The Alban Berg Violin Concerto is one of my absolute favorites. I first studied it in 1992, reading every article about it that I could find in the library. I had the privilege of studying it both with Pierre Boulez and with Richard Hoffman, who knew Berg personally and is the last living student of Schoenberg (Berg's teacher) from Schoenberg's Vienna circle. I performed it first in 1997 with the Haddonfield (NJ) Symphony and Maestro Daniel Hege, and I have performed it many more times since.
The Berg Violin Concerto is not only very intense and beautiful, but it is also an extremely personal work by the composer. Some information about the history of the piece and its meaning may aid you in your listening experience.
The Austrian composer Alban Berg (1885-1935) composed his violin concerto in 1935 in a summer house just a few miles from where Brahms had written his glorious violin concerto many years earlier. The inspiration for the piece came from the death of a young woman to whom he was very close, Manon Gropius. Manon was the daughter of Berg's friend Alma Mahler (Gustav's widow) and her husband, Walter Gropius, the famous architect. Gropius had died shortly after Manon's birth. Manon was 18 when she died of poliomyelitis, and Berg titled his concerto for her, "To the memory of an angel."
The concerto is written in two parts, each with two continuous movements. Part One (movements 1 and 2) describes the beautiful young girl. The first movement, often tender, shows her as charming and graceful, and it ends with musical sighs. The second movement alternates different sections of music, depicting her in a variety of a young girl's moods: the teasing, lightly flirtatious scherzando; the elegant, waltz-like wienerish; the earthy rustico; and the unrestrained vivacity of "Trio 1." Towards the end of the movement, we hear a Carinthian melody, a yodelling folksong, which the solo violin plays in duet with the french horn.
Part Two (movements 3 and 4) is much darker. It opens with the sounds of suffering, agony, and torment. Soon, an inexorable death-march rhythm takes over and continues until the end of the movement, when we hear the girl's screams for help. The fourth movement is the aftermath of the catastrophe. It begins with a quote from a Bach Chorale, with the wind section imitating a church organ. Then Berg introduces the lament (Klagegesang), an extended section where first one violin, then two, and finally the entire violin section joins the soloist in grieving. As the movement ends, we hear the old Carinthian folksong as though from a distance, and then peace and transfiguration at last.
Such is the official story of the Berg Violin Concerto. However, this extraordinary piece exists in multiple layers. Berg was a strong believer in numerology and a devotee of the biologist Wilhelm Fliess. Fliess believed in certain special numbers such as "23" for men and "28" for women. Berg, therefore, identified himself with the number 23, and believed that it was no coincidence that his first asthma attack had occurred on July 23, 1908, at the age of 23. After Berg's death (on December 23), researchers found a score to his Lyric Suite in which he had written many notes in the margins. These notes showed how he had carefully used certain numbers of measures in certain sections to add up to various multiples of 23, 28, and 10, the number he associated with his mistress, Hanna Fuchs. (We still don't know why Hanna was "10.") His note pitches also had extra meaning. He combined his own initials, AB, with his mistress's initials, HF (H is German for the note Bb), and he made sure that these notes appeared at key moments in the Lyric Suite. After this discovery, the musicologists had a clever idea. They took the formulas found in the Lyric Suite and applied them to the Violin Concerto! 10s, 23s, and ABHFs turned up far too frequently to be anything less than a careful plan.
You might be thinking to yourself that this academically interesting information doesn't really enhance the musical experience for listeners. But all of these secret symbols led people to look closer at the story running through the Violin Concerto. If Berg was hiding 10s and 23s, what else was he hiding?
Remember that yodelling Carinthian folktune which occurs prominently in both Parts? Berg was careful to cover any traces of the original source of the melody, but researchers unearthed it, and it turned out to have some pretty risque lyrics. "A bird on a plum tree has wakened me, Otherwise I would have overslept in Mizzi's bed. If everyone wants a rich and handsome girl, Where ought the devil take the ugly one? The girl is Catholic and I am Protestant. She will surely put away the rosary in bed!" Berg's pet name for Manon Gropius was "Mutzi," meaning "beautiful." Musicologists initially reasoned that Berg had suppressed these lyrics because they were inappropriate for the innocent Manon. As it turned out, Berg tried to hide the source of the song because it was all too revealing of a different young girl. When Berg was 17, he had fathered a child with a girl named Marie Scheuchl who worked in the kitchen of his family's Carinthian vacation home. Because of social custom, he was never able to have a relationship with his illegitimate daughter, Albine. Marie's nickname? Mitzi! Suddenly, we discover that the first part of the concerto is simultaneously remembering and describing Manon and another young girl from long ago. Furthermore, Berg's affection for Alma Mahler's daughter undoubtedly existed to fill the void left by his own.
The Violin Concerto turned out to be the last work that Berg ever composed. He died of a bee sting before ever hearing the premiere. Thus, the first performance of the concerto, although intended as a requiem for Manon Gropius, turned out to be a requiem for Berg himself. Did he have a premonition of his death that affected the writing of the dramatic second part of the concerto? The facts are compelling. "AB"s and "23"s occur at key moments during the unfolding of the tragedy in the third movement. For example, the death-march begins at the 23rd measure. The Bach Chorale of movement four is especially interesting. It comes from Bach's Cantata #60 of 1732, Dialogue between Fear and Hope. "It is enough! Lord, when it pleases Thee, Relieve me of my yoke! My Jesus comes: So goodnight now, O world! I'm going to my Heavenly home. I'll surely journey there in peace, My great distress will stay below. It is enough. It is enough." With these words, it seems out of place that Berg would indicate to the musicians to play amorously, dolorous, decided, sweet, resolute. He indicates amorously again and again when the chorale theme appears. If we think of this music as looking towards Berg's own death, we realize that by dying he will join his beloved Hanna Fuchs in the afterlife. Our theory gains momentum when a prominent "ABHF" occurs right at the moment of transfiguration at the end of the concerto.
So now we have two stories superimposed: a requiem for Manon, and an autobiographical account of Berg's own life. (Well, most of his life anyway. In case you didn't notice, Berg's actual wife never is mentioned once in the music.)
I have had two unusual experiences associated with performances of this concerto. In New Jersey, as I was about to walk on stage, the head of my bow fell off, spontaneously separating along the grain. I grabbed my spare bow and played the concert. More somberly, in summer of 2000, I performed the Berg with Maestro David Shallon and the Grant Park Orchestra. A few weeks later, Maestro Shallon died of an asthma attack at the age of 49. I will always think of the Berg Violin Concerto not only as a requiem for Manon Gropius and Alban Berg, but also for David Shallon.