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


A Snapshot of 1929

A Snapshot of 1929

1929 Model A Ford

1929 Model A Ford

The twentieth century in music brought in a modern world that was fragmented in many directions at once.  Thanks to recording technology, it was a musical world that was preserved for us to still hear today.  Before the twentieth century, the only ways to preserve music was to write it down as best as possible, or by keeping alive an aural tradition by teaching the next generation to sing the same songs.  With the invention of sound recording, we can actually hear all of the nuances of musical performance as it existed at that moment in time.  This was a huge evolutionary leap, and the sounds of music grew in a multitude of ways.

Let’s take the year 1929 as an example, and listen to a selection of things that could be heard at that time.  One of the first selections that comes to my mind when you mention the year 1929, is the great Duke Ellington’s time at the Cotton Club in Harlem.  This stint was early in Duke’s career, and lasted only a few years.  This is very artful music of the big band era.  Here is a recording with three tunes, “Jungle Nights in Harlem”, “Saratoga Swing”, and “Haunted Nights”

Duke Ellington’s Cotton Club Orchestra, 1929

Also in jazz, the great Louis Armstrong was growing in importance as a singer, as well as a trumpeter.  1929 saw Satchmo record “When You’re Smiling” for the first of several times in his career.  The double entendre of the record for me is that Pops himself had a famous smile, and his singing always seems to inspire a grin for those who listen to him.

Louis Armstrong, “When You’re Smiling”

Stock CrashThe Stock Market Crash of 1929 had lots of people singing the blues, continuing for many years into the Great Depression.  In the Mississippi Delta, lots of blues singers were being recorded, and those records sold throughout the American South.  One of the most popular blues records that year was “That Crawlin Baby Blues” by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Blind Lemon Jefferson, “That Crawlin Baby Blues”

One of the most influential musicians of the day was the blues and folk singer Charlie Patton.  Just a few years ago, the great Bob Dylan released a song paying tribute to Patton.  Patton had to be one of the more organized musicians of his day. Instead of just wandering around the Mississippi Delta looking for places to play, he actually had scheduled gigs from place to place.  His recordings are more essential listening from the Delta.

Charlie Patton, “High Water Everywhere”

Elsewhere in the world, Arnold Schoenberg was causing a stir by throwing out tonality and writing music using his twelve-tone system.  Schoenberg was in full serial dodecaphonic mode in 1929 when he wrote the Piano Piece Opus 33a.  Arnold had turned Vienna and the rest of the classical music world on its ear by “emancipating the dissonance” and writing music that did not center around one home note.  At first listen, this may sound like chaos, but it is highly ordered music around a structure that keeps all twelve tones of the chromatic scale circulating all the time.  I love this video, because of the way it demonstrates the critical nature of using multiple colors of highlighters to analyze Schoenberg’s music.

Arnold Schoenberg, Piano Piece Op 33a

In Russia, a young Dmitri Shostakovich was a rising star in the Russian musical world.  He hadn’t yet felt the full oppressive force of the Stalinist dictatorship that would haunt his whole existence.  His opera, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, wouldn’t get him in hot water with the Party for another 5 years.  In 1929, Dimitri was finishing his third Symphony, with a vocal finale either celebrating or satirizing the revolution.  (It’s sometimes hard to tell with Shostakovich).

Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 3, Opus 20.  “The First of May”

Heading back to where we started, in New York City, the Kern and Hammerstein musical “Show Boat” was in its second year on Broadway.  This was near the birth of a whole new genre, the Broadway musical, something different than opera or light operetta.  It is an entirely different category of musical theatre that has reached millions of people.   One of the biggest hit tunes of “Show Boat” is “Ol Man River”

Kern and Hammerstein, Show Boat, “Ol Man River”

Broadway_Melody_posterIn the world of motion pictures, both sound and technicolor were now available for films, ending the career of more than one silent movie star.  1929 was near the beginning of the “Golden Age of Hollywood”, where the major studio system dominated the production of movies.  The Academy Award for Best Picture in 1929 went to “The Broadway Melody”, the first time the award was given to a sound movie.  One of the popular tunes to come out of that movie was “You Were Meant For Me”

The Broadway Melody, “Your Were Meant For Me”

This has been just a handful of things that could be heard around the world in 1929.  The selection of examples is of course weighted to the stuff I am familiar with, but that is my privilege because it’s my blog.  Please feel free to share your favorite examples of music from 1929 by posting your comments.

