Berg – Violin Concerto

by Max Derrickson

Alban Berg  (Born, 1885, in Vienna; Died, 1935, in Vienna)

Violin Concerto
I. Andante – Allegretto
II. Allegro – Adagio


Alban Berg was saved from a life of foppish mediocrity by his mentor, Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951).  Barely finishing the equivalent of high school, and wasting away as a government trainee in Vienna, Berg was pushed by his siblings into composition lessons with Schoenberg.  As their relationship developed over the next eight years, so did Berg’s talents.  His first great composition in 1922 was the opera Wozzeck, followed by his Lyric Suite in 1926 and a second opera, Lulu, was worked on for decades, but not completed, and then there is Berg’s final, great work, which he wrote in four frenzied months before his death at age 50, his Violin Concerto of 1935.

Berg’s Violin Concerto uses what was then an innovative concept: Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique.  Schoenberg’s technique came about in the early 1920’s and is based on first choosing a precise sequence of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, called a “row.”  The sequence should avoid repetition and octaves, and, in theory, should avoid any sense of chordal/tonal relationships to each other.  That row, then, replaces the traditional scale of tonal music.  The row could be turned upside down, played backwards, transposed, etc., or any of the above simultaneously.  Importantly, twelve-tone music was the new hope of expression in a modern, chaotic world, in the aftermath of a devastating and tragic World War and of anxieties and neuroses of the psychoanalyst’s couch.  By contrast with this historical world of chaos, the musical possibilities were endless, the principles simple, the organizing rules precise.

[. . .]

It’s not essential in twelve-tone music to play the tone row sequentially.  Berg’s tone row allows for a series of open fifths (the first, third, fifth and seventh notes, G, D, A, E – the open strings of the violin) to intone the opening bars of Part I, which recollects the life of Manon, the innocent, delightful child, in a gentle and unassuming open-string motif for the violin.  The quietness and tenderness that Berg evokes are incandescent. [. . .]

Sound effects, like muted brass, violins playing col legno (with the wood of their bows) create a kind of dreamscape.  Notice how the role of the tam-tam (the big gong) seems to aid the flow of the music by acting as a cadence: near the end, or at the beginning, of a section, the wash of the tam-tam drifts through the orchestra, and a new section begins.  This is one of Berg’s most ingenious techniques. Then, near the end of the first part, second movement, an old folk tune from the southern Carinth area of Austria emerges, shared by the horn, violin and trumpet (‘Ein Vogel auf’m Zwetschgenbaum’ [A bird on the plum tree]).   [. . .]

[. . .] Berg realized that the last four notes of his tone row, B, C#, Eb, F, match the exact same intervals of the beginning of a Bach Chorale, BWV 60, and he steers the Concerto into a short set of variations based on Bach’s work.  Serendipitously, Bach’s offering is “Es ist genung!  Herr wenn es Dir gefällt” (It is enough! Lord, if it pleases You).  Berg even harmonizes the tune with clarinets, briefly, exactly as Bach had done.  The literary underpinnings were exactly the sentiment of Berg’s own empathy:

It is enough!
Lord, if it pleases You
Relieve me of my yoke!

[. . .]