Alban Berg, Violin Concerto

January 12, 2007
Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

Conductor                          Paavo Järvi
Violin                                   Isabelle van Keulen


Sibelius                               Symphony Number 4 in A minor, Opus 63
Berg                                    Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
                                            “To the Memory of an Angel”
Tchaikovsky                       Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy

[This is a re-posting of an essay I wrote in 2007, after this concert.]

Some time ago, during a chorus rehearsal where we were learning Bach, someone asked whether atonal music would ever catch on. Upon hearing this music in concert, I thought I should have an answer to the question.

The Second Viennese School

The mature music of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg was not widely appreciated in their lifetimes. Even today, when you do hear their music, it is often the early pieces, the ones written before they went over the edge, when they were still grounded in the tonality of previous centuries. However, once they took the plunge into the uncharted territory of Atonality, they left their public behind. More importantly, they also left behind the vast majority of the great performers of their day: the early twentieth century was blessed by a number of spectacular virtuosi, none of whom showed any interest in these pioneer composers.

By the time I was in college and graduate school (late 60s, early 70s), these composers were referred to collectively as the Second Viennese School. This implicitly compares them with the first Viennese School: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (perhaps also Schubert), the composers that laid the foundation for the symphonic tradition.

The music of this second school was well established in academic circles, where it had a number of advantages. While the concert hall had gradually become a museum devoted to the old masters, living composers retreated to the colleges and universities, which offered them not only financial security but also a platform to evangelize to a young public receptive to new ideas. In an environment where published work had importance, composers had a certain credibility, regardless of whether or not their music was worth hearing. Just as scholars wrote in journals that nobody else read, composers could write music that nobody else listened to. For music theorists, atonality, particularly in the systematic form of the 12 tone row, provided a whole new fascinating branch of music theory to study, to teach, and to write about in journals. Finally, it was music that the uneducated, the hoi polloi, the bourgeoisie did not understand. Atonal music served as a kind of initiation into a fraternity; its obscurity kept out those who did not belong. Given all of these social forces, the embrace of the academic music community does not, in and of itself, prove the intrinsic value of the music. Academia is quite capable of sustaining a pointless activity for many years.

However, this music also had influence on the great composers of the era, composers who had established reputations outside of any association with this particular movement. Of these, the most important was Stravinsky, arguably the greatest composer of his generation. After the death of Schoenberg, Stravinsky underwent a major stylistic shift, and all of his late works are atonal, very much following in the footsteps of these pioneers. Tellingly, unlike several of his earlier works, none of these late works are frequently performed. However, for the discussion here, the judgment Stravinsky and many other great musicians can be taken as solid evidence: this is great music, worthy of a place in the repertoire.

If this music is really good, why hasn’t it reached the public? After all, the visual arts went through a similar transformation, where perspective and representational drawing was distorted or abandoned altogether, and the even most radical of the early experimenters are now integrated into contemporary culture.

One major difference is in how we perceive these two art forms. We experience paintings from the outside: no matter how disorienting the content of the canvas, we are still standing outside of it. Our visual space is organized by the room, by the experience of gravity, and the painting or sculpture exists within that secure, well grounded space. Music we experience in time, from the inside. The source of the sound is external, but in our heads, the music happens in the same time as our other experience. This is part of why the medium has such power.

Especially in 18th and 19th century European music, there is a grammar that organizes the whole experience in relation to a point of reference, the tonality. This gives the music a sense of direction, of perspective, almost a sense of gravity. With atonal music, this framework dissolves. This can be very unsettling. However, many listeners do not experience a new orientation: they simply do not connect to the music at all. They hear a jumble of noises that make no sense. These listeners experience no emotion other than confusion, bewilderment, and, perhaps, annoyance.

The rhythm and meter of the music presents a similar problem. 18th and 19th Century European music is dominated by simple, regular meters. Stravinsky, especially in pieces like the Rite of Spring, which is wildly popular, wrote in strong, irregular, constantly changing meters, but the underlying pulse, the unit, is constant and very strongly felt. In the music of Schoenberg and his followers, the rhythms are complex, expressions of the musical gestures, but the underlying pulse is obscured. Just as the pitches have no single reference point, the sense of time is freed as well. Given the direction that popular music has taken in this century, this metric obscurity, perhaps even more than the harmony, is an obstacle to the acceptance of the music by the general public.

Another impediment to the public’s acceptance is in the emotional content: this is German Expressionism at its most disturbing. The music is full of anxiety, heightened emotions and exaggerated gestures. Although “scary” music such as Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and various mad scenes in operas are very popular, this music doesn’t really frighten anybody. The music of Schoenberg and his followers is often truly disturbing. It does not have the barbaric excitement of the Rite of Spring; it expresses the angst of living in Vienna at the end of an era, and it is not very comfortable.