The Color of Chords

The Color of Chords

Technically, winter doesn’t officially begin until December 21.  Although this is still autumn, the world outside my window is grey and dreary.  The burst of colors brought on by changing leaves left us weeks ago.  The blisters on my thumb from raking leaves have already healed.  Daylight is short, the sky is overcast, and the only bright colors to be found are in Christmas lights that twinkle on my neighbor’s porch.


Arnold Schoenberg

Sometimes colors are everything.  One musical example can be found in Arnold Schoenberg’s third piece in Five Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 16.  Now please, don’t everyone start running away just because I mentioned the name Schoenberg.  He was an alright guy, a bit stubborn at times, but shuttering in your seat at the thought of composing music with twelve tones isn’t going to do anyone any good.  Besides, Opus 16 was published in 1909, a good 12 years or so before the first dodecaphonic compositions.  Yes, the Five Pieces of Opus 16 are all atonal, but number 3 is only 3 minutes long.  I promise it won’t kill you.  Let’s give it a try, shall we?

Early_Morning_Lake_ViaredWhen Arnold submitted his Opus 16 pieces to the publisher, they asked for some descriptive titles.  Schoenberg reluctantly provided them with titles, but from this we know that they were slapped on after the music was composed.  The third piece was given the title “Farben” which is the German word for colours.  This is an especially appropriate title, as the music is all about instrumental tone color.  Melody, motives, harmonic movement all are not matters emphasized by Schoenberg in this short piece.  Another name that was attached to this work was “Summer Morning by a Lake”.  I’m not completely sure where this came from, or if Schoenberg was really thinking about a lakeside sunrise when he composed the music.  Living in Michigan and spending a few mornings in a cabin on a lake with the sun rising, I can see where this image got attached to this music.  If it helps you enjoy, then by all means, think about a lake.

This piece is often used as an example when talking about “Klangfarbenmelodie”, which translates as a melody of tone colours (timbres).  Truly, the orchestration is the key element and where much of the interest in this music lies.  It actually puzzles me that Schoenberg’s brilliant student, Anton Webern, made a piano reduction of this piece.  Reducing all of the instrumental colors to simply a piano sound robs the music of the main point.  Webern had to realize this when he was making the piano reduction.

The music starts with a five voice chord, using the notes C-G#-B-E-A.  This harmony is static for the first three measures.  The only change is found in instrumentation, with some orchestra instruments dropping out and new ones taking their place.  This changes the balance of the chord tones and the instrumental colour that we hear.  The ultimate “goal” of the harmony is to move this chord one half-step (semitone) lower.  Old Arnie doesn’t just go directly there.  He has a much more interesting way of kaleidoscoping us to this lower chord.   He takes one musical voice and moves it up a half-step and then down a whole step.  Then the next voice follows the same pattern, up and then down.  This repeats until all of the voices have completed the voyage down one half step.  This process creates a number of different chords and note combinations as all of the voices move through this pattern.

The end result of this canon of harmonic voices and changing of instrumental timbres is a surprisingly effective 3-4 minutes of music.  There are other little elements that stand out like “raisins in a tapioca pudding” as John Rahn writes.  There is even a little rhythmic motive that Schoenberg himself labeled the “leaping trout” motive.  You will surely know it when you hear it.

Arnold Schoenberg, Five Pieces for Orchestra Opus 16, No. 3 “Farben”

Speaking of colors, I recently attended a party at a local franchise of “Painting With A Twist”.  I’ve never been much of a painter, but this was instructor led and I sort of faked my way through things.  Here is my version of what they called “Michigan Sunrise”