw Opus a while ago, a play by Michael Hollinger that deals with the inner workings of a string quartet. Since I have been a violinist in the Guarneri String Quartet for many decades, you can imagine that I awaited the opening curtain with some anticipation. The subject of my profession is not exactly [...]
Hermes/Mercury, God of Travel

September 6, 2010

Psssst

I hear a lot of griping from my friends these days about travel. Trains are much more luxurious and dependable in Europe. Japanese taxi drivers wear white gloves and decorate their cars with curtains while in New York City, taxis are, well, let’s not even talk about it. And the deluxe plane travel of years [...]
In a Sentimental Mood

August 2, 2010

In a Sentimental Mood

I recently heard an all-Stravinsky concert performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. A few days later, a review of the evening by Anthony Tommasini appeared in the April 23, 2010 edition of the New York Times. A comment he made about the orchestra’s rendition of The Firebird Suite caught my eye: “The Firebird’s Lullaby, [...]
Dinner Music

July 1, 2010

Dinner Music

Uncharacteristically early for an appointment, I slowed my pace up Manhattan’s Lexington Avenue. Better early than late, I thought, but what on earth was I to do with myself for the next 30 minutes. As I approached 86th St., the answer appeared almost by magic in the form of Papaya King, a hot dog stand [...]
Disney Hall

June 2, 2010

Something New, Something Old

I happened to be performing in Los Angeles just as the city’s new and glittering Disney Hall opened several years ago. A week earlier, I called my mother who was living in Southern California to tell her of my arrival. “Oh, wonderful,” she said. “You can take me to Disney Hall.” That was fine with [...]
Joe Vita

May 4, 2010

Joe Vita

I left the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University last year after having taught a graduate violin class there for over two decades. Among other things, I miss the lively conversations I often had with colleagues at student recitals, oral exams, juries, or over a pizza at the local Italian restaurant. Topic [...]
Twelve Note Story

April 23, 2010

Twelve Note Story

Take a deep breath and try to settle down. I know, I know. The task is daunting, but you’ve worked hard. Just be relaxed. Be focused. And now get practical. For starters, think of a good tempo. Not so easy based on the first two or three notes that are slow and deeply personal. Better [...]
News Alert

March 30, 2010

News Alert

The United States Bureau of Weights and Measures has just announced at a national news conference that chamber music may cause global warming. The issue first came to the bureau’s attention when directors of several distinguished music conservatories notified it of alarming and unexplained rises in temperature at odd times of the school day. Government [...]
Sophisticated Traveler

February 28, 2010

Sophisticated Traveler

I planned to take the 2 PM Eastern Airlines shuttle from New York City. That would have gotten me into Boston by three with plenty of time to grab a bite, take a taxi to Jordan Hall, change, practice some, and relax a bit before the Guarneri String Quartet concert at 8 PM. But an [...]
Grammy Award

January 18, 2010

Grammy Awards

The Guarneri String Quartet was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of Best Chamber Music Performance this year for our Hungarian Album on RCA Red Seal. The CD consists of Ern? Dohnányi’s Quartets Nos. 2 and 3, and Zoltán Kodály’s Quartet No. 2, three works of striking beauty. The Grammy Awards (originally called [...]
Shall We Dance?

January 4, 2010

Shall We Dance?

Many years ago, I had occasion to play a Bach Partita for the pianist and scholar, Arthur Loesser. When I finished, Loesser asked me whether I knew how to dance the partita’s five movements. I vaguely knew that the movements were based on old dance forms, but I had assumed that the dance steps themselves [...]
Looking for Work

December 1, 2009

Looking for Work

The Guarneri String Quartet retired, yet Arnold Steinhardt continues to perform in public. Photo by Dorothea von Haeften. Violinist in Recently Retired String Quartet Looking for Work * Skills Proficient in chamber music. Works best with people willing to overlook occasional lapses in intonation, phrasing, and tone. Performs virtuoso solo works, but no higher than [...]
Birth Pains

November 4, 2009

Birth Pains

Mozart’s String Quartet, K. 421 in D Minor, occupies a special place in the hearts of the Guarneri String Quartet. It was the very first music we read through after deciding to form as a group. Why that work? Hard to remember after all these years, but I would guess that its emotion charged and [...]
The Guarneri Quartet

October 6, 2009

For the Very Last Time

On June 12, 2007, the Guarneri String Quartet sent out the following announcement: Dear Friends, We, the Guarneri String Quartet, have decided to retire at the end of the 2008-9 season, our forty-fifth year before the public. This has not only been a long journey, but a deeply satisfying one as well. What could be [...]
Gray's Papaya

September 1, 2009

Gray’s Papaya

“We’ll drive you home,” said Frank Salomon, an old friend and long-time presenter of the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts at Washington Irving High School. The Guarneri String Quartet had just finished a performance there, the last ever on the series before our retirement. Moments later, Frank behind the wheel, his wife Martha, my wife Dorothea, and [...]
Second Concert

August 3, 2009

Second Concert

The following is a slightly extended version of Second Concert, that appeared in the June publication of the new magazine Listen: Life with Classical Music. Our string quartet played a concert at Emory University in March of this year. Whenever I’m in Atlanta, I stay with my friends, Murphy Davis and Ed Loring, ministers who [...]
Arthur Rubinstein

July 7, 2009

Really

A member of the audience, somebody I’d seen backstage more than once before, came up to me recently after a concert I had just played. He smiled broadly, shook my hand enthusiastically, and said, “Great concert… really.” In the midst of thanking him, that last word, “really,” finally registered. Really? Excuse me sir, but what [...]
Life, Death, Music

