To the Memory of an Angel, Part II

twelve-tone-technique-for-music-composition-6-728When composing music using Schoenberg’s serial methods, there is a great deal of preparatory, or “precompositional” work to be done.  The twelve-tone technique has at its heart a pre-determined tone row.  In brief, a proper twelve-tone row is an ordering of the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale, with no single note repeated in the row.  This row may appear in its original (prime) form, in inversion, in retrograde, or in retrograde-inversion.  Each of those four forms may be further transposed to start on any of the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale.  Often a composer creates a handy matrix of all 48 possible transformations of the tone row in use, and works out some of the textures and “harmonies” that can be constructed using a particular row. In practice, most of the tone rows used in composing music are chosen to avoid obvious structures that imply tonality.

This is where the tone row of Berg’s Violin Concerto is not very typical.  The prime ordering of pitches that Alban uses is G, B♭, D, F♯, A, C, E, G♯, B, C♯, E♭, F.  In the first nine notes, there are two minor triads and two major triads outlined, and the last four notes encompass a four note fragment of a whole-tone scale.  This is not typical, or at least not the way I practiced exercises in using the twelve-tone technique when I was in school.  This particular row allows Berg the capability to create both tonal AND atonal textures in the concerto.  My mentor would have said (and I think SH did say) that this is a lot of extra work to write a simple triad.  Alban Berg has chosen this row with the goal of incorporating two pre-existing musical ideas into the fabric of his concerto, namely a folk song and a Bach chorale.  This is an amazing challenge to undertake, but Berg was a man of the theater and wanted to make reference to the emotions implied by these two musical quotations.

Manon Gropius
Manon Gropius

The Berg Violin Concerto is written in two large parts, each containing two movements that are played without pause.  The first large part contains the Andante movement (Ia) and the Allegretto movement (Ib).  These two movements are a portrait of Manon Gropius in life, before her illness.  The Andante presents an Angelic vision of an innocent girl, in the form of a prelude in three parts (A-B-A) with an introduction.  The musical material of the introduction is a motivic arpeggio pattern that alludes to the open strings of the violin.  The texture of the orchestration, with clarinets, harp and solo violin is a sonority that Berg returns to at several points in the concerto.  The whole first half of the concerto is a stroke of genius by Berg.  It is tempting in a requiem/memorial piece about tragic loss to write music that is all about loss, mourning, rage, pain, and the struggle against death.  Berg gets to all of that emotional territory in the second half of the piece, but it becomes all the more poignant at that time because of the vision of beauty he has provided in the first half.  He is giving us a feel for the purity and beauty in this young child, so we can better understand the pain of her loss expressed later in the work.

Alban Berg
Alban Berg

The second movement is the Allegretto section of the first half of the concerto.  It is a Scherzo, a dance movement, that is meant to capture the playful moods of youth.  When Berg’s friend and biographer Willi Reich was asked to write a short  program for the concerto, he described this section as one that “captures the vision of the lovely girl in a graceful dance which alternates between a delicate and dreamy character and the rustic character of a folk tune”.  The form of the movement includes the scherzo, two trios, a waltz and a long quote of a Carinthian folk song.  This folk song is a moment of simplicity on the surface, but closer examination reveals something of a mystery.  There are no accidents in the music of Alban Berg, and this clear reference to something outside of the concerto demands a programmatic interpretation.

The name of the folk song in question is “Ein Vogel auf’m Zwetschgenbaum”.  When we meet the Bach chorale included in the second half of the concerto, we will learn that Berg wrote out the words to the chorale in the score.  He does not do the same thing here in the first half for this folk song.  The words are actually a little bawdy for inclusion in a work portraying the innocent young Manon Gropius.  In English translation:

A bird on the plum tree has wakened me,
Otherwise I would have overslept in Mizzi’s bed,
If everybody wants a rich and handsome girl,
Where ought the devil take the ugly one?
The girl is Catholic and I am Protestant,
She will surely put away the rosary in bed!

The scrutinization of this musical “found object” in the mix of the concerto has led most to conclude there is something of a “secret” autobiographical programme at work in the Violin Concerto, one running parallel to the programme of memorial for Manon Gropius.  Berg was a great one for secret programmes, as the world learned in detail in 1976-77 when a personally annotated score of his Lyric Suite surfaced.  Berg hid inside the music of the Lyric Suite all sorts of numerological and alphabetical references to his mistress Hanna Fuchs.  He annotated a copy of the score pointing these out, and gave it to Fuchs as a tribute to their love.  This score only came to light decades later after the passing of the heirs of Fuchs’ estate.  Is something similar at work here in the Violin Concerto, with the inclusion of this decidedly uninnocent folk song?

Musicologist Douglas Jarman has put forward the idea that there is an autobiographical programme present in the concerto.  Berg was always in poor health, and the concerto can be seen as his own requiem as well as one for Manon Gropius.  Jarman points out that the “Mizzi” in the words of the folk song may be Berg referring to Marie “Mizzi” Scheuchl, the Berg household servant with whom he fathered a child when he was 17 years old.  This is reinforced by a marking of “amoroso” in the score, over a phrase of the folk song. It is a musical confession of sorts, and placed here near the end of the concerto’s portrayal of youth and innocence, much like his early entry into parenthood was the end of Berg’s own youth.  There is no annotated score of the Violin Concerto to cement this interpretation, like the score of the Lyric suite.  It does seem like the most plausible explanation available, and one that I lean toward accepting until research proves otherwise.

Here is the first half of the Berg Violin Concerto.  The Andante starts right at the beginning of the video, with the Allegretto movement starting without pause at 3:56.  The Carinthian folk song is heard at 8:44, if you are inclined to try to sing along.

Alban Berg, Violin Concerto (1935), Part I


4 thoughts on “To the Memory of an Angel, Part II

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  1. Thanks for this. Fascinating and illuminating. I was just reading in one of his interviews – believe it or not – that Berg’s Violin Concerto was one of Frank Zappa’s favourite pieces. So it’s great timing to check it out here!

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