Composers In The Kitchen: Alban Berg's Military Meals

Alban Berg i i

Like many other young men, Alban Berg was drafted into the army during World War I (but without the whipped cream on top). courtesy of Ira Braus hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of Ira Braus
Alban Berg

Like many other young men, Alban Berg was drafted into the army during World War I (but without the whipped cream on top).

courtesy of Ira Braus

One of the worst times of a military deployment is the holidays. No matter how big the care packages are, no matter what special food they whip up in the chow hall, most soldiers are thinking of home — and delicious home cooking.

The same was true in 1915 when composer Alban Berg was drafted into the Austrian army. Even though he had asthma, Berg endured boot camp and the substandard food that came with it. It must have been especially difficult for the young composer because he appreciated cuisine, and there was precious little of that to be found in the army.

In a letter to his wife Helene, he characterized the bread he ate during the war as "an indescribable lump, probably containing turnip remains and coffee mixture."

In a quest for some decent food, Berg often snuck off to restaurants in the Viennese suburbs.  At one eatery, the Restaurant Klein, he described how he gorged himself:

I was on duty till half past eight, then went to Hietzing, and about 9:30, in a proud and venturesome mood, I entered the Restaurant Klein… first a portion of fried paprika with egg then mixed vegetables… they had done the paprika like mushrooms with egg. Delicious. I had the feeling there was something else in it, too. The paprika was cut just like the sauerkraut, with scrambled eggs in between. The whole thing was very fatty, almost oily. The vegetables — a bit of everything, spinach, cabbage, red cabbage, tomato sauce round it, and in the middle three half potatoes.

So now I wanted to eat some small dish, something with meat. According to the menu they had only goulash… and the goulash was "off." The waiter saw my trouble, and "recommended" me some boiled beef with horseradish sauce, which was still "on," though not on the menu. It was just the thing for me, delicious, plenty of it… with a pint and a half of pilsener, also first class, and a roll. It all seemed to me like a banquet, so rare and unexpected these days.

On the way home, I passed various terrace restaurants and heard raucous blaring music, I couldn't help but think of the thousands of poor devils out at the front helpless and bewildered in their suffering.

Imagine yourself in the Restaurant Klein, eating dinner with Alban Berg. Now we need a soundtrack. Which of Berg’s pieces might compliment your paprika and pilsner? I'm thinking the Piano Sonata, Op.1 would do the job — it's got a variety of harmonic flavors. What about you? please leave your suggestions in the comments section.

By the way, as for the drawing at the top of this page: Berg, like any good Austrian, loved his whipped cream. He once described a delivery of "a mountain" ("ein Berg") of the creamy stuff arriving at his home.

(We're grateful to author Ira Braus and his book Classical Cooks. Braus is associate professor of music history at the University of Hartford.)

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