Thus, the music of the Second Viennese School is here to stay. It will be studied in schools, and it will occasionally be performed in concert. However, among a certain, large segment of the classical music public, it will remain strange and unpopular for a long time, even if it is too old to be considered modern.

The Berg Violin Concerto

Berg, Alban: portrait by Schoenberg, 1910

Berg, Alban: portrait by Schoenberg, 1910

Of the three leading composers of the Second Viennese School, Berg would seem to be the most approachable. His music is more grounded in the traditional sound. For example, the violin concerto uses a tone row that is full of perfect fifths and whole steps: this gives the work a sonority that is more familiar, even if the musical syntax is not.

I remember hearing the Cincinnati Symphony playing this Berg concerto before: from the program notes that this must have been in 1990. My memory of that performance (or perhaps from earlier ones) was that this piece had a nice sound, but that it did not really work convincingly. The fiddle went on and on, without enough shape. The orchestration was muddy, and much too heavy. The Bach Chorale that appears toward the end of the work struck me as out of place, and just bizarre. In the program notes and other writings about the work, there are references to a weird numerology that suggest the piece is full of esoteric, secret messages that make no sense to those of us who experience music directly. In short, I felt that the piece was interesting historically, but not really worthy of being added to the repertoire.

After hearing this performance, my opinion has changed: this piece is gorgeous.

One big difference in this performance was the handling of the solo violin. Frequently, the soloist in this piece is simply one of the voices of the contrapuntal texture: you can hear it, but it is not always the most important voice. In this performance, when the heavy brass had a line, it came out louder than the violin. In performances that try to keep the violin in the forefront at all times, this scoring just sounds clumsy; but such is simply a misunderstanding of the composer’s intention.

The role is of the soloist is perhaps best illustrated with the final large gesture of the piece, the ascent into heaven: the line starts in the solo bass viol, rises through solo parts in the other strings (including a violin that is not the soloist), ending with a line by the soloist that comes to rest high in the ether. Here, the soloist’s role is akin to that of the first violinist in a string quartet. People who are looking for a celebrity vehicle like, for example, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, will not be satisfied with this.

In the pre-concert lecture, Isabelle van Keulen said something to the effect that she did not have to always be the star. Only by adopting this attitude can anyone hope to play the Berg Concerto well. The score offers a few places for the soloist to shine, and she did. However, more impressive was the large ensemble, which handled the complexity of the writing gracefully. The sound was transparent, luminous; the various voices could all be heard.

And it was in tune! I think my impression of the piece before was colored by performances where the orchestral players did not really get what was being asked of them. They played the notes on the page, but, not understanding the harmony, they could not make the little, continuous corrections that are necessary to keep the instruments in tune.   The result was muddy and obscure.

I learned that the harmonies make sense. The Bach Chorale was not an anachronism stuck in the middle of an atonal piece, but something congruent with the sound of the work. The chorale is still surprising, but it is not out of place. It fits not just the emotional program, but into the overall sonority of the piece.

The program for the evening was thoughtfully constructed. This concerto was preceded by the Sibelius Fourth Symphony and followed by a familiar warhorse to send the masses home satisfied. (Yes, I too like the Tchaikovsky, and this piece was very well played.) The Fourth was an experimental work for Sibelius: it has a very weak sense of tonality throughout. In fact, when it came to the final chord, I was surprised, even though I had heard this symphony before and was prepared for it by the program notes: Oh, it is in A Minor! It is ending! The point of pairing it with the Berg concerto, I think, is that it is a relatively small step from the murky tonality of this Sibelius symphony to the harmonic language of the Berg concerto, despite Berg’s use of the tone row. In fact, the final chord of the Berg, though more complex than the A minor of the Sibelius, provides the more satisfying conclusion to a large work.

One major impediment to the acceptance of pieces like the Berg Violin Concerto has been overcome: the music was presented with both mastery and deep sympathy. I am not sure how common it is for an orchestra these days to play this music so well, but I do not expect to hear it better. I am confident that the CSO can stand beside any orchestra in the world. This was not the case when I moved to town 25 years ago. I am not sure that Cincinnati knows how fine this group has become.

After the final chord of the Berg, I and several others stood enthusiastically, while most sat in polite applause, reserving their enthusiasm for the Tchaikovsky.

© 2007 J.P. Lund

4 thoughts on “Alban Berg, Violin Concerto

  1. Pingback: The CSO Performs the Berg Violin Concerto | jplund

  2. Enjoyed reading this. I listened to the Berg while I read. Another piece I remember in college was dancing in the back of my mind but couldn’t make the connection. Then you said it, “Rite of Spring”. Haunting. On another note, I laughed aloud when I read, “Academia is quite capable of sustaining a pointless activity for many years.” Fantastic. Then I laughed again when I saw the same line clearly struck my father the same way. (Comment above).

    Liked by 1 person

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