The loneliness of loving Berg


A common experience among gay people is that of an adolescence feeling all alone. You know you have certain feelings and interests, but nobody around you displays the same. Nobody you know ever mentions these. Instead, you quite quickly realise that the gossip you overhear, the visual and cinematic representations you encounter every direction you turn, even the well-intentioned questions you get from uncles and aunts, refer to some other romantic interests that you’re supposed to have but do not.

Within a young person’s limited world of school, family and extra-curricular activities, a sense of being alone and of being marginal become central to his identity.

Yet, at least for a majority of gay men and women in many countries, by their twenties they would have gotten to know others of similar sexual orientation. It still takes finely-honed intuition to spot who else among a mass of people shares one’s interests. It may take skill in making conversation to confirm one’s guess. It takes knowledge of social topography to know which places increase the chance of meeting another of like mind, and equally important, which places may be unsafe. Though it may never completely go away, the loneliness of adolescence is eventually mitigated. By how much, depends, I suppose, on the social climate of the times and the determination of the person in breaking out of the closet.

* * * * *

At a concert recently, I met four persons I knew, two before the programme, one during intermission and one after. With all four, the conversations were short. Two of the four opened in a similar manner with the other party asking me if I was here for the “New World” – the reference being Antonin Dvorak’s ninth symphony.

It’s not easy replying to such a question, because I attend concerts not for any particular work or for any particular artist. Whilst Dvorak certainly made the programme attractive enough to buy a ticket, it wasn’t the deal clincher. So do I say Yes or No?

I decided to say No because the deal clincher was Alban Berg’s violin concerto. With this on the programme, it became more than a nice-to-attend. It became a must-attend.

“I came for the Alban Berg.”

Both times, I got quizzical looks. It didn’t surprise me. In my entire life, I have not met anyone with a taste in music that fully parallels mine. Not just with respect to 20th Century serious music, but in other genres as well. No doubt there must be such people – why else would such works be performed? – but I have none among my regular friends. The loneliness of loving middle and late 20th Century music is greater than being gay!

The hall was almost full. The seating capacity of the Esplanade Concert Hall is 1,630. There must be at least a few hundred among them who love the Berg as much – or so one was tempted to think.

But the truth was painfully revealed when the work came to an end. The applause began with perhaps just five hands clapping (mine included). It took a second longer than usual for others to join in, as if they were not terribly sure whether the “thing” had really ended and these five were applauding at the right point, or whether they were foolishly premature.

It wasn’t as if Berg’s concerto had an unusual, unexpected ending. In fact, it has a very knowable conclusion; the music feels settled and complete by that point. In other words, the hesitation from the audience demonstrated that they were not familiar with the work, and that the five of us, scattered around the hall, were truly, truly a tiny minority.

Yet, this work (see links and footnotes below) is considered one of the top masterpieces of the 20th Century, perhaps Berg’s most performed work, and one of the most famous concerti for violin. But who is it who “considers” this? – a question which may go to show how isolated such music lovers are from the rest of humanity.

* * * * *

I sometimes wonder if everybody else (gay and straight) has private loves of this kind – where they know of no one around who shares a similar interest; where the habit of not speaking about it – for fear of boring everybody else around, or of making oneself look really weird – has become a personal omerta.

As I ponder this, I realise that whether or not it’s a lifelong thing, there will come a point in each of our lives when we will be truly alone. It will be something that most of us will find nearly impossible to discuss because we will feel that no one else will (at that moment at least) be in the same situation. That moment is dying.

Yes, everybody dies. Everybody will experience it. The problem is, those who have died, with whom we share a common experience, are all dead. We can’t talk to them. The ones we can talk to, alas, are not experiencing death. If we go on about the subject, we might be seen as such a mood-downer, people might avoid us altogether. Much like if I tried to talk to anyone about Alban Berg and his concerto!

* * * * *

Links and footnotes:

Understandably, this work is hard to appreciate because it is built on the 12-tone achromatic system. Much more accessible is the equally famous violin concerto by Samuel Barber (below) also composed in the 1930s. The difference is that Barber’s has a more familiar tonal frame and rhythmic form, and is certainly more lyrical. 

To appreciate the genius behind either of these works, just consider this: in all cases of orchestral composition, there was no way for the composer to “test” his work-in-progress. Unlike an author who could read back passages of what he had written, or a painter who could see his canvas gradually fill up, there was no way to play back bits of it (with all the instruments of an orchestra) as he put the work together over months or years. He could not actually hear it and then change this or that. The whole thing could only be heard in his mind, in all its complexity, virtuosity and coloration, until it was finished and performed.

Finally, let me give a shout-out to a 21st Century work.  

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