To the Memory of an Angel, Part III

To the Memory of an Angel, Part III

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.

Manon Gropius

Manon Gropius

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.”

Alban Berg

Alban Berg

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.

Anton Webern

Anton Webern

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!

Alban Berg, Violin Concerto (1935), Part II

To the Memory of an Angel, Part II

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


To the Memory of an Angel, Part I

To the Memory of an Angel, Part I

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

Alban Berg

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.

 

Alban Berg, Piano Sonata, Opus 1.

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.

Manon Gropius

Manon Gropius

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.

Alban Berg, Violin Concerto 1935