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 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

 

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall

imageThis is a picture of my 11 month old grandson, who is learning to stand and walk on his own.  Here he has discovered his mother’s full length mirror, and like most toddlers his age is testing to see if it is food by putting it in his mouth.  Mirror images and symmetry are fascinating to the human mind at all ages.  Babies see themselves in the mirror for the first time and are spellbound.  Reflections in still water make some of the most beautiful photographic images.  Music also has elements of symmetry, inversion and imitation that create unity in a piece.  One of the composers that exploits these relationships to their fullest is Anton Webern.

Webern the person was not a very likeable dude.  Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, called him an “unashamed Hitler enthusiast”.  It is true that Anton supported the ideas of fascism and was an elitist.  He wasn’t writing music for the masses, rather he was writing for some special Über-audience refined enough to understand it.  His authoritarian tendencies and potential Nazi sympathies suffered an ironic bite in the proverbial buttocks when his music was denounced in Nazi Germany as “degenerate art”.  His works were banned from performance in Germany in 1938.

Fortunately we can just deal with Webern the composer and his music.  (I don’t think I would want him as a dinner guest.)  Webern was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, and together with Alban Berg the three of them are referred to as the “Second Viennese School”.   Webern’s approach to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method of composition was the most influential to later generations.  Composers like Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono and Karlheinz Stockhausen all poured over Webern’s works and extended the ideas found in them. Stravinsky even came to admire these techniques late in his life.  I don’t think you could go to a music school in the 1950’s, 60’s or 70’s without becoming fluent in twelve-tone serialism.

One of the pieces I have spent hours studying is Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21 of 1928.  This is a brief work of about 10 minutes in two movements.  Most of Webern’s music is short in length, but packed full of meaning.  If a Brahms symphony is a fine red wine,  the music of Webern is 190 proof distilled grain alcohol.  There are no extraneous notes, no insignificant gestures.  It is so concentrated that no one could really comprehend everything about it without repeated listening.  Spend 10 minutes listening to it here, and be brave enough to stick it out.

Webern Symphony, Opus 21, 1928

On first hearing, the Symphony, Op. 21 of Webern seems like nothing you have ever heard before.  One is tempted to think my cat could make the same noise by walking across the keyboard.  I can assure you that there is nothing random in the works of Webern.  Part of the obstacle to absorbing this music is the fact that it is “atonal”, that is to say it does not function in the familiar system of tonality that surrounds us in most music we hear.  There are no keys or modulations, no goal oriented harmony.  Pitches are organized in an entirely different way.  In twelve-tone music, all twelve pitches of the piano keyboard are circulating constantly.  You lose a sense of consonance and dissonance, of tension and release familiar in tonal music.  I can, however, hear some sort of order.  I can sense a deep system of organization here, even if I cannot articulate exactly what it is on the first listen.  Go back and listen to it again.  Be fearless.

The first movement is organized in something analogous to Sonata form, with an exposition, development and recapitulation. There are actually two cannons happening simultaneously in the exposition, but it is very difficult to hear them because of the pointillistic orchestration.  What is meant by pointillism here is that a melodic line is broken up among different instruments.  One note is given to a french horn, the next to a harp, the next two notes to a cello.  With four different melodic lines going on at the same time, and all of them broken into different instruments  the cannons are well hidden.

The second movement is a theme and variations.  The pitch structure of each variation is a palindrome, with the pitches of the first half of the variation coming in reverse order in the second half.  The theme and each variation are very short, and go by very fast, especially if your ears are still trying to get their bearings. The whole second movement is also retrograde symmetrical around its middle in the fourth variation. The level of organization is astounding.  I beg you, dare you, implore you to give the work a third listen.  Even if it isn’t starting to grow on you, you surely can tell that this is highly structured stuff.

Fractal image

Fractal image

This is music that is beautiful the way a crystal is beautiful, or the way a mathematical equation is beautiful.  It is beautiful the way Bobby Fischer’s Queen’s Gambit in the sixth game of the 1972 World Chess championship was beautiful. It reminds me of the images generated by mathematical fractals. There are symmetries all over the place in the music.  Palindromes, mirror cannons, inversional symmetries,  retrograde symmetries all come together to make a musical house of mirrors.  No matter how much time I spend studying the score, I find new levels of reorganization every time I look.

My wife says this is music that is much more fun to analyze than it is to listen to, and she may have a point.  I first came to listen to Anton Webern’s music because I was told it was important.  I stuck around for a second listen because I heard some sense of organization that was not random noise and I wanted to figure it out.  I keep coming back to it because I feel like that baby looking in the mirror for the first time when I unlock a new secret of this music.  Maybe I should follow my grandson’s lead and stick the score in my mouth to see if it is food.