Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Concerto Guide: Alban Berg, Violin Concerto

There are just a few concert works for orchestra that have an element of dramatic choreography. The most famous is Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 45 that I have posted about here. Among many unusual musical elements in the score is the added stage direction at the end that instructs each musician, as his part ends (the last section, one by one, eliminates all the players and ends with just two violins) to blow out the candle on his music stand and steal offstage. Read my post for the details. The only other piece that I can think of that does something similar is the Violin Concerto by Berg. But this aspect is largely unknown.

Let me start at the beginning. According to Wikipedia, Berg was commissioned to write this concerto by Louis Krasner but he didn't start on it for some months because he was writing the opera Lulu. When the daughter of Alma and Walter Gropius, Manon Gropius, tragically died at age 18 of polio, he set aside the opera and began to write the Violin Concerto as a homage to her. It was completed in August 1935 and was Berg's last completed composition. He died four months later of blood poisoning.

The Violin Concerto is a very rich and complex piece that has attracted criticism for that very reason. The complexities come both from the inspiration for the piece, which led Berg to attempt to
translate the young girl’s characteristics into musical characters (Berg, from a letter to Willi Reich)
There are also several elements that are problematic for a serial composer. Here is the row of the piece:

Normally, one of the functions of a row is to avoid tonal references, but this one strongly suggests them. As Wikipedia notes:
the first three notes of the row make up a G minor triad; notes three to five are a D major triad; notes five to seven are an A minor triad; notes seven to nine are an E major triad; and the last four notes (B, C♯, E♭, F) and the first (G) together make up part of a whole tone scale.
While the piece is certainly not tonal in a very definite way, tonality seems to hover over it and there are several sections that do have the feeling of a tonal center, especially the end that has the strong feeling of a cadence in B flat:

Two other elements that appear are the interweaving of a Carinthian folk tune into the second part of the last movement:

Finally, also in the second part of the last movement, Berg quotes and does variations on the Bach chorale "Es ist genug" from Cantata 60:

The interesting thing to note here is that the first four notes of the chorale melody are a whole-tone scale, which overlaps with the last four notes of Berg's row.

So, from the point of view of serial theory, there are all sorts of problems with this piece! But for the same reasons, it is a favorite with audiences.

The music is enormously complex and in this post all I can do is give a brief introduction. But I want to go back to that dramatic element I mentioned before. Towards the end of the piece there is a climactic passage in which the solo violin begins a plaint (Klagegesang) in which it is joined by another violin, then the rest, then the violas and so on until all the strings are united in this melody before separating into their individual parts. Here is how the beginning of that section looks in the score:

Click to enlarge

This section has been described (in the liner notes to the Pinchas Zukerman recording conducted by Pierre Boulez) as follows:
Employing quasi- dramatic elements, Berg in the score instructs the soloist to take over the leadership of the violins and violas “audibly and visibly.” These are to join him gradually, only to break away from him again “in just a demonstrative a manner.”
I wrote a paper on this in graduate school that, alas, I no longer have. But my recollection was that a better interpretation of Berg's instructions are that the solo violinist enjoins the other strings to join in with him by gesturing for them to stand up as they play the plaint (with the exception of the cellos, of course. Here is the instruction from the score blown up:

Click to enlarge
Unfortunately, I can't make out exactly what the German says, so I am relying on my memory of the research I did for the paper. In the clip I am going to put up of a performance of the work, the soloist steps back, aligning himself with the section violins, which is, I think, the opposite of what Berg is asking for: they are to join him "audibly and visibly". That is, they join in with what he is playing and they stand up with him. This is never done, at least not that I have seen when I have seen this piece performed live. Here is a performance from the 2012 Proms with Frank-Peter Zimmerman, violin and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, Daniele Gatti, conductor:

The section that I have been talking about, with the instruction from Berg about the strings joining together in the plaint, comes at the 20:24 mark in the clip. As you can see, the soloist steps back and the concertmaster joins him in the melody followed by the other strings.

There are yet more complexities suggested by this section that I also explored in my (lost) paper. Adolf Hitler had come to power in 1933 and the Anschluss or annexation of Austria was looming (it took place in March 1938). Berg's teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, a Jew, had already emigrated to the US and had just won a teaching position in California. In correspondence with him Berg referred to people of like mind joining together to resist the Nazi takeover. Perhaps at that moment in time, that seemed like a possibility. In any case, I'm afraid I can't substantiate any of this as I no longer have my research materials. So feel free to ignore the suggestion!


Rickard Dahl said...

Well, I still prefer Schoenberg's concertos. Sure, this is more "tonal" but I think I enjoy it less because of the themes and the overall orchestration, structure etc.

Bryan Townsend said...

Have you listened to both concertos enough times for them to become familiar?