Violin Concerto (Berg)

concerto by Alban Berg

Alban Berg's Violin Concerto was written in 1935. It is one of the most famous concertos for the violin written in the 20th century. It is also probably Berg's best known and most often performed piece.

Composition of the work change

Berg was asked to write a violin concerto for the violinist Louis Krasner. At the time he was working hard on his opera Lulu, which took him several years to write. He stopped working on the opera for four months in the summer of 1935 so that he could write the violin concerto. He had probably already started the concerto when he heard the sad news of the death of a girl called Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler (who had once been Gustav Mahler's wife) and Walter Gropius. Berg decided to dedicate the concerto to Manon. He wrote at the top of the work: "To the memory of an angel."

When Berg died on 24 December 1935 he had not finished Lulu. It is possible he might have finished it if he had not spent time writing the violin concerto. The work was first performed after the composer's death, with Krasner playing the solo part, on 19 April 1936 in Barcelona.

The orchestra change

The instruments in the orchestra for the Violin Concerto are: 2 flutes (both doubling as piccolo), 2 oboes, (one doubling as a cor anglais), alto saxophone (doubling as a clarinet), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp piano and strings.

The music change

The concerto has two movements. Each movement is also divided into two sections. The first movement begins with an Andante in classical sonata form, followed by the Allegretto, a dance-like section. The second movement starts with an Allegro which uses a small rhythmic idea. The solo part is very difficult to play here. The orchestra plays very loudly and comes to a big climax. The work ends quietly. The first two sections are meant to be about life, the last two sections are about death.

Berg composed music using the twelve tone technique that he had learned from his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, but his music also sounds at times as if it is an ordinary major or minor key. A piece of music using twelve tone technique starts with twelve notes in which each of the 12 pitches (C, C sharp, D etc.) is used before it can be repeated.

Here is Berg's tone row in the Violin Concerto:

G, Bb, D, F#, A, C, E, G#, B, C#, Eb, F

This tone row does not sound as random as many tone rows are because parts of it sound quite tonal. This is because the first three notes are 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 together make up part of a whole tone scale. The first notes of each group of triads together form G, D, A and E, which are the open strings of the violin. The opening of the concerto makes this very obvious.

The last four notes of the row, rising whole tones, are also the first four notes of the chorale melody, Es ist genug (It Is Enough). Berg quotes this chorale in the last movement of the piece, using the harmony composed by Johann Sebastian Bach.

There is also another quotation in the piece: a Carinthian folk song. It is unusual to have a simple folk song in the middle of a concerto. Berg wanted it to describe Manon Gropius, a simple young girl.

Many people find twelve tone music hard to listen to, but this concerto is easier than most serial works to understand. This is partly because some of the music is tonal, but also because of the programme: the idea behind the music (Manon, life and death).