Partner Maria "May" Keller

Queer Places:
Hietzinger Hauptstraße 6, 1130 Wien, Austria
Berghof, Ossiachersee Süduferstraße 241, 9523 Villach, Austria
Küb 50, 2671 Küb, Austria

Smaragda Berg von Eger (September 11, 1886 - December 14, 1954) was an Austrian pianist, répétiteur and piano teacher. When the composer Alban Berg began work on his opera Lulu in the late 1920s, he presumably drew inspiration for the lesbian Countess Geschwitz from his sister Smaragda, herself a passionate musician, who freely professed to having relationships with women for years, which was rather unusual for the time.

Smaragda Eger-Berg, whose brother Alban Berg became famous as a composer of the Second Viennese School, was a accompanist, pianist and piano teacher. She accompanied well-known singers such as Anna Bahr-Mildenburg, Lula Mysz-Gmeiner and Frida Leider and performed with the diseuse Marya Delvard. Even at a young age, she also had contacts with the Viennese artists' circle of Karl Kraus and Peter Altenberg, and in her time in Berlin with Arnold Schönberg. She gave piano lessons almost all of her working life. Smaragda Eger-Berg lived out her homosexuality openly after the divorce of her eight-month marriage (1907/08).

Smaragda Eger-Berg's center of life was Vienna, apart from stays in Paris and Munich and her subsequent years in Berlin between 1912 and 1919. She often spent the summers until 1919 on her family's estate ("Berghof", acquired in 1894, on the southern shore of Lake Ossiach in Carinthia) and after its sale, in Küb, where she and her partner Maria "May" Keller had bought a house. With May Keller, Smaragda Eger-Berg also undertook numerous trips through Western Europe.

Smaragda Maria Berg was born on September 11, 1886, the daughter of Johanna Braun (1851-1926) and Conrad Berg (1846-1900), an export merchant from Nuremberg. Her brothers were Hermann Berg (1872-1921), Karl ("Charley") Berg (1881-1952) and Alban Berg (1885-1935), who was a student of Arnold Schönberg and a composer of the Second Vienna School, became famous particularly through his operas "Wozzeck" and "Lulu".

Alban, Charly and Smaragda

Smaragda Eger-Berg received her early piano lessons from her governess Ernestine Götzlik. However, she did not seem to be averse to singing for some time, and in April 1905, accompanied by Alban Berg, performed at an event in favor of the "Kaiserin-Elisabethheim" association, about which Hermann Watznauer (1875-1939), a friend of the Berg family, found : "Her soft, dark voice was of enchanting beauty". Later she seems to have had lessons with the famous piano educator Theodor Leschetitzky, as Smaragda Eger-Berg's nephew Erich Alban Berg reports. Smaragda Eger-Berg also worked as accompanist for vocal pedagogues and well-known singers such as Lula Mysz-Gmeiner, Anna Bahr-Mildenburg and Fri-da Leider in Vienna and Berlin. The latter stated in her work certificate for Smaragda Eger-Berg in 1916: “With Frau v. Eger I studied almost all of my highly dramatic repertoire and got to know her as a strict rhythmist and a creative elaborator. It was thanks to these outstanding qualities that I was able to master a large repertoire after a short period of study”. Later Smaragda Eger-Berg also performed with the Diseuse Marya Delvard, for example in November 1934 at the Vienna Women's Club. According to a work reference from AnnaBahr-Mildenburg, she also corrected her presentation classes after 1934. According to reports by Erich Alban Berg, Smaragda Eger-Berg supported singers in the main parts of "Lulu" in the early 1950s and taught until her death in 1954. A two-page directory of students from Smaragda Eger-Berg is available in the Austrian National Library.

Smaragda Berg, Winter 1906/7, Richard Gerstl painted his friend Smaragda Berg, the sister of Schönberg’s student, Alban Berg, at the Berg family Stadtvilla, Hietzinger Hauptstraße 6, Vienna XIII, in winter 1906, probably just before Christmas..