June 13, 2009

Life, Death, Music

Last summer, Emily Hsiao, a teenager whom I’d never met, e-mailed me. She asked whether the Guarneri Quartet would have time to listen to music students in her high school when we played in Ann Arbor, Michigan that winter. Only hours after my visit to the school, a brutal attack on one of those students [...]
Almost on the Riviera

May 11, 2009

Almost on the Riviera

Did you always believe what your parents told you when you were young? I certainly did. I may not have always had the good sense to obey them or heed their advice but their wisdom was unquestionable. Take education, for example. My parents believed mightily in the importance of formal knowledge and therefore the need [...]
The Abode

April 1, 2009

The Abode

Alter Bock, a dedicated amateur string quartet player, has just announced plans for the creation of a home for retired chamber musicians. “I’m concerned that these wonderful musicians I’ve heard and admired most of my life have a nice place to spend their golden years.” He spoke to me from the music room in his [...]
Yehudi Menuhin

March 5, 2009

Genie in a Bottle

I ran into the violinist, Jennifer Koh, not long ago. Jenny is a highly gifted young musician who happens to have a keen interest in string players of old. At some point, our conversation turned to Yehudi Menuhin, one of the great violinists of the twentieth century. We talked about Menuhin’s instantly recognizable style, the [...]
A Brush with Fame

February 8, 2009

The Brush With Fame

Ah, Los Angeles! So-called city of angels, a place where the sun shines almost always, where palm trees flourish, a place that knows no winter-in short the city where I was born and raised. But in my adolescence, Los Angeles was much more than a hedonist’s playground. Thanks to the movie industry, the balmy weather, [...]
New Years Thoughts

January 1, 2009

New Year’s Thoughts

A drawing in the New Yorker magazine several years ago depicted a tawdry back alley with a few empty cans and bottles strewn about. The caption above read: Life without Mozart. Its message apparently affected many of us. I saw the drawing on peoples’ desks, walls, and refrigerator doors for years afterward. As a member [...]
The Swan

December 1, 2008

The Swan

When I was eleven years old, my violin teacher assigned me The Swan by Camille Saint-Saëns. I had no idea that The Swan was a famous cello solo or that it was part of a much larger work, The Carnival of the Animals. I had never even heard of its composer, Saint-Saëns, or seen his [...]
Mr. Oliver

November 10, 2008

Mr. Oliver

I enrolled in a music appreciation class when I was a high school student. Near the beginning of the semester, the teacher of the class took ill and a substitute, Mr. Oliver, replaced him. Mr. Oliver knew his subject well. He played us everything on the school record player from Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony to Peruvian [...]
Tooth Talk

October 8, 2008

Tooth Talk

I was having my teeth cleaned by the dental hygienist the other day when she offhandedly asked whether my children were also in the music industry. Fortunately, with my mouth wide open and filled with dental gear, I was only capable of answering with a few rather inarticulate and muffled noises. Otherwise, I might have [...]
What Good is Music

September 11, 2008

What Good is Music?

[Originally written and published in September 2002]. I lost no loved ones on 11 September 2001, nor was my home destroyed or my work affected in any palpable way by the tragic attack on our nation; and yet, the events of that morning have prodded me to look inward and take personal inventory. As a [...]
A Tale of Three Violinists

August 10, 2008

A Tale of Three Violinists

I stood in the artist’s dressing room, warming up nervously before my sole rehearsal with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. For a twenty-two-year-old violinist just starting a career, performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with this distinguished group of musicians was an important engagement. My palms were sweating, my heart beat rapidly, and I began to pace back [...]
Last Words to a Son

July 11, 2008

Last Words to a Son

Andrea, the head nurse at the assisted living home where my mother has lived for many years, called last month to tell me that mother had stopped eating, that she was drifting in and out of consciousness, and that she was failing rapidly. The next day, my son Alexej and I flew to Southern California [...]
A Dog's Tale

June 12, 2008

A Dog’s Tale

I’m a wonderful teacher. I know, you don’t have to tell me. It’s not nice to brag. But truth above all, I always say. Here. Let me show you why I’m so good. We have a dog named Tessa. As far as I can tell, Tessa doesn’t have much feeling for music one way or [...]
Remembering Izzy

May 10, 2008

Remembering Izzy

Photo by Allen Cohen Every one of us has to die. We know that. We also know that sooner or later all of us will be forgotten. Even Einstein. Even Beethoven. Nevertheless, we humans doggedly strive for meaning in our lives and harbor the secret (or not so secret) wish to accomplish something of sufficient [...]
A Noteworthy Day

March 2, 2008

A Noteworthy Day

I heard a great deal of music yesterday. Let me rephrase that. Yesterday, I heard a multitude of sounds—some longer, some shorter, higher or lower, louder or softer—as I made my way through my waking hours. The sounds appeared sometimes as individual tones and sometimes in groups of two and three. They often repeated themselves [...]
Solo Bow

February 2, 2008

Solo Bow

The Guarneri String Quartet played a concert in Wisconsin several years ago. Why do I remember that this particular concert was in Wisconsin? Probably because Wisconsin is a cheese-making state and a delicious selection of cheese was set out at the after-concert party. It’s funny what details remain vibrant in one’s mind, especially in light [...]
In the Key of Strawberry

January 1, 2008

In the Key of Strawberry

An unexpected thought interrupted the sentence I was reading in the morning newspaper, followed by several other thoughts in quick succession. I had just remembered last night’s dream: My wife, Dorothea, and I were riding on a bus in a foreign country. Through the window we espied an open-air flea market with an array of [...]
Hiroshi Iizuka

December 1, 2007

Cousin Sam

“How much time you giving me today, maestro?” This was more or less the way Sam began most of our phone conversations. Sam Schloss was my cousin, more specifically: my mother’s mother’s sister’s son. I would usually call him during a break in one of the open rehearsals the Guarneri String Quartet held during its [...]