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Violin Concerto (Berg)

Alban Berg's Violin Concerto was written in 1935 (the score is dated 11 August 1935). It is probably Berg's best known and most often performed piece.

Table of contents
1 Conception and composition
2 The music
3 Sound samples
4 Premieres
5 Further reading

Conception and composition

The piece stemmed from a commission from the violinist Louis Krasner. When he first received the commission, Berg was working on his opera Lulu, and he did not begin work on the concerto for some months. The event which spurred him into writing was the death of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler (once Gustav Mahler's wife) and Walter Gropius. Berg set Lulu to one side to write the concerto, which he dedicated "To the memory of an angel."

Berg worked on the piece very quickly, completing it within a few months, although it is thought that his working on the piece was largely responsible for his failing to complete Lulu before his death on December 24, 1935 (the violin concerto was the last work that Berg completed). The work was premiered after the composer's death, with Krasner playing the solo part on April 19, 1936.

The music

The concerto is structured in four movements. The first and second movements run into each other, as do the third and fourth, though there is a brief break between the second and third movements. The first movement is in a classical sonata form; the second is a dance-like movement; the third, marked Allegro and largely based on a single recurring rhythmic cell, has been described as cadenza-like, with very difficult passages in the solo part becoming rather violent at its climax; the fourth is in a much calmer mood, marked Adagio. The first two movements are meant to represent life, the last two death and transfiguration.

Like a number of other works by Berg, the piece combines the twelve tone technique which Berg had learnt from his teacher Arnold Schoenberg with passages written in a freer style. While parts of the score are atonal, as is the norm in twleve tone works, some parts can be said to be in a certain key, and quotes of purely tonal music are also present. The work's principal tone row reflects this conflict between atonality and tonality:

(ogg format, 10 seconds, 34KB)

Like all tone rows, this contains all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. However, there is a strong tonal undercurrent: the first three notes of the row make up a G minor triad; notes three to five are a D major triad; notes five to seven are an A minor triad; notes seven to nine are an E major triad; and the last four notes together make up part of a whole tone scale.

These last four notes of the row are also the first four notes of the chorale melody, Es ist genug (It Is Enough). Berg quotes this chorale directly in the last movement of the piece, where the harmonisation by Johann Sebastian Bach is heard in the clarinets.

There is another directly quoted tonal passage in the work in the form of a Carinthian folk song in the second movement.

Sound samples

All samples are performed by Itzhak Perlman and the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa.


Further reading