Hermann Watznauer had already remarked about 12-year-old Smaragda Eger-Berg: “It had two sides: the girlish and the boyish. In terms of appearance, she was a girl, but in essence she was much boyish. (...) Her intellectual talent was very unusual”. In addition to Smaragda Eger-Berg's affection for her "first love", the singer Marie Gutheil-Schoder, Alban Berg also reported on the relationship with her governess Ernestine Gotzlik, who had characterized Watznauer as a "male enemy", and who officially ceased in 1900 for "savings reasons", but who was indeed dismissed. But also for Helene Nahowski Berg, the future wife of Alban Berg, for whom Smaragda Eger-Berg expressed undisguised interest was reason of suspicious and obvious jealousy. Possibly to camouflage her tendencies, as Herwig Knaus and Wilhelm Sincovicz suspect, Smaragda Eger-Berg married Adolf Alexander Ritter von Eger on April 21, 1907. He was the son of the director general of the Südbahngesellschaft, Alexander von Eger. A little later, Smaragda Eger-Berg reported to her sister-in-law Helene Berg: “Dearest, with my marriage the misfortune penetrated into me even more, which I was too short-sighted before to see. I can only tell you one thing today that my marriage is hardly a marriage and will never be one. Everything that is love has disappeared between us, from me totally + to friendship it cannot mature, because he is too much man”. In a memory of the singer Anna Bahr-Mildenburg, she confirmed this state of her marriage shortly after the wedding trip: “I was almost completely apart at that time. He just came to change from the office to the tennis game. From tennis game to card game - - The only nights we were together we argued until I cried - so it was night after night ”. The divorce took place after eight months of marriage. On October 9, 1908, she attempted suicide with illuminating gas, according to Alban Berg. He told his future wife that Smaragda Eger-Berg would not want to know anything about psychiatric treatments, “because she only wants that one - to her !!!!! to her !!”.

Smaragda Eger-Berg was able to live out her homosexuality through the free-spirited views of the Viennese circles of artists and intellectuals. Among other things with Peter Altenberg, Karl Kraus, Gustav Klimt, Egon Friedell and Adolf Loos she spent the evenings and nights in the cabaret "Die Fledermaus", in "Cafe Central" and in "Löwenbräu". Alban Berg reported to his fiancé at the time in the summer of 1908: “It is the same with today's evening, which will be exactly the same as the previous one. Smaragda wire [Austrian: dance / “go through the night”] with beautiful women with Altenberg and Karl Kraus and, when she comes home at 3 a.m., will again enter my bedchamber with Ida and talk about her successes and enthusiasm". In addition to Karl Kraus, whom Smaragda Eger-Berg got to know at the latest in 1903, Peter Altenberg was particularly fascinated by the artist and began a platonic relationship full of extreme feelings: "We both, the poet with a Platonic heart, and the romantic lesbian, have to stick together, and enter into a new refined alliance, against all!”. From Smaragda Eger-Berg, whom Peter Altenberg described as "noble (..) and mentally superior (...) lesbian!" and his "poor beloved sister", he demanded: "She is dreamy-sad, introverted, like Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert. Only our sufferings are valuable, sweet woman, and wanting to escape them is the most miserable business we can do. See your marriage!”.

Erich Alban Berg reports that Smaragda Eger-Berg moved to Munich several years after her divorce, where she met the Wedekinds "Dieelf Scharfrichter" ensemble, which also included Marya Delvard. Knaus and Sincovicz suspect that Smaragda Eger-Berg and Marya Delvard went to Paris for a while, where she met the Spanish dancer Anita Suñen. In 1910 she sent a comprehensive will to her mother Johanna Berg from Paris, in which she declared Anita Suñen to be her sole heir. Smaragda Eger-Berg saw it as her duty to “secure Anita's future because she gave up her dance career because of her, her presence, and others. Possibly also their future through marriage would have insured”. Smaragda Eger-Berg may have processed this shortly thereafter failed relationship in the fictional "Letter from a Dancer", which bears the date 1914 and describes the situation of an older, more obese man who is abandoned by a young, handsome dancer after spending his money on her. In 1912 Smaragda Eger-Berg moved to Berlin with her new partner Maria "May" Keller, where she worked as an accompanist for Frida Leider and Lula Mysz-Gmeiner and maintained contacts with the Schönberg district. Knaus and Sinkovicz state that together with her companion she led a "pronounced bohemian life". Smaragda Eger-Berg's letters from this period, in which they reported and judged contemporary performances and compositions, testify to a strong musical self-confidence that does not stop at Arnold Schönberg's deficient pianistic ability: "He 'played', so to speak the slow movement from IX. [= Beethoven's 9th Symphony] 4 hands, ie. at most 3 hands with me.”

