A Performance of Berg's Violin Concerto

by Matthew Raley Kyle Wiley Pickett, music director of the North State Symphony (NSS), has built large audiences while programming new music. The NSS has played pieces by regional composers such as CSU Chico's Russell Burnham and Simpson University’s Dan Pinkston, as well as Lowell Lieberman, who is nationally known. On November 10-11, the symphony performed Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935), a classic twelve-tone work, with NSS concertmaster Terrie Baune.

As a member of the first violin section, I was eager to experience the piece from the inside. I was also interested to gauge audience responses, and to consider what kind of spirituality Berg’s work expresses.

In February, 1935, the American violinist Louis Krasner appealed to Berg to produce a work that would show the beauty of twelve-tone music using a concerto form that audiences would readily appreciate.[1] Berg took the commission two months later after the death of 18-year-old Manon Gropius, the daughter of architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler, widow of the famous composer. Berg adored the girl, and composed the Concerto in less than four months around the theme of death and loss, inscribing the score, “To the Memory of an Angel.”

The piece rises to Krasner’s challenge in several ways.

It makes dramatic quotations of two tonal melodies, a Carinthian folk song and a chorale by Johann Sebastian Bach. The quotations give reference points for the listener to understand, and to some extent organize, the music he or she hears. They also have strong symbolism, the Carinthian tune conjuring the image of Manon dancing, and the chorale (“It is Enough” from Cantata No. 60) expressing the desire to leave this painful life for the bliss of the next.

The melodies, however, are not mere bones thrown to the audience. Berg assimilates their tonal harmonizations with his twelve-tone row, so that they emerge from his atonal world in a manner that is both musically organic and emotionally devastating. Bach’s tune in particular, with its unusual opening of three whole tones, is an ingenious development of the last pitch classes of Berg’s row.

In this way, Berg brings an audience into his concerto with feats of structural integrity, and his success was affirmed by the warm responses of audiences in Chico and Redding. Terrie earned the ovations not just with technical agility, but with the romantic sensibility she brought to the work. Her sure and beautiful sound production and her astounding intonation gave the performances a confidence that was essential to winning the audiences. She deployed her skills in advocacy of this piece when she might have played a more beloved concerto and garnered even louder applause. Terrie and Kyle are showing our region what it means to have high artistic skill and character.

A serial work has to win over orchestra players before it can reach listeners. Berg’s orchestration is important in this regard.

Even in great tonal works, players often struggle against a composer’s assignment of parts and dynamics, laboring to overcome thick textures or compete with stronger sections of the orchestra. So when a composer orchestrates fluently, the musicians’ work is rewarded. Players simply have to place their notes accurately to realize the composer’s design. They can then spend their time polishing instead of struggling.

Berg is one of these fluent orchestrators, especially considering the technical challenges of twelve-tone music. A basic problem is the equality of each pitch class. Lacking the tonal center of the diatonic scale, which orders seven pitch classes into a strong hierarchy, the row does not allow the listener a sonic home. A serial work’s organization is not even open to players without careful analysis. The main and secondary ideas are actually marked in the scores of serial pieces, so that players will have some understanding of their parts.

From the first bars, Berg’s elegant orchestration clarifies the Concerto’s motifs, structure, and harmony for players and listeners alike. He aligns timbres and overtones in a quintessentially Viennese manner, and also contrasts sections of the orchestra dramatically without drowning the weaker instruments.

This concerto should be recognized as an artistically important marker for modernist spirituality.

Behind the memorial to Manon Gropius lie Berg’s more complicated personal stories. He was a believer in numerology, avidly following the schemes astrological determinism that fascinated many Viennese artists, and encoding secret messages into his compositions.[2] The 10-bar phrase structure of the opening, for example, symbolizes Berg’s mistress Hannah Fuchs. In the concerto’s passages expressing death throes, the violin cries out Berg’s initials along with Hannah’s, filling the Bach chorale that follows with longing for eternal union, not with Christ, but with a lover. The Carinthian song has a double-meaning, recalling a daughter Berg fathered by a family servant as a young man but never knew. Berg lost two young girls.

Berg’s concerto is a mature work of post-Christian culture, a work already nearly 80 years old. In this modernism, the artifacts of Christian hope become malleable symbols, as all cultural artifacts must, expressing the most subjective longings, and consecrating erotic experience as holy ground. Part of what makes this work a classic is its perfect capture of modernist spirituality: the sexual self under the stars.

[1]Kyle Pickett, “Evening at Egan Talk” (unpublished, n.d.).

[2] Douglas Jarman, “Alban Berg, Wilhelm Fliess and the Secret Programme of the Violin Concerto,” The Musical Times 124, no. 1682 (April 1, 1983): 218–223.