The Secret Song

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, the married sister of Czech-Jewish writer Franz Werfel. 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 work’s secret meaning in a copy of the score that he annotated for Hanna, making clear that the pivotal events of their romance are all vividly illustrated in the music. 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.

When Hitler came to power, both the Jewish Hanna and Berg—whom the Nazis considered degenerate as a composer of modernist music—became targets of the new regime. Their correspondence continued until Berg’s shocking death at the age of 50. Hanna ultimately fled Europe for New York with her family.

The Secret Song brings this story to life in the style of a silent film of the period, with actors who resemble the real characters and with Berg’s Lyric Suite itself as the soundtrack. This re-enactment will closely follow Berg’s own indications about what each element of the music 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 an upcoming 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.

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 life affect our experience of their art? The 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.

About the Filmmaker


Hilan Warshaw recently produced, directed, and wrote the documentary Wagner’s Jews, broadcast on PBS/Channel Thirteen, ARTE, WDR, Deutsche Welle, Medici TV, Sweden's SVT, and Israel's Channel 8 and Hot 3; the film has been screened at numerous venues in the U.S., Israel, Europe, and Australia, and is distributed by First Run Features. His television writing credits include A Workshop for Peace (PBS); his video editing credits include Shadows in Paradise: Hitler’s Exiles in Hollywood (PBS/WDR/ARTE; editor and researcher), In the Key of G (PBS), and the miniseries Great Conversations in Music (PBS/Library of Congress). He has taught at Barnard College and has been a lecturer and panelist at New York University, Yale, Boston University and Hebrew College, among others.

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