Accidentals in early Berg

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David Ward
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Accidentals in early Berg

Post by David Ward » 24 Oct 2018, 09:50

Can anyone comment on why the singer has a B :f rather than an A :s in the second bar of the first of Berg's 7 Early Songs? In 1959 I vaguely recall asking my composition teacher Sandy Goehr why it was written this way, but I don't remember his response (if any).

In a different context, and freed from the keyboard tyranny of equal temperament, B :f and A :s may not be the same pitch; but here?
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John Ruggero
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Re: Accidentals in early Berg

Post by John Ruggero » 24 Oct 2018, 15:23

Berg is generating dissonant chords by using unresolved appoggiaturas alla Schoenberg. The Bb and G# are double chromatic appoggiaturas resolving to an understood A in the basic D harmony represented by the first two measures. The Bb is spelled as a neighboring tone as usual. Note the E augmented triad used as neighbor-chord to introduce the D triad throughout the two measures.
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Re: Accidentals in early Berg

Post by David Ward » 24 Oct 2018, 18:03

Yes, I think it probable that Sandy's explanation was just as yours. It makes sense.

I think it does make it difficult for the singer, though, and perhaps it could have been notated differently.
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Re: Accidentals in early Berg

Post by John Ruggero » 24 Oct 2018, 22:45

Thanks, David. For me, its actually a little easier to sing as notated, since my ears are firmly stuck in tonality and don't make much sense out of a series of chromatic intervals unless they hear the underlying harmony.
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Re: Accidentals in early Berg

Post by dfan » 07 Jan 2019, 00:44

I also feel like the first measure is specifying the preferred spelling for the two augmented triads that create the whole-tone harmony of the first few measures, and the spelling for the singer in the second measure is just following suit. Of course in the second measure the piano has now switched its own spelling from Bb to A#, but that's necessary for its own notation.

Similar to but slightly different from John's hearing, I hear these first three measures as a big altered E dominant chord that eventually resolves to a very emphatic A major in the middle of the next page. We are in the key of A major after all (there's even a key signature!). In that light, Bb is much more natural than A#.

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Re: Accidentals in early Berg

Post by John Ruggero » 08 Jan 2019, 13:39

I think you are right, dfan, the D chord is operating as a neighbor chord within a E dominant chord rather than the reverse.
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Re: Accidentals in early Berg

Post by David Ward » 14 Jan 2019, 22:24

To come back on this, I've sometimes worked with singers who have perfect pitch but limited knowledge of harmony. Although such singers almost never sing out of tune (as such), they do sometimes sing wrong notes. That's a bit like striking the wrong note on a piano, they tell me, as it's ‘in tune’ although wrong. Intervals such as G :s to B :f seem to be of the sort which could result in just such a wrong note.

There are certainly singers who will understand the harmony behind these early Berg songs, but there are surely others capable of singing them effectively who might not. This is also the vocal score for the orchestral version which introduces colours to which the singer needs to respond.

Anyway, all that aside, it is good to know what is behind this perhaps (or perhaps not) slightly disconcerting notation.
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