“I have never worked harder in my life.”
-Alban Berg, about composing his Violin Concerto
Berg worked at a furious pace in composing his Violin Concerto, and the entire piece was finished in just a few months. He drove himself to keep working, ignoring his own health, his own pains, and at times even ignoring food. He seemed to be motivated to finish the work in time for Alma Mahler’s birthday in August of 1935. Berg also was driven by a fear of his own death from chronically poor health. When his wife pleaded with him to take a break from his labors, he replied “I must continue. I cannot stop, I do not have time.” Unfortunately, this fear was well founded, as Berg himself died from septicemia in December 1935.
The second half of the Violin Concerto is also in two movements, played without pause. Where the first half portrays an angelic vision of Manon, and the playful moods of youth, the second half is a vision of her struggle with illness and eventual release in death. The Allegro section (IIa) opens the second half of the concerto with a shriek, a musical scream, and portrays Manon’s losing battle with illness. Willi Reich wrote of the Allegro movement,
“A wild orchestra cry introduces the second main part, which begins as a free and stormy cadenza. The demonic action moves irresistibly towards catastrophe, interrupted once – briefly – by a point of rest. Groans and strident cries for help are heard in the orchestra, choked off by the suffocating rhythmic pressure of destruction. Finally over a long pedal point – gradual collapse.”
Manon Gropius was ill for approximately a year before her death. She suffered a great deal of misery, and the contrast between Manon as a healthy teenager, and Manon as a bedridden patient is as stark as the contrast between the two halves of the Berg Violin Concerto. During the composition of the concerto, Berg was also enduring a bout of painfully poor health. His troubles with asthma were problematic, a toothache was giving him fits, and he was suffering from an abscess at the base of his spine from a wasp sting. Abscesses were particularly painful in an age of healthcare before antibiotics, and this infected lesion returned despite repeated lancing. Berg did not have to imagine the painfulness of ill-health, he knew this from firsthand experience. This made his ability to express this kind of suffering in music even greater.
Manon did not win her battle with her illness, and the final Adagio movement (IIb) portrays her release from suffering through death. The final section of the Violin concerto includes the Bach Chorale “Es ist genug!”, from a Bach Cantata BWV60. Berg wrote the words of the chorale right into his manuscript of the score. The words in English translation are:
It is enough!
Lord, when it pleases Thee,
Relieve me of my yoke!
My Jesus comes:
So goodnight now, O world!
I’m going to my Heavenly home.
I’ll surely journey there in peace,
My great distress will stay below.
It is enough.
It is enough.
The final Adagio section contains a statement of the Chorale, and two musical variations. It is a remarkable accomplishment to seamlessly incorporate this fundamentally tonal musical quotation into a piece composed by atonal methods. One of the brilliant things Berg has done is to fashion his tone row in such a way that the last four notes of the row will transpose to be the opening of the chorale. We have unconsciously been hearing these four notes with every statement of the row in the fabric of the Concerto. These are seeds that Alban Berg planted in the very opening of the work, that are here blossoming and creating musical unity. Simply a stroke of genius.
Following the two chorale variations, there is a brief return to the folk song quoted in the first half of the concerto. Here, it seems like a look back to happier, healthier times. The closing coda of the movement recalls some of the musical material from the introduction of the first half. These two recollections from the earlier part of the work create a bit of an arch form, ending the work near the place it began. This angelic young girl has returned to heaven.
The Violin Concerto was premiered on April 19, 1936 in Barcelona with Louis Krasner playing the solo violin and Hermann Scherchen conducting. Originally Anton Webern was in rehearsals to conduct the premiere of the concerto composed by his close friend and fellow Schoenberg student. Webern was originally overcome with his emotional involvement with the score, and rehearsals with the orchestra broke down. It was simply too soon after the death of his friend. Scherchen stepped in, having some experience with the music of Berg, and his contribution allowed the premiere to take place as scheduled. Anton Webern pulled himself together and redeemed himself in conducting the Violin Concerto at its second performance on May 1, 1936, in the city of London. Louis Krasner was again the soloist, in the Concerto he commissioned.
Listening to the Berg Violin Concerto was the experience that convinced me to look closer at atonal music composed with Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. Dodecaphonic music is a challenge to the ear, with each piece creating its own musical world from scratch. On first hearing, I was ready to write off atonal music as alien and irrelevant to the human experience. Alban Berg convinced me otherwise with this piece. Since my first hearing, it has been a favorite staple of my music collection, and has been a gateway to the operas of Alban Berg, as well as the music of Webern and Schoenberg. I would encourage anyone new to the piece to give it several listenings, and give your ears a chance to acclimate to the sounds. I assure you it is worth the effort!