Program Notes: Season Finale

Program Notes: Season Finale

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Full program notes:

Alban Berg
Born: February 9, 1885, Vienna 
Died: December 24, 1935, Vienna

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra

In the winter of 1935 Alban Berg turned 50, a momentous occasion for anyone. Life was full, and he was very busy. He spent that winter working on the orchestration of his opera Lulu, completed in short score the previous year, and January brought the welcome news that the American violinist Louis Krasner had commissioned a violin concerto from him. And then came a string of catastrophes.

On April 22, Manon Gropius died. The 18-year-old Manon— daughter of architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler Gropius (Gustav Mahler’s widow)—had been a promising actress when she contracted polio the year before. Berg had been strongly attracted to the girl, and—overwhelmed by her death—he laid aside his work on Lulu, took up the proposed commission for a violin concerto, and set to work.

Normally one of the slowest of composers, Berg now worked very quickly. He had sketched the concerto by July 12 and completed the full score a month later, on August 11. Even the composer was amazed by the speed with which this music had come to life. To Krasner he wrote: “I am more surprised at this than even you will be. I was keen on it as I have never been before in my life, and must add that the work gave me more and more joy. I hope— no, I have the confident belief—that I have succeeded.” The completed score bore two inscriptions. It is dedicated to Krasner, but Berg specified that this music had been written “To the Memory of an Angel.”

And then, amidst this sense of joyful completion came a hideous complication. Berg had composed the concerto at his summer retreat on the Wörthersee in central Austria, and while on a picnic sometime that August he was stung at the base of his spine by an insect. From childhood, Berg had been particularly vulnerable to allergies and reactions, and his response to the bite was severe. He developed an infection (foolishly, Berg and his wife tried to lance the abscess themselves, using a pair of scissors), and his condition worsened steadily. Seriously ill and in pain, Berg returned to Vienna that fall. He was able to attend a performance of orchestral excerpts from Lulu on December 11, but within weeks he was overwhelmed by infection and died on Christmas Eve. What began as a requiem for a young woman who died an untimely death ironically became a requiem for its composer, who had also died much too young.

One of the finest violin concertos of the 20th century, this music appeals on many levels: for the ingenuity of its construction on serial procedures, for Berg’s ability to find within these procedures consistent tonal bases for his music, and for his musical quotations from unexpected sources. At an immediate level, this concerto can be understood as Berg’s devastated reaction to the death of Manon Gropius, and in fact the concerto seems to “tell” that story. The first movement offers a portrait of Manon— young, carefree, dancing—while the second brings the catastrophe that kills her; the music then comes to terms with that loss as Manon achieves transfiguration in the quiet closing pages.

At a technical level, this music is absolutely ingenious, and it is astonishing that music so complex could have been composed so quickly. Berg’s fundamental 12-tone row, introduced by the rising solo violin in the 15th measure, is particularly fertile. It consists of a series of four interlocked triads (G minor, D major, A minor, E major) and concludes with three whole steps. The root notes of those triads (G-D-A-E) are the notes sounded on the open strings of the violin, and Berg hints at the tonal foundations of his theme by having the solo violinist rock up and back across the instrument’s open strings at the very beginning.

The structure of the concerto is quite clear. It is in two movements, each one divided into two sections which are played without pause. The opening movement is in a slow-fast sequence, while the latter movement reverses this to bring the concerto to a solemn close.

andante – allegretto. The Andante portion of the first movement functions as an introduction (Berg calls it a Praeludium); the opening—with its hints of what is to come—gives way to the solo violin’s presentation of the row, which is then extended in several different episodes. A pair of dancing clarinets leads us directly into the second portion, marked Allegretto, the most carefree part of the concerto; Berg takes this opening figure through passages marked scherzando, wienerisch (in Viennese style), and rustico. In the course of the Allegretto, Berg makes the first of his unexpected quotations: a solo horn “sings” an old folksong from Carinthia, a region of southern Austria (it includes the Wörthersee, where Berg had the summerhouse in which he wrote this concerto). Berg marks this simple little tune, which dances along dotted rhythms, come una pastorale, and it appears to have had private meaning for him. (Indeed, there are unexpected levels of private significance in this concerto— reference to initials, names and numbers so personal to the composer that this concerto becomes virtually a summing-up of his own life, as well as being a tribute to another.) After all its dancing energy, this movement comes to a sudden close.

allegro – adagio. The second movement explodes to life. The first portion, marked Allegro and cast in the form of an accompanied cadenza, is the most overtly virtuosic music in the concerto. As it proceeds, an ominous rhythm—dotted and forceful—begins to intrude. Finally this rises up to become a strident outburst (in the score, Berg stresses that this is the Höhepunkt—“climax”—of the movement), and clearly it marks the death of Manon. Quickly this falls away, and in the numbed aftermath the music proceeds directly into the concluding Adagio.

At this point comes the concerto’s most striking moment and its biggest surprise (even Berg was surprised by what happened here). That summer, he had been studying Bach chorales, and to his amazement he discovered that the last four notes of his row (the whole steps) were the same four notes that begin the chorale Es ist genug (“It is enough”), from Bach’s Cantata No. 60, O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort. This severe melody—which Bach had borrowed from its original composer, Johann Ahle—and its text of farewell to earthly existence perfectly captured the mood of mourning and acceptance that Berg had intended for the close of his concerto. Now he, in turn, borrows that theme for his own purposes. Berg presents the chorale, marked doloroso, with his own harmonization, then offers two variations, as well as fusing it with the Carinthian folksong. The concerto fades into silence on one final recall of the simple open-string figuration with which it began.

