The so-called “Second Viennese School” of Austrian composers consists of Arnold Schoenberg and his two students, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg. There is part of me that very much identifies with the music of Webern, and another part that finds a kindred soul in the music of Berg. I vacillate between the two, at times finding one my favorite serialist and at times preferring the other. Although Webern’s music may have been more influential on the generation of composers in the “Darmstadt School” (Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono etc), I think it is the music of Berg that stands the chance of being appreciated by a wider audience.
Alban Berg (1885-1935) was an asthmatic man of ill-health who had little musical training before he began lessons with Schoenberg at the age of 19. He did seem to catch his breath long enough to have some life experiences however, as he managed to father an illegitimate child with a household servant two years earlier. His compositional talent blossomed in the six years he studied music with Schoenberg, and his Piano Sonata, Opus 1 is one of the most remarkable and formidable “opus 1” works you will ever hear.
By far the work of Berg that is performed most often is not his first published work, but rather his last, the Violin Concerto of 1935. It is a piece he originally had no intention of ever writing. Berg favored vocal music, his big masterpieces being his two operas Wozzeck and Lulu. A strange coincidence of economics and inspiration came together to motivate Berg to compose the concerto. We are fortunate that he did write this masterpiece. It is a great example of the special qualities of Berg’s musical language, what George Perle calls “the conjunction of an emotional intensity that is typical of full blown romanticism, with the most rigorous and abstract formalism”.
The economic forces that came together to encourage Berg’s decision to write a violin concerto arrived in the form of an unexpected commission. The composer was approached in a timely manner by the violinist Louis Krasner to write a concerto. It was early in 1935, at a difficult financial time for Berg. The Nazi’s had banned performance of the works of Schoenberg and his students as being “degenerate” music. Berg had his monthly stipend from his publisher cut in half at this time, with future performances of his works being in serious doubt. Berg was already in debt to his publisher, as the stipend he had been receiving would likely be counted against royalties of future publications. Berg was in a bad place, monetarily speaking, and was in no shape to turn down a $1,500 commission for a concerto. He was reluctant, but accepted the offer.
Inspiration would arrive in the form of a tragedy. In April of 1935, the young Manon Gropius died of complications from polio, which she had been battling for about a year. Manon was the daughter of the architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler. There is a bit of a complicated family tree at work here. Alma Mahler was a young woman herself when she married Gustav Mahler, which turned out to be only the first chapter of a very active social life. Feeling unfulfilled in the restrictive nature of her first marriage to Mahler, Alma at one point had an affair with Walter Gropius. After Gustav died, Alma did not immediately seek out Gropius, instead pursuing a stormy relationship with the artist Oskar Kokoschka. It was after that two-year affair that Alma married Walter Gropius, a marriage that produced a beautiful daughter in Manon. (Alma’s marriage to Gropius would end in divorce as she had an affair with the poet and writer Franz Werfel, who became her third husband.) Alban Berg had approached Alma Mahler for permission to dedicate his Violin Concerto, “To the Memory of an Angel”, as a requiem for her daughter Manon.
Manon Gropius was only 17 years old when she first became ill, but was already attracting attention in the elite Viennese social circle of her parents. Alma may have lived a bit vicariously through the male attention her daughter commanded, much in the same manner Alma herself did in her youth. Of her daughter, Alma said “She was a fairy tale being, nobody could see her without loving her. She was the most beautiful human being in every sense. She combined all our good qualities. I have never known such a divine capacity for love, such creative power to express and to live it.” Manon was young, beautiful, innocent, and on the cusp of an adulthood full of potential. The deep emotions of her passing pushed Berg into setting aside the completion of his opera Lulu to compose the Violin Concerto. She is the Angel to whose memory the work is dedicated.
In the next couple of posts, I will explore the two movements of this powerful work. For now, here is the concerto in its entirety.