An angel rising out of times of darkness

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Berg wrote a memorial for a dead girl. © Charles Thibo

The first bars betray already the era in which this music was written: A dark, sad, occasionally dissonant tune announcing death and mourning. A child had died, and Alban Berg, for that is the composer’s name, wrote a requiem in the shape of a violin concerto in the summer of 1935. The child was 18 years old Manon Gropius, one of the daughters of Alma Mahler, married to Anton Mahler before her short liaison with the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius. Berg called his violin concerto “To the memory of an angel”. I heard it yesterday in Luxembourg, performed by the Dutch violinist Janine Jansen and the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra.

Innocence and death

If Manon’s death was the catalyst for the composition of this piece, Berg nevertheless had to be actively encouraged by the American violinist Louis Krasner to write despite initial misgivings about writing another piece for solo violin. Krasner had commissioned a lyrical piece and that’s what he got. Despite the fact that Berg followed Schönberg’s 12-tone-technique stylistic the piece has very melodious parts drawing from chromaticism *.

Its four movements are grouped in two pairs and follow the classical formal principles as far as structure, symmetry and balance are concerned. Right at the beginning of the first movement, the solo violin and the harp sketch a portrait of Manon: frail, delicate, vulnerable. But the strings already announce the tragedy. The contrast between the two illustrates the idea of Manon’s purity and innocence, and inevitably one must ask the question: Why her? Why now? The brass brutally introduce the second movement: Death enters the stage, intrudes into the Gropius family’s life. With a distorted face Mrs. Jansen played the soli – the pain that Berg wanted to express through the music overwhelms the performer. Amazing!

As so often with the so-called Second Viennese School – Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern – it is worth listening to this concerto several times. There are many interesting details that one may well not identify the first time. An excellent recording has been made by Anne-Sophie Mutter and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under James Levine.

Jewish musicians not welcome

Berg was born in Vienna in 1885 and hadn’t any real musical education before he met Schönberg. In 1904 Schönberg had advertised in a newspaper that he was looking for students. Berg and Webern started their lessons with Schönberg almost at the same time, and Schönberg would become not only Berg’s teacher and mentor, but also his surrogate father. Berg’s own father had died when he was  15.

“To the memory of an angel” is the last work Berg achieved. Berg’s general mood was depressive. In March 1933, the dismissal of Jewish musicians from civic posts had begun. Schönberg left for Paris while Berg stayed on. He was working on his opera “Lulu” but interrupted this work in progress to compose the said violin concerto. The composer did not live to hear the piece’s premiere. He died in December 1935; the Violin Concerto was performed for the first time at an international musical festival in 1936 in Barcelona with Krasner playing the solo part. Thus, Berg’s memorial for Manon Gropuis became his own requiem.

© Charles Thibo

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