The sex behind the scenes of a music revolution

Composer Berg's dissonant music contains hints of affairs, scholar says

Classical Music

February 20, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Marriage, love affair, suicide, back to the marriage, another affair, back to the marriage, another suicide.

Welcome to the wonderfully entertaining world of Desperate Hausfraus.

The action takes place in Vienna, early 20th century. At the center of the plot are the wives of two Austrian composers - one wife prone to entanglements with young men, the other willing to facilitate.

This might sound like just another soap opera, but take a deeper look, as Raymond Coffer has done for the past four years, and you'll discover the makings of a fascinating, assumption-challenging new chapter in the history of modern music.

The story of how Coffer ended up doing that discovering is every bit as unusual.

How's this for not-very-likely: An Englishman starts out as an accountant almost 40 years ago; moves into the realm of soccer merchandising; then becomes manager of alternative-rock bands, including the Smashing Pumpkins; then decides to leave the music business and write a book about Austrian expressionist painter Richard Gerstl.

And that's before things get really unusual.

In 2003, Coffer's Gerstl project attracted the attention of London University, which invited him to use his research to earn a doctorate in Germanic and Romance studies.

That's when this "somewhat mature" postgraduate student - as Coffer, now 59, puts it - found himself digging into territory left untouched by many a scholar before him. He gradually traced a path from Gerstl to fresh revelations that could change the way a complex, landmark work by composer Alban Berg is heard.

That work - the Chamber Concerto for piano, violin and 13 winds, completed in 1925 - will be performed this week by the Peabody Camerata. Coffer will give a lecture before the concert about his findings.

"I have eclectic tastes," Coffer says by phone from London. "I've been interested in rock, classical music and art since I was a kid. I was listening to Mahler at the age of 15, and became particularly interested in Viennese 20th century music."

Two decades ago, when he was working with soccer clubs, Coffer was asked to manage a band called Love and Rockets (the wife of a band member worked for him). He soon formed a management firm with Andy Gershon and added the Cocteau Twins, the Sundays and Smashing Pumpkins to the client list.

"After a few years, I decided that the music business was being destroyed by manufactured pop," Coffer says. "The commercial side was becoming too oppressive, and we were not being given enough time to develop artists. I decided to return to my parallel love."

Coffer's success as a band manager enabled him to afford the switch to the collegiate world. "At this place in my life, I am choosing to do what I want to do," he says. "My academic work is really an extension of what I did as a manager. I'm still dealing with artists - but they're all dead and don't answer back."

A key number

Although the music of Berg, like that of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg and the Schoenberg-mentored Anton Webern, is not wildly popular with today's audiences, it remains enormously important. This triumvirate - known as the Second Viennese School - launched a radical musical revolution that progressed from hyper-romanticism to full-blown atonality.

Berg's Chamber Concerto, written in a style between tonally diffuse expressionism and the more rigid 12-tone technique that Schoenberg advanced, can be a challenge for listeners. Yet, the extraordinary instrumental coloring of the piece and the brilliance of the structure are not difficult to appreciate.

Adding intriguing entry points into this music is Berg's own public revelations about what's behind the notes. He said that the music honored the friendship of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg.

The number three figures prominently in the construction of the piece - three movements, three principal motives, total number of instruments divisible by three, etc. Those principal motives are even based on the three friends, using all the letters in their names that have musical equivalents.

But there was much more to the story. Decades after Berg's death in 1935, deeper elements emerged through scholarship. The middle movement of the work, in particular, drew attention when musicologist Brenda Dalen revealed in 1989 that one more name was used to create a musical motive - Mathilde, Schoenberg's wife.

This middle movement, an adagio that Berg titled Liebe (Love), is a palindrome, 240 bars long. The second 120 bars form a retrograde of the first. At the center point, 12 soft, low notes are sounded on the piano, like the tolling of a midnight bell.

Dalen's research suggested that this "Love" movement was specifically about Schoenberg and his wife - and an event that once divided them.

In 1908, Mathilde had an affair with 25-year-old Richard Gerstl while he was a student of her husband's. When Schoenberg discovered the affair, Gerstl killed himself.

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