The Kennedy Center

Adagio from the Chamber Concerto

About the Work

Alban Berg Composer: Alban Berg
© Richard Rodda

The year 1924 was a crucial one in the history of modern music: Fauré, Puccini, and Busoni died; Sibelius finished his last symphony; Honegger unveiled his clangorous, railroad traininspired Pacific 231; Copland premiered his thorny Symphony for Organ and Orchestra; Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue created a sensation at its first performance-and Arnold Schoenberg revealed his 12-tone theory of composition with his Serenade, Op. 25. That same year, Schoenberg turned 50, on September 13, and his protégé, pupil, and friend Alban Berg decided to honor the event with a musical work. Berg first notified Schoenberg of his intent in a letter on July 12, 1923: "I am at long last at work again, which, however, does not flow easily. After all, I've composed almost nothing in the past twenty months [since the completion of Wozzeck]. Out of many plans the following has crystallized: a Concerto for Piano and Violin, with accompaniment of wind instruments (woodwind and brass).... The old idea of a piano concerto (incidentally suggested by yourself), and then the idea of a double, triple, and even quadruple concerto (forgive my incurable elephantiasis!) has kept me in thrall. When the idea of using wind instruments occurred to me, I tried to accommodate the idea of the piano concerto to it. However, that didn't work. Finally I hit on the solution mentioned above." Berg sketched the first movement of the Kammerkonzert ("Chamber Concerto") for Violin and Piano by September 1, but then the plans for producing Wozzeck and his recurrent physical problems with asthma and digestive ailments intervened, and the score was put aside until August 11, 1924, just a month before Schoenberg's birthday. Schoenberg dispensed some caustic remarks about the lack of progress on the piece and offered some suggestions for the music he had seen, which effort seems to have had some effect on the slow-working Berg, since the Concerto was finished in short score by February 9, 1925 (Berg's 40th birthday), and the orchestration completed on July 23. The Chamber Concerto for Piano and Violin was premiered by pianist Eduard Steuermann and violinist Rudolf Kolisch, two of the foremost early champions of the music of the Second Viennese School, on March 20, 1927, in Berlin under the direction of Hermann Scherchen, and has remained, along with the Lyric Suite and the Violin Concerto, the most important instrumental expression of Berg's genius.

Berg wrote of the work's second movement, which he arranged for violin, clarinet and piano, "The structure of the Adagio is based on ‘ternary song form': A1-B-A2, where A2 is an inversion of A1. The repetition of this first half of the movement (120 bars) takes place in retrograde form, partly a free formation of the reversed thematic material, but partly-as, for example, the whole of the middle ‘B' section-in the form of an exact mirror image."