Alban Berg
Violin Concerto “Dem Andenken eines Engels

Media Review / Listening Diary 2013-12-04

2013-12-04 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-11-10 — Re-posting with minor adjustments (WordPress)
2016-07-14 — Brushed up for better readability

Alban Berg (1885 – 1935): Violin Concerto “Dem Andenken eines Engels


Alban Berg / Beethoven: violin concertos, Faust, Abbado, CD coverAlban Berg: Violin Concerto “To the Memory of an Angel”
Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major, op.61

Isabelle Faust, Claudio Abbado, Orchestra Mozart

Harmonia mundi France HMC 902105 (CD, stereo); ℗ 2012
Booklet: 26pp., fr/en/de
Alban Berg / Beethoven: violin concertos, Faust, Abbado, EAN-13 barcode
—Find CD(s) on—

Scared of Music from the Second Viennese School?

Scared of dodecaphony and music from the “Zweite Wiener Schule” (Second Viennese School)? I must say that to me, the strict fundamental rules & principles put forward as the basis of dodecaphony sound utterly intellectual / academic and constructed.

Sure, music back to the baroque time and even before was often based on more or less rigid formal principles — but these left plenty of room for the composer’s creativity / fantasy to develop musical themes & ideas in melody rhythm and harmony, which in turn can be perceived / sensed (consciously or sub-consciously) by the average listener. In dodecaphony, a typical listener who is trained in romantic and older music may remain clueless about the underlying formal principles. I suspect that in the end, dodecaphony proved too much of a restrictive framework, and that therefore it did not prevail much beyond its inventors (Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, and Hanns Eisler).

I don’t want to start explaining dodecaphony here — others can do that far better than myself (for an entry point see the Wikipedia entry about Arnold Schönberg). Despite what I just said, I sense that the composers of the Second Viennese School just took the self-imposed restrictions of the dodecaphonic model as a compositorial challenge: they still found their creative freedom in harmony, rhythm, even melody — and at the same time they were not tied to formal restrictions such as the structure of the classic sonata movement etc.

Berg’s Violin Concerto as an Entry Point

If you want to experience, explore dodecaphonic music, what’s a good starting point? You could probably start with Schönberg’s early compositions (still in late romantic style) and work your way up to / through his serial compositions; on the other hand, why not take a straight dive into dodecaphony? I think that Alban Berg’s violin is an excellent choice for this, particularly in an excellent interpretation such as the one above, with Isabelle FaustClaudio Abbado, and the Orchestra Mozart, recorded in Bologna in 2010:

A Tragic Death Leading to Wonderful Music

Alban Berg (1885 – 1935) wrote this concerto in 1935; plans to write a concert were “in the making”, but then, Manon Gropius, to whom he felt deeply attached (she was the daughter of Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler), died tragically at the age of 18, on April 22nd, 1935 — and this prompted Berg to tackle the violin concerto with precedence. He stopped working on his opera “Lulu”, and instead wrote this violin concerto “Dem Andenken eines Engels” (“To the Memory of an Angel”). This composition apparently didn’t prove enough of a relief from the loss of his friend — Berg himself died on December 24th of the same year.

P.S.: The picture on the CD cover is not Manon Gropius, but an excerpt from a painting “Portrait of Helene Klimt” (1898) by Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918)

Even though the composition is clearly dodecaphonic, the composer’s grief can be felt in the first movement (Andante — Allegro, 11’51”) which certainly also features harmonic passages, but even more so in the second movement (Allegro — Adagio, 16’14”), in which the Adagio part features adaptations of the chorale “Es ist genug” from Cantata “O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort”, BWV 60, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), both in Bach’s original harmonization, as well as in Berg’s own.

Text of the Underlying Chorale

The text of that chorale reads

Es ist genug;
Herr, wenn es dir gefällt,
So spanne mich doch aus!
Mein Jesu kömmt;
Nun gute Nacht, o Welt!
Ich fahr ins Himmelshaus,
Ich fahre sicher hin mit Frieden,
Mein großer Jammer bleibt danieden.
Es ist genug.
(Franz Joachim Burmeister, 1662)

I found the following translation on the Web:

It is enough:
Lord, if it pleases You,
then release me!
My Jesus comes;
good night now, o world!
I journey to heaven’s house,
I go there securely in peace,
my great suffering remains behind.
It is enough.
(translation: © Pamela Dellal)

The booklet translates the first lines as follows:

It is enough:
Lord, if it pleases thee,
Deliver me from my bonds!
(Charles Johnston?)

My own translation (not poetic, but trying to reproduce the full meaning) would be

I have suffered enough:
Lord, if it pleases thee,
Release me from my yoke!

Brief Note on the Interpretation

The interpretation on the above CD is superb: Isabelle Faust (playing a Stradivarius “Belle au bois dormant” from 1704) has “grip” where Berg asks for it, but she also lets the lyrical passages flourish, making this a really touching interpretation; the late  Claudio Abbado (who really initiated this recording) and the Orchestra Mozart were congenial partners in this performance. It’s definitely not music I would listen to in the background, and it may take listening through it a couple times — but the effort is worth it!

And in case you really can’t get yourself to like this music — there’s also an excellent interpretation of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D, op.61 by the the same artists on this CD — I’ll discuss this in a future posting!

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