Berg: Violin Concerto

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

BORN:  February 9, 1885. Vienna
DIED:  December 24, 1935. Vienna

COMPOSED: Begun in late April 1935, substantially completed by the middle of July, with the complete score being finished on August 11

WORLD PREMIERE: April 19, 1936, with violinist Louis Krasner and the Orquesta Pau Casals, conducted by Hermann Scherchen (substituting at the last minute for Anton Webern), at the International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in Barcelona

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—May 1949. Joseph Szigeti was soloist, Dimitri Mitropoulos conducted. MOST RECENT—June 2009. Gil Shaham was soloist, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted

INSTRUMENTATION:  2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling alto saxophone) and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones (tenor and bass), tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, low tam-tam, high gong, triangle, and strings

DURATION: About 22 mins

THE BACKSTORY  In February 1935, Louis Krasner, a Ukrainian-born, Boston-based violinist, approached the fifty-year-old Alban Berg to request that he compose a concerto. Krasner, who would live to the age of ninety-one, was near the beginning of a long career that would occupy a place of honor in the annals of contemporary music; in addition to introducing Berg’s Violin Concerto, he would go on to premiere concertos by Arnold Schoenberg, Alfredo Casella, and Roger Sessions, as well as important shorter works by Henry Cowell and Roy Harris, among others. But Berg expressed no interest in Krasner’s request. As a composer he tended to be slow and methodical, and at the moment he was completely absorbed in the composition of his opera Lulu. It seemed unlikely that Krasner’s dream would be fulfilled. But privately the idea had intrigued Berg, not least because of Krasner’s argument that what twelve-tone music really needed to become popular was a genuinely expressive, heartfelt piece in an audience-friendly genre like a concerto. Then, too, the generous commission that Krasner offered was sorely tempting: $1,500 would go a long way in 1935. In spite of himself, Berg started making tentative stabs towards writing such a work as Krasner envisaged, and he accepted the commission. 

That spring, the composer received word that on April 22 Manon Gropius, the eighteen-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler Werfel (widow of Gustav) and the well-known architect Walter Gropius, had died of polio. Berg had adored the girl since her earliest childhood, and, harnessing the creative energy that tragedy can inspire, he resolved to compose a musical memorial. “Before this terrible year has passed,” he wrote in a letter to Alma, “you and Franz [Werfel, her current husband] will be able to hear, in the form of a score which I shall dedicate ‘to the memory of an angel,’ that which I feel and today cannot express.” He immediately turned his entire focus on the violin concerto, left off work on the final act of Lulu (which would remain incomplete), and moved to a summer cottage on the Wörthersee. It was at the Wörthersee that Mahler had built a summer getaway—at Maiernigg, on the lake’s southern shore. And, as Berg was delighted to point out, it was at the Wörthersee that Brahms had written much of his Violin Concerto, while staying at a hotel in Pörtschach, on the northern side.

Letters to friends make it clear that Berg worked feverishly on the concerto, so much so that he substantially finished it within two and a half months, though he would take another month to finish writing out the full score. Normally Berg required two years to write a large-scale work; the Violin Concerto was completed in less than four months. At the head of the manuscript he inscribed “To the Memory of an Angel,” just as he had promised. The name of Louis Krasner was also appended to the score as dedicatee.

THE MUSIC  This piece, Berg’s only solo concerto, evolved according to the twelve-tone principles that the composer had learned from Arnold Schoenberg and championed as only a great composer could—which is to say, by using those principles as a means toward articulating a unique world of expression. Within his tone row (that is, the series of twelve pitches on which a composition is based), Berg chooses to emphasize those pitches that correspond to the open strings of the violin, yielding a harmonic basis that makes perfect sense in terms of the forces involved. These are intoned at the very outset of the concerto. In fact, many nineteenth-century violin concertos, including those of Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, had settled their tonic on the note D, a note at the heart of the instrument’s tuning—not such a different tactic from Berg’s.

The concerto’s most astonishing section is doubtless its conclusion: a set of variations on the Lutheran chorale “Es ist genug! Herr wenn es Dir gefällt” (It is enough! Lord, if it pleases You). After the piece was already well along, Berg discovered that the opening notes of that chorale, which he knew through its harmonization in Bach’s Cantata No. 60, corresponded exactly to the final four notes of his tone row. The chorale melody is striking in that it begins with a succession of three whole tones, which together describe a tritone (the interval of the augmented fourth), anciently forbidden as the “devil in music.” As such, it is not a particularly “comfortable” melody in the context of traditional tonic-centered tonality, and even Bach’s harmonization had to reach in unaccustomed directions to harness it. Berg quickly realized that his current project enjoyed not just a musical connection to the chorale, but a poetic one as well, since the text of the chorale supremely expressed an emotion he was wanting to express about Manon Gropius’s inevitable resignation to untimely death:

It is enough!
Lord, if it pleases You,
Unshackle me at last.
My Jesus comes;
I bid the world goodnight.
I travel to the heavenly home.
I surely travel there in peace,
My troubles left below.
It is enough! It is enough!