Berg’s Violin Concerto was quickly heard around the world, with performances in London, Vienna, Paris, Boston and New York. Yet its composer never heard a note of it. Louis Krasner (who would eventually became concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra, then known as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra) gave the premiere in Barcelona on April 19, 1936, four months after Berg’s death and almost exactly one year to the day after the death of Manon Gropius.

Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising 2 flutes (both doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling alto saxophone), bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, bass trombone, tuba, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, low tamtam, high gong, triangle, timpani, harp and strings 

Gustav Mahler
Born: July 7, 1860, Kalischt, Bohemia

Died: May 18, 1911, Vienna

Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor

In the summer of 1901 Mahler retreated to the new chalet he had built at Maiernigg, on the southern shore of the Wörthersee in central Austria. At age 41, he was ready for new directions, and now he composed a single movement, a huge symphonic scherzo, very different from the manner of his first four symphonies, which had been inspired by folk legends.

Mahler himself seemed stunned by what he had created, calling it music of “unparalleled strength” and “totally unlike anything I have written before.” He stated: “Each note in it is profoundly alive, and the whole thing spins like a whirlwind or a comet’s tail.” However, since this movement was not part of a preconceived symphonic plan, he faced the task of creating a symphony that would incorporate it.

This he did over the following summer, also spent at Maiernigg. He placed the scherzo at the center of the new work, prefacing it with an opening section consisting of two movements that share thematic material, and concluding with another two-movement section, again based on shared material. The result was a five-movement symphony in three massive parts.

The Music

part I. The structure of the Fifth Symphony is completely original. The first part opens with a movement Mahler calls Funeral March, to be played “At a measured gait, heavy, like a cortège.” Solo trumpet sounds an ominous fanfare, and a mighty orchestral explosion leads to the grieving funeral march in the strings. This march will return throughout this episodic movement, which is interrupted by two interludes: a strident outburst and—near the end—a gentle dance derived from the funeral march. The music rises to a searing climax marked “Grieving,” then subsides to conclude with a single pizzicato stroke.

In the lamenting second movement, marked “Moving stormily, with the greatest vehemence,” we hear reminiscences of the funeral march and bits of themes from the first movement, now developed with frenzied violence. This frantic atmosphere is broken by haunting interludes, also derived from the first movement, before the music rises to what seems to be a triumphant chorale. But there is no true release, and the music falls away to an ambiguous ending.

part II. At the center of the symphony is that mighty scherzo, in which the solo horn plays a key role. This movement is a vast symphonic celebration, built around a series of dances that pitch between the wild energy of the ländler and the sinuous lilt of the waltz. The solo horn binds together the various sections of this, the longest movement in the symphony, and finally leads it to a close on two mighty strokes derived from the opening horn call.

part III. The final part begins with a complete change. In place of the seething energy and violence of the first three movements, Mahler offers music of delicacy and restraint. The Adagietto, scored for strings and harp, is an island of calm: its bittersweet melodies sing gracefully, rise to a soaring climax, and fall back to a quiet close. Then a single horn note suddenly rivets attention, and the concluding movement stirs to life.

After a brief introduction, the Rondo–Finale surges into motion as horns sing the rondo theme. This movement overflows with energy, new ideas and contrapuntal writing; along the way the main theme of the gentle Adagietto is swept up in the fun and made to sing with unsuspected energy. The movement culminates in a great chorale—here, finally, is the true climax— and the music drives to an earthshaking close.

A Grand Adventure

The premiere of the Fifth Symphony in Cologne, on October 18, 1904, was a complete failure: the audience was unprepared for its stupendous power and dramatic scope. But it has long since become one of Mahler’s most popular symphonies, and one critic has gone so far as to call it “one of the seven wonders of the symphonic world.”

This work has been viewed variously as the triumph of life over death, as the tale of a hero who moves from tragedy to celebra- tion, or as almost “schizophrenic,” in that its worlds of feeling, tragic and joyful, are separated from each other and linked only by Mahler’s command of large-scale symphonic construction and unification. But Mahler conceived of this music as abstract, as “absolute music complete in itself.” And it should be enjoyed as the great symphonic adventure that it is.

Instrumentation: 4 flutes (all doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, bells, cymbals, slapstick, small bass drum, snare drum, tamtam, triangle, harp and strings

Eric Bromberger

About the Author

After earning a Ph.D. in American Literature from UCLA, Eric Bromberger was teaching at San Diego State University when, taking up another of his passions, the violin, he joined the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra. Soon he was also writing its program notes, which drew enough attention from presenters and performers that he quit his day job to devote himself to music. Now, in addition to writing for the Minnesota Orchestra and giving pre-concert lectures for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he is annotator for such organizations as the Kennedy Center’s Washington Performing Arts, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, University of Chicago Presents, San Francisco Performances and the San Diego Symphony. He and his wife Pat love chamber music, and this summer they’re playing in an orchestra that will tour Spain.