A film by Hilan Warshaw
For broadcast on ORF (Austria)
Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite for string quartet has long been hailed as one of the masterpieces of 20th-century music. But for decades, few suspected that behind this anguished music lies a haunting secret.
In 1925 Berg fell passionately in love with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, a married woman living in Prague. Less than a year later, Berg– the renowned modernist composer of operas Wozzeck and Lulu– composed the Lyric Suite, which he intended as an explicit musical depiction of his affair with Hanna. Berg explained the music’s secret meaning in a copy of the score that he annotated for Hanna, making clear that the pivotal events of their doomed romance are all vividly dramatized in the piece through carefully coded references and motifs. But to the rest of the world—including his wife, Helene—Berg presented the piece as he wanted it to be seen: a purely abstract work of chamber music.
SECRET SONG brings this tale to life as an innovative film narrative. At the heart of the film is a cinematic re-enactment of the love story hidden within the notes of the music, with the music itself as the soundtrack—filmed in the style of a black-and-white Expressionist silent film of the period in which Berg wrote the piece, with actors who resemble the real characters. This re-enactment will closely follow Berg’s own indications about what each musical phrase and element refers to, as provided in the score that he annotated for Hanna— bringing his original intent for the work to life as never before. The film also follows legendary musicians Renée Fleming and the Emerson String Quartet as they record their first-ever CD of the piece, grappling with its tangled history and how this affects their own interpretation. Their recording includes the piece’s rarely heard vocal part– which Berg ultimately erased, afraid that the sung words would make the work's autobiographical content too obvious.
The mysterious drama of the Lyric Suite did not end with the piece's completion. With the rise of the Nazis, the Jewish Hanna fled with her family to New York City. Berg continued to correspond with her until shortly before his shocking death at the age of 50– which this film re-examines in a new light.
Was Berg’s love for Hanna real? Or did Berg– a highly dramatic composer– seek out an impossible romance in order to inspire his compositions? And how should our knowledge of an artist's personal life affect our experience of their art? SECRET SONG not only tells a riveting true story but explores one of the deepest mysteries of all: how great art is brought forth from the private life and soul of its creator.
SECRET SONG is a fiscally sponsored project of the National Center for Jewish Film, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. To make a tax-deductible contribution to the production, please click here or contact Hilan Warshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Praise for a screening of excerpts from the film at a concert on September 16, 2015:
“This brief program contained ... excerpts from a documentary being developed about the “Lyric Suite,” whose dramatic back story is suited to cinema. Not until the 1970s, a half-century after the suite’s composition, was an annotated score discovered that made clear what had long been suspected: The work is an autobiography in music, chronicling the love affair of Berg and a friend’s wife”.”
- Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times
“The great surprise of the evening was a preview of a film by Hilan Warshaw, about the Lyric Suite. Mr. Warshaw, a violinist and conductor, made a wonderful movie about Wagner’s Jewish friends, but this film is more than documentary. In fact, it seems to have a multi-textural platform...
This is the part I loved– it is also partly acted. Not as costume drama but with the style and black-and-white grainy film of a 1920’s movie. Apparently with the exaggerations, the closeup, the pure unadulterated (and adulterated) romance.
For Alban Berg, this would have been perfect. A movie-lover himself, he seemed to make a love story in this and the Violin Concerto.””
- Harry Rolnick, Concertonet.com