With May Keller, Smaragda Eger-Berg returned to Austria in 1919 because of family disputes over the estate of the Berg family. For future summer stays, the two bought a house in Küb, which they also operated as a pension at times. In the 1920s they lived together and these years were marked by country stays in Küb and numerous trips and car tours. When Smaragda Eger-Berg returned to Vienna, from 1931 onwards, and wanted to resume her piano repetition, she found no employment. Despite numerous applications and the dedicated advocacy of her famous brother, for example for the "International Competition for Singing and Piano", her job search of several years remained almost unsuccessful.

Even if there were occasional tensions and brief separations between May Keller and Smaragda Eger-Berg (because of her sister-in-law, Alice Berg, for example), the two remained a couple until about 1934. Alban Berg's eyewitness and friend, Soma Morgenstern, reported: “They lived together and appeared as a couple. Although homosexuality in Vienna, both female and male - at least at that time - was quite rare, Ms. Keller was part of the family”. This is probably the reason why Smaragda Eger-Berg later called the separation from May Keller "divorce" and considered it (like her brothers) as an obligation for May Keller to continue to support her financially. Due to some wrong financial decisions and the overall difficult economic situation, Smaragda Eger-Berg and May Keller faced major financial problems, which is why Smaragda Eger-Berg had to be supported by her two brothers, Alban and Charley Berg. This further affected the relationship with Alban Berg, which was already severely clouded by many conflicts, especially after Smaragda Eger-Berg's friend Erika Stiedry-Wagner wrote an open letter describing the pianist's disastrous situation and publicly asked Alban Berg to help his sister. Alban Berg, whose financial options were also limited, had previously shown some ways to save money, which obviously did not coincide with Smaragda Eger-Berg's view of an independent lifestyle. Her brother Charley reported to Alban Berg about the negative attitude of her two sisters to one of the suggestions that she "always regarded her full freedom as her most sacred good and therefore did not conform to the project".

After the death of Alban Berg in 1935, according to the current state of research, only a few sources can be used. Despite her further work as a piano teacher and accompanist, Smaragda Eger-Berg's financial situation does not seem to have improved. She died impoverished in Vienna in 1954. According to the obituary, which was only signed by her nephew, Erich Alban Berg, she "slumbered into the better afterlife after a long, devoted suffering (...)". According to the treatise on leaving, she is "described as a 'casual worker, former repetitor, caregiver' and - finally - managed as a care worker in the retirement home of the City of Vienna in Lainz".

So far, Smaragda Eger-Berg has primarily been perceived in her role as sister Alban Berg. This was often limited to the classification as a socially polarizing member of the Berg family. Their musical and artistic activities, apart from a few sentences, have not yet been addressed.

Her work references can give an impression of Smaragda Eger-Berg's repertoire: The singer Lula Mysz-Gmeiner described her as "conscientious, agile, in the song. Musician equally immigrated to opera”. Nevertheless, Smaragda Eger-Berg's focus may have been on the (highly) dramatic repertoire, in which she supported Frida Leider and later Anna Bahr-Mildenburg's performance classes. Appearances with Marya Delvard also bear witness to Smaragda Eger's mountain pianistic versatility: A newspaper clipping reports about a concert by the Vienna Women's Club in November 1934, in which the moving lectures of the diseuse "on the piano were delicately accompanied by Mrs. S. Eger-Berg".

Although Smaragda Eger-Berg is mentioned in almost all popular Alban Berg biographies, no independent research on have been conducted about her openly lived homosexuality, her contact with artist circles, as well as her musical activities have been known for decades. According to the current state of research, her estate includes letters from Peter Altenberg, Erika Stiedry-Wagner, Marie Gutheil-Schoder, Anna Bahr-Mildenburg, Frida Leider and other singers and artists of the time. As part of his two publications on Alban Berg (1976 and 1985), Erich Alban Berg compiled pictures and information about his aunt Smaragda Eger-Berg. In 1988, Susanne Rode-Breymann discussed her contact with Peter Altenberg in her dissertation on Alban Berg and Karl Kraus. The biography on Alban Berg by Knaus and Sinkovicz dedicates more detailed sections to the life and activities of Smaragda Eger-Berg by working out the circumstances and extensive family backgrounds of the composer. Furthermore, Herwig Knaus and Thomas Leibnitzden published correspondence between Alban and Helene Berg as well as several source catalogs on the Berg estate in the Austrian National Library, which can be used to gain further details about family life. Letters from and to Smaragda Eger-Berg are visible in the Vienna City Library and in the Austrian National Library.

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