In this section I will share some thoughts about pieces I play, especially those where I feel that a few words could help the listener follow the musical occurrences. I hope that you would find them interesting!
Violin Concerto (“To the memory of an angel”)
During my undergraduate studies I was asked to write a paper about the Alban Berg Violin Concerto, and I really could not connect to the piece: I didn’t understand the musical language, and all I could hear was just dissonance after dissonance. However, just a few years later I heard the piece again, at the Aspen Music Festival and School, and I was completely astonished by how emotional and truly heart breaking I found it to be. What had changed?
First of all, I realized that the piece is inherently a romantic piece of music, heavily rooted in 19th century traditions. The violin’s melodic lines, expressive intervals and leaps, are romantic gestures in the next step of their evolution. The harmony, while not tonal, often implies a tonally logical chord progression. Moreover, the piece has programmatic elements, which once matched with the music, are quite thought-provoking. The impulse for writing the Concerto came to Berg from the death of his 18 years old friend Manon Gropius, and the piece could be understood as a story in sound of her life and death, told in two movements: one focused on life - her birth and adolescence, the other on her illness followed by death and transfiguration.
The story starts from the very beginning, from birth. A tabula rasa - the open strings of the violin. The world to which the young girl is born is quite strange - a world of mirrors. Each fragment is answered by its inversion, what goes up always comes down. Listen to the opening violin line and hear how every four notes are answered by their inversion. Is this Berg’s “Through the Looking-Glass”?
Here is the girl’s “musical DNA” - the 12 tone row that is the foundation of the entire composition. It also returns immediately in its inversion. One could note that it includes the 4 notes of the Bach choral that would conclude the piece, thus the DNA contains also the girl’s fate.
We then continue to the second main section of the first movement, the girl growing up in Vienna. It is a series of Waltz-like dances, each one of which receives a particular characterization from Berg, which could serve as a description of Manon: Joking, Viennese and rustic. It is quite light hearted, yet the somber future is constantly looming in the background.
The second movement literally starts with a scream. The open string arpeggio that opened the piece is now altered into a much less neutral one:
The open strings motif is still present here, but, as the girl suffers from her illness, it is subject to hallucinations like treatment, as in the following passage:
The imminent death manifests itself in recurrences of the four opening notes of the Bach choral, as well as an obsessive and syncopated rhythmic motif.
In the climax of this tormented section, Manon fights with death, who slowly but surely prevails, as Bach’s Choral establishes its victory note by note - in every response to her outcries, one more note from the choral Melody is revealed:
Finally, death prevails, and Bach’s choral “Es is genung” (It is enough!) appears in its complete and original form, as Manon’s struggle with illness comes to its tragic end.
Note Berg’s own harmonization of Bach’s choral (at 14:03 at the video below). While not tonal, I find it to be extremely expressive and beautiful.
While Manon’s spirit goes up towards the heavens, she takes us all with her, and quite literally - the entire violin section joins the solo violin line, one by one, reaching the climax of this last part. As Manon and the solo violin part make their final ascent to the heavens, the sound of the open strings is heard one last time in the orchestra to bring the piece to conclusion.
Berg first movement:
Berg Second Movement:
Karl Amadeus Hartmann
First appeared on The Strad Magazine on May 15th, 2019
Written at the outbreak of World War II, Hartmann’s Concerto Funebre is a powerful and original work, which reacts to the tragic events happening in the world during the time of its composition, without resorting to any cliches.
Written in a direct, communicative yet modern musical style, it is also full of interesting references, musical and political, which I’ll outline movement by movement.
Movement 1- Introduktion. Largo
A hushed version of the Hussite chorale ‘Ye Who are God’s Warriors’ (which appears also in Smetana’s Má vlast), opens the piece, in a reference to the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia earlier in 1939.
Movement 2 - Adagio
The music becomes more personal, as the solo violin embarks on a long recitative, with itermittent March-like commentary from the orchestra. The violin line is highly romantic, full of Wagnerian turns (to be played ‘Breit’, broadly) and huge leaps, perhaps nostalgic to a long lost era.
Movement 3 - Allegro di Molto
The most tumultuous part of the piece, a movement which keeps getting faster and faster, at some point nearly losing control. Notice how twice, when chaos becomes nearly unbearable, the music halts for a short whispering sentence from the violin.
This movement is clearly inspired by the first movement of Bartók’s 5th string quartet. The repeating note motif which opens the movement (it’s a B flat, same as in the Bartók), the syncopations and the quick turns, are all bear striking resemblance to Bartók’s masterpiece.
Movement 4 - Choral, lansgsamer Marsch
This Choral is a quote of the song ‘Unsterbliche Opfer’ (Immortal victims), a Russian funeral march used in ceremonies to commemorate resistance heroes and Soviet soldiers. It is quoted also in Shostakovich’s 11th Symphony. The choral appears in the orchestra, with original, modern sounding harmonisations, along side very personal commentary by the violin.
In that sense, it reminds me of the final movement from Berg’s Violin Concerto, another tragic piece written in Germany only four years earlier. Its last chord however, as opposed to Berg’s B flat major which ascends to the heavens, is, for me, the musical equivalent of the word ‘defiance’.