Columbus Symphony Presents Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto

Alban Berg (1885-1935)(Photo: Wikipedia)
Alban Berg (1885-1935)(Photo: Wikipedia)

The Columbus Symphony ends this season’s Classical Series concerts this Friday and Saturday in the Ohio Theatre. Vadim Gluzman is the violin soloist. The Ohio State University Chorale will sing Bach and Brahms. Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts. This concert will be broadcast on Classical 101 on Sunday, May 19 at 1 pm.

If you think of Puccini or Richard Strauss as modern music, you are going to be blown away by this weekend’s Columbus Symphony concerts. The final classical series concerts of the season send us out with a bang with Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique. The first half of the program includes the Violin Concerto by Alban Berg.

I remember years ago an Opera Columbus board member called me and was very concerned that the opera was about to produce something very modern, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. For the record Susannah, written in 1955, is a wonderful opera about as modern as the Methodist Hymnal. But the point was it was written in 1955! Oh no!

Berg’s Concerto from 1935 would give this worthy a heart attack.  It may not have sounded modern 75 years ago. The world had accepted Schoenberg and 12 tone music to the extent they would ever be accepted. But to hear it today is to cry: Dissonant! No tunes!

I’m here to tell you there are tunes aplenty. Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto is a work of great beauty. All of it is based on a tone row, a system devised by Berg’s teacher, Schoenberg. The work can only contain 12 notes but they may be used backwards, upside down, even sideways as long as the music proceeds with these notes. That’s the “12 tone system”. Berg wrote a lot, not all, of his music in this way. His opera Wozzeck in 1925 is the genre’s hit, followed closely by his other opera, Lulu.

Berg was tired and ill when in early 1935 he was commissioned by the American violinist Louis Krasner for a new concerto. He asked Krasner to improvise on the violin for hours as Berg sat and pondered and began to compose. The work went relatively quickly and was nearly complete when Berg changed course.

Manon Gropius died on April 13, 1935. She was the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius, a beautiful 18-year-old much loved by Berg. He changed the title of Mr. Krasner’s concerto to ‘In memory of an angel,’ and then he turned to Bach. The chorale Es ist genug from the Cantata 60 was incorporated into the finale of the two movement concerto. We don’t know why he chose this of all the Bach Chorales (“It is enough”) or what if any association it had with Manon Gropius. We know from his letters that Berg’s grief was profound.

One more point. Berg married Helene Nahowski in 1911. Ten years later he met Hanna Fuchs-Robettin and carried on a clandestine affair with her for the rest of his life. The tone row of the violin concerto ends with the same four notes that begin the aforementioned Bach Chorale. The first of these notes is B. B in German is written as H. The last is F. HF. Hanna Fuchs.

The Violin Concerto features a lengthy cadenza in the second movement. The chorale is snuck in, first by the clarinets toward the end. It is never blazingly obvious, but it is there.

It’s worth noting that Berg intended to write this as ‘pure music,’ with no program and never publicly changed his mind. We do know that he was shattered by the young daughter of friends in the spring on 1935.

The first part of the work may reflect Manon Gropius’s struggle with polio which took her life. There is no chaos in this piece. It sounds unstructured but on further listening it is very tightly set. It’s worth listening just to pick out the chorale and variations in the last 10 minutes.

Berg grew weaker through 1935. Abscesses were poisoning his blood stream and he died on Christmas Eve of that year at 50. The Violin Concerto was premiered in Spain the following year by Louis Krasner, who then played it in Vienna and London and on to fame. It added enormously to the fame Berg had earned 10 years earlier with Wozzeck.

Here’s a postscript. Helene Berg outlived her husband by 40 years. Alban had left his opera Lulu incomplete. For years it was performed without the sketched out third act. Frau Berg refused access to her late husband’s notes. She said Alban came to her often and told her to withhold the materials. But in fact, in her later years she discovered both the long affair with Hannah Fuchs, and the daughter Berg had fathered with yet another woman. Refusing Alban Beg the completion of his final masterpiece may have been a “Gotcha!”

Lulu was first performed complete in 1979, three years after Helene’s death.