Violin Concerto (Berg)
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Alban Berg's Violin Concerto was written in 1935 (the score is dated 11 August 1935). It is probably Berg's best-known and most frequently performed instrumental piece.
Conception and composition
The piece stemmed from a commission from the violinist Louis Krasner. When he first received the commission, Berg was working on his opera Lulu, and he did not begin work on the concerto for some months. The event that spurred him into writing was the death by polio of 18-year-old Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler (once Gustav Mahler's wife) and Walter Gropius. Berg set Lulu to one side to write the concerto, which he dedicated "To the memory of an angel."
Berg worked on the piece very quickly, completing it within a few months; it is thought that his working on the concerto was largely responsible for his failing to complete Lulu before his death on 24 December 1935 (the violin concerto was the last work that Berg completed). The work was premiered after the composer's death, with Krasner playing the solo part, on 19 April 1936, in Palau de la Música Catalana, Barcelona.
The concerto is scored for 2 flutes (both doubling as piccolo), 2 oboes (one doubling as a cor anglais), alto saxophone, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.
Berg described the structure of the concerto in a letter to Schoenberg:
I a) Andante (Prelude) b) Allegretto (Scherzo) II a) Allegro (Cadenza) b) Adagio (Chorale Variations)
The concerto is structured in two movements, each further divided into two sections. The first movement begins with an Andante in classical sonata form, followed by the Allegretto, a dance-like section. The second movement starts with an Allegro largely based on a single recurring rhythmic cell; this section has been described as cadenza-like, with very difficult passages in the solo part. The orchestration becomes rather violent at its climax (which is literally marked in the score as "High point of the Allegro"); the fourth and final section, marked Adagio, is in a much calmer mood. The first two sections are meant to represent life, the last two death and transfiguration.
Like a number of other works by Berg, the piece combines the twelve tone technique, typical of serialistic music learned from his teacher Arnold Schoenberg with passages written in a freer, more tonal style. The score integrates serialism and tonality in a remarkable fashion. Here is Berg's tone row:
Although this contains all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, there is a strong tonal undercurrent: the first three notes of the row make up a G minor triad; notes three to five are a D major triad; notes five to seven are an A minor triad; notes seven to nine are an E major triad; and the last four notes (B, C♯, E♭, F) and the first (G) together make up part of a whole tone scale. The roots of the four triads correspond to the open strings of the violin, which is highlighted in the opening passage of the piece. The resulting triads are thus fifth-related and form a cadence, which we hear directly before the row is played by the violin for the first time.
The last four notes of the row, ascending whole tones, are also the first four notes of the chorale melody, Es ist genug (It Is Enough). Berg quotes this chorale directly in the last movement of the piece, where the harmonisation by Johann Sebastian Bach is heard in the clarinets.
There is another directly quoted tonal passage in the work in the form of a Carinthian folk song in the second section of the first movement, which returns briefly before the coda in the second movement. This is perhaps the only section which does not derive its materials from the row.
Anthony Pople describes the work as "less serial than Lulu", containing originally serial material later repeated or developed outside that framework, in addition to small adjustments throughout to avoid bare octaves.
- World premiere: 19 April 1936, Palau de la Música Catalana, Barcelona, at the XIV ISCM Festival. Louis Krasner played the solo part, and the performance was conducted by Hermann Scherchen.
- Anton Webern was intended to be the conductor. Reports vary as to whether he was ill or was emotionally unable to cope with the subject matter of the music. In any case, Scherchen happened to be there for the Festival, and he was drafted at literally the 11th hour. The first time he ever saw the score was at 11 pm the night before the premiere, and the next morning there was time for only half an hour rehearsal.
- British private premiere: 1 May 1936, London, at an invitation-only concert. Krasner was again the soloist (at the invitation of the BBC producer Edward Clark, who had attended the world premiere in Barcelona), and Anton Webern conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This performance was recorded on acetate discs, which survived in Krasner's collection. The performance was broadcast on the BBC on Berg's centenary, 9 February 1985, and was later released on CD.
- Austrian and European premiere: 25 October 1936, Vienna, Krasner with the Vienna Philharmonic under Otto Klemperer. The violinist Arnold Rosé came out of retirement to lead the string section. This performance was also recorded.
- British public premiere: 9 December 1936, London, at the Queen's Hall in a BBC concert. Krasner was again the soloist, and Sir Henry Wood conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
- Brand et al. (eds.), The Berg-Schoenberg Correspondence, p.466. quoted in Pople (1991) ,p.47.
- Whittall, Arnold. 2008. The Cambridge Introduction to Serialism. Cambridge Introductions to Music, p.84. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-68200-8 (pbk).
- Pople, Anthony (1991). Berg: Violin Concerto, p.39-40. ISBN 0-521-39976-9.
- Louis Krasner, Some Memories of Anton Webern, the Berg Concerto and Vienna in the 1930s
- The Gramophone
- Kennedy, p.178
- Pople, Anthony: Berg: Violin Concerto (Cambridge University Press, 1991 March 31) ISBN 0-521-39976-9
- Kennedy, Michael: Adrian Boult, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1987 and Macmillan, London, 1989, ISBN 0-333-48752-4
- The Gramophone, June 1991, review by Robert Layton