The concerto occupies two movements, each in two parts, in the overall sequence of Andante—Allegretto / Allegro—Adagio (or, as Berg described it in a letter to Schoenberg two weeks after the piece was completed, Preludium—Scherzo / Cadenza—Chorale Variations). Berg told his biographer Willi Reich that in the Andante—Allegretto movement he “had tried to translate the young girl’s characteristics into musical characters.” A nostalgic, dreamy quality pervades the first section, whose improvisational spirit belies its rigid musical organization. The ensuing Allegretto recalls a more cheerful aspect of Manon, even to the point of Berg’s introducing a Carinthian folk melody, played by solo horn.

Following this pastoral reverie, the second movement seems macabre and nightmarish. It begins in energetic, rhapsodic phrases that lead to a musical climax. This introduces the chorale melody, which sounds almost shocking in its twelve-tone context, followed by two variations on the melody. Berg quotes it in Bach’s own harmonization, with clarinets mimicking a Bachian organ, though with a filigree of dissonance wafting over it. In the score, Berg instructs the soloist to assume leadership over the violin and viola sections “audibly and visibly” as the movement progresses, and asks those orchestral string players to successively join and resist the soloist “in just as demonstrative a manner,” eventually dropping away so that only the soloist is playing. Following this musical and dramatic struggle, a metaphor for the struggle of the living soul against the insistence of death, the Carinthian folk song wafts through again, this time as if from a distance, and then the chorale appears one last time. In the final bars, the solo violin, as if solving the puzzle presented by the two disparate approaches to harmony, articulates the entire twelve-tone row simple and unadorned, from its lowest note to its highest, three octaves above. As the violin ascends in this ultimate gesture, the other instruments of the orchestra descend to their lowest registers, a world away from the soloist.

In a tragic turn that Berg could not have foreseen, the Violin Concerto was to be his last completed work. Shortly after composing it, the composer was annoyed by an abscess on his back, presumably the result of an insect bite. Treatment proved ineffective and blood poisoning ensued. Berg died at the end of the year in which he composed his concerto, a day before Christmas.

Years later, Krasner, who had gone on to play the work’s premiere in 1936, recalled how he had visited Berg as the composer was engrossed in the project. “A short time later,” Krasner reported, “Berg sent me all the pages of his manuscript. It was in a roll, neatly addressed by him and marked: Value, 50 francs.” Succeeding generations would dispute that modest valuation. Berg’s Violin Concerto cuts deep into the human psyche, and it stands near the summit of its genre. The philosopher Theodor Adorno, a one-time Berg pupil and a critical but appreciative listener to his teacher’s music, pondered his own reaction to this work: “In some of its simplest, intellectually most irritating passages, for instance the two-fold quotation of the Carinthian folk song, the Violin Concerto acquires an almost heartbreaking emotive power unlike almost anything else Berg ever wrote. He was granted something accorded only the very greatest artists: access to that sphere, most comparable with Balzac, in which the lower realm, the not quite fully formed, suddenly becomes the highest. . . . The way, however, in which the imagerie of the nineteenth century stirs within Berg is forward-looking. Nowhere in this music is it a matter of restoring a familiar idiom or of alluding to a childhood to which he seeks a return. Berg’s memory embraced death. Only in the sense that the past is retrieved as something irretrievable, through its own death, does it become part of the present.”

—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. He is the author of Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press).

Gil Shaham, with David Robertson conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden (Canary Classics)  |  Gidon Kremer, with Colin Davis conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Polygram)  |  Pinchas Zukerman, with Pierre Boulez conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (Sony Classical)

Reading: Alban Berg: Master of the Smallest Link, by Theodor W. Adorno (Cambridge)  |  Alban Berg, by Willi Reich (Harcourt, Brace & World, reprinted Vienna House)  |  Alban Berg, by Karen Monson (Houghton Mifflin)  |  Alban Berg: The Man and his Work, by Mosco Carner (second edition, Holmes & Meier)  |  The Music of Alban Berg, by David John Headlam (Yale)  |  Alban Berg, Violinkonzert, by Rudolf Stephan (Laaber-Verlag)

(March 2018)