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Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Alban Berg
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Pinchas Zukerman, violin & viola Oct. 13 - 15, 2005
© Richard Freed
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

Berg composed his Violin Concerto, which also incorporates material by Bach, was composed during the summer of 1935 under a commission from the American violinist Louis Krasner, who gave the premiere at the ISCM Festival in Barcelona on April 19, 1936, with Hermann Scherchen conducting. Kyung-Wha Chung was the soloist in the National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of this work, on February 12-15, 1974, with James DePreist conducting, and the most recent ones, on June 1-3, 2000, with Leonard Slatkin conducting.

In addition to the solo violin, the score, inscribed “To the memory of an angel,” calls for 2 flutes and 2 piccolos, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets and bass clarinet, alto saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, harp, and strings. Duration, 26 minutes.

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Louis Krasner (1903-1995), the Russian-born American violinist who commissioned this work, was throughout his life a champion of contemporary music; four years after introducing the Berg Concerto in Barcelona, he gave the premiere of Schoenberg's, with Leopold Stokowski in Philadelphia. In his sixties, Krasner recalled that Berg had expressed some doubts about undertaking a violin concerto, observing that he was “not a violin composer.” Krasner persuaded him, however, by suggesting that such a work would give him an opportunity to show how the violin could be effective in twelve-tone music, and Berg proceeded to compose, in only four months, a large-scale work in which he not only registered that point most convincingly but also created one of the most touching of instrumental requiems.

No memorial context had been suggested by Krasner. The dedication cited above is a reference to Manon Gropius, the daughter of the architect Walter Gropius and his wife Alma, the former wife of Gustav Mahler. Alma had divorced Gropius in 1918, and in 1929 married the novelist Franz Werfel, who added his efforts to her own in the cause of her first husband's music. Manon Gropius, who had a remarkable personality that enchanted everyone who knew her, was to have played the part of an angel in a Max Reinhardt production at Salzburg in the summer of 1935, but she died of polio on Easter Sunday of that year, at age 19. According to her mother, Berg was so moved that he “could not finish his opera Lulu . He composed the Violin Concerto and dedicated it to the memory of Manon.” Indeed, Berg spoke of the Concerto as a “Requiem for Manon”; it was to become his own requiem as well: it was the last work he completed, and its many-faceted involvement with death has been assumed to include an acknowledgement of the dissolution of the world in which both he and young Manon lived.

It may be further noted, however, that the Concerto, like several of the other works Berg composed in the last ten years of his life, carried a “secret program.” While the elegiac character of the music and the gesture toward Manon can stand as sufficient background, the actual dedication, in Berg's mind, was a dual one: to Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, his love for whom inspired the numerological and musical references in his Lyric Suite for strings, and to a young servant girl who had borne him a child many years earlier. Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, incidentally, was the sister of Alma Mahler's last husband, the aforementioned Franz Werfel.

The Concerto is in two movements, each of which is itself divided into two parts. The first section ( Andante ) presents the twelve-tone row on which the composition is based, and establishes an inward, ruminative mood. The opening movement's second half ( Allegretto ), identified by Berg as a portrait, or character study, of Manon, is in the form of a scherzo with two trios; the trios are filled with characteristics of Austrian dances, and bear such markings as “rustic,” “waltzlike” and “Wienerisch.” Near the end of the movement a Carinthian folk song is cited and the mood turns eerie as this subject is more or less vivisected in a suspended-in-air treatment with more than a hint of bitterness. It has been suggested that this section is a reference to the imminent destruction of the old values and the old life Berg and his circle had known.

In the second movement we arrive at something more like a conventional lament. Its first section, an Allegro which Berg designated “Catastrophe,” is to be played “freely, like a cadenza.” Here the music builds to a powerful climax and, with the relaxation of tension that follows, Berg brings in the motif of the chorale “Es ist genug,” from Bach's cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 60). This four-note motif is exactly the same as the last four notes of the Concerto's initial tone-row; as the row reaches its conclusion in these notes, the emotional yield of the Concerto is realized in them. It is appropriate to cite here the text of the Bach chorale, in translation:

It is enough: Lord, if it please Thee,

Do Thou unshackle me.

My Jesus comes; I bid the world farewell,

And go in peace to dwell.

In Heaven's house I then will find me,

My cares and troubles all behind me.

It is enough, it is enough.

The concluding section, designated “Deliverance,” is an Adagio in which the chorale theme is developed and another climax is achieved, this time in the form of an unrestrained threnody in which the “Requiem for Manon” truly becomes Berg's own farewell. When the climax subsides, fragments from the Concerto's earlier sections come and go, as if in a lingering gesture of departure, reluctant to break off for good; but the final bars glow with sweetness and resignation.