Violin Concerto 1935 | 22 mins
This piece—Berg’s only solo concerto—evolved according to the twelve-tone principles that he had learned from composer Arnold Schoenberg. Within Berg’s tone row (the series of twelve pitches on which a composition is based), he emphasizes the pitches that correspond to the open strings of the violin (E, A, D, and G). We hear this at the very outset of the piece. The concerto’s most astonishing section is 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). Berg had discovered that the opening notes of that chorale corresponded exactly to the final four notes of his tone row. DID YOU KNOW? The chorale melody is striking in that it begins with three whole tones, which together describe a tritone, anciently forbidden as the “devil in music.” Berg quickly realized that the text of the chorale corresponded to what he was wanting to express: the inevitable resignation to death. In a tragic turn that Berg could not have foreseen, the Violin Concerto was to be his last completed work. Berg died at the end of the year in which he composed his concerto, a day before Christmas.
Symphony No. 5 1902 | 75 mins
In July 1901, Mahler turned to the writings of Friedrich Rückert, and with this new literary inspiration Mahler’s music becomes noticeably leaner and harder. Meanwhile, at least partly due to the composer’s recent acquisition of the complete works of J.S. Bach, Mahler’s orchestral textures become more polyphonic (multiple voices at once). After attending the first rehearsal of his Fifth Symphony, Mahler wrote his wife, Alma: “Heavens, what is the public to . . . say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breathtaking, iridescent, and flashing breakers?” Mahler’s comment was right on the money: For the symphony’s first listeners, this music ushered in an exceptionally new, modern sound for the twentieth century. LISTEN FOR: The famous Adagietto slow movement is cousin to one of Mahler’s first Rückert song settings, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”—“I am Lost to the World”—which ends with the lines “I live alone in my heaven, in my loving, in my song.” Both the Adagietto (which was written as a love song to Mahler’s wife) and Mahler’s original song setting display lush contour, harmony, and texture; both are unbelievably beautiful. DID YOU KNOW? The Adagietto was played at the funeral mass for former US Attorney General and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.