New York’s NPR station WNYC has been doing a bunch of programming on Leonard Bernstein, and the other night when I was moving my car I heard a great story:
Lenny was backstage in a greenroom in Vienna, and a little old lady approached him. She introduced herself as the widow of Alban Berg, and Bernstein told her how honored he was to meet her. Now Berg, as you will recall, died without completing his opera Lulu, and there was some question about who would finish it. Helene Berg, Alban’s widow, initially offered the job to Schoenberg, who accepted but then decided it was too time-consuming, and the opera wasn’t completed until after her death in 1976.
Back in the greenroom, Helene told Lenny “I sink zat maybe you should finish Lulu. I vill go home and ask Alban.” Helene would apparently hold seances to speak with her dead husband. A few nights later, backstage, this Helene Berg approached Leonard Bernstein again, and Bernstein again professed his admiration for her husband and his honor at meeting her. Helene Berg said to Lenny “I asked Alban about Lulu. Alban sagte nein.” That line, “Alban sagte nein,” apparently became a running joke in the Bernstein household.
That’s the story as I remember it from the other night on WNYC. The recording isn’t available on the website, but maybe somebody out there heard it too. Opera Today tells the story slightly differently, saying that Bernstein himself sought permisson, but confirming that he was declined after Frau Berg consulted with Alban in a seance. An article in the New York Times last year also describes Bernstein as approaching Helene Berg, but sets the scene at two breakfasts at the Berg home.
How ever it went down (and I’m inclined to believe that Bernstein approached Helene Berg) it’s a great story. And I intend to make that my new excuse for turning people down. You want me to come to your solo contrabasoon recital? No can do–Alban sagte nein. Want me to do an arrangement of “My Heart Will Go On” for flute and acoustic guitar? Ooh, I’d love to, but Alban sagte nein.