“Journeyman’s Piece”, Farewell Work and Visions of Future
Works by Anton Webern, Alban Berg and Antonín Dvořák
Anton Webern’s Passacaglia op. 1
In 1902 Anton Webern took up his studies in musicology, philosophy and art history at the University of Vienna. Two years later he began studying composition with Arnold Schoenberg – not as an inexperienced beginner, however, but as someone who had already taught himself autodidactically most of what one needs to compose. Schoenberg helped him find his own particular path. That this happened in a completely non-authoritarian and unorthodox way is confirmed in an essay which Webern wrote about Schoenberg’s teaching methods in 1912. Among other things, he wrote: “Schoenberg teaches no style; he preaches the use of neither old nor new artistic means. ... With the greatest energy he follows the traces of the pupil’s personality, attempts to deepen it, to enable it to achieve a breakthrough.” Nevertheless, the teacher advised his student to concentrate primarily on instrumental chamber music to begin with – and that is even documented from the first lesson. Webern did not devote himself to works for larger ensembles until his studies with Schoenberg had ended. The Passacaglia was, in his own words, his “journeyman’s piece”.
The passacaglia finale from Brahms’s Fourth Symphony may have been the model for the form of his first “large” composition. The passacaglia – or chaconne – was originally a Baroque dance and variation form in triple metre. The repeated bass line (“basso ostinato”), generally consisting of four or eight bars, serves as the basis for a series of variations. Webern’s theme is eight bars long, played in unison by pizzicato strings. In the first variation the theme is harmonized, and a countertheme is presented by the flute. It is followed by 23 variations and a coda. That may sound relatively simple, but it happens “in such a highly complicated way that anyone who wants to follow the development analytically is well advised to listen for the return of the eight-bar form common to all the variations. The listener should be prepared for major changes in the tempo, however, and not be distracted by the three powerful climaxes. The main theme or parts of it will be found again in every register, albeit with increasing difficulty, since it is gradually being decomposed” (Jens Hagestedt).
Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto
Apparently straightforward, easy to understand and yet complex and meticulously organized down to the last detail – this seemingly paradoxical description also applies to Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto.Another factor contributes to the ambivalent effect of the work: this first strictly twelve-tone solo concerto unmistakably follows the classical tradition. Berg recalls this tonal tradition and incorporates it into the composition with twelve notes. In this respect he differs from Schoenberg and Webern.
The official occasion for the composition was a commission from the Ukrainian-born American violinist Louis Krasner, who asked Berg to write a concerto for him in spring 1935. In addition to this official reason there was also a personal motive: on 22 April 1935 Manon Gropius, Alma Mahler’s daughter from her brief marriage to Walter Gropius, died of polio at the age of 19. Berg, a friend of Alma and Fritz Werfel, her third husband, was devastated. He interrupted work on his opera Lulu and began composing the violin concerto a few days later at Wörthersee [a lake in southern Austria] – with the intention of “translating features of the young girl’s character into musical terms”.
The concerto comprises two movements, each consisting of two sections: Andante – Allegretto, Allegro – Adagio. The three-part Andante can be understood as a characterization of the young Manon Gropius. The opening is strange, almost disconcerting: the soloist gently and hesitantly strokes the open strings of the violin, as though tuning himself and his instrument. A scherzo with two trios follows without interruption (Allegretto) – with echoes of waltzes and Ländler (reminiscences of Mahler) and the Carinthian folk song “Ein Vogerl auf’m Zwetschgenbaum” [A bird on the plum tree], in a pleasant, cheerful mood. The second movement “describes” the illness and death of Manon Gropius. The events reach their culmination in the Allegro, and the concerto comes to its dramatic climax with an almost brutal outburst from the orchestra, interrupted by the violin cadenza. The Adagio follows with a Bach chorale, first played by the woodwinds, which is heard in two variations. The close again recalls the beginning of the concerto. The violin soars to transcendental heights, to a spiritual plane, as it were. A sorrowful, poignant tone prevails. Berg paints a “portrait of farewell” (Willi Reich), but perhaps with conciliatory gestures.
The twelve-tone row on which the composition is based consists of a series of rising triads on G minor (G-B flat-D), D major (D-F sharp-A), A minor (A-C-E) and E major (E-G sharp-B), with three whole steps (C sharp-D sharp-F) at the end. They are also the opening notes of the chorale Es ist genug [It is enough] from Bach’s Cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort [O eternity, you word of thunder], which Berg incorporated into the finale of the work.
Despite its virtuosity, Berg’s work is not a concerto in the traditional sense, in which the soloist strongly dominates the proceedings and appropriately puts himself in the limelight. The solo violin is often integrated into the orchestral texture and absorbed into the sound of the orchestra. The orchestral writing is always on an equal level with the solo part; it never serves only an “accompanying” function. Although the composition is not a symphonic poem à la Liszt or Strauss, it is a tone poem, a dramatic concerto which can be described as programmatic simply because of the title “To the memory of an angel”.
Antonín Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony
Towards the end of the 19th century New York’s musical life was still strongly influenced by German and Italian traditions. Only gradually did the desire for a distinctively American music grow. Jeannette Thurber, a music lover and daughter of a Danish immigrant violinist, contributed significantly to the achievement of this aim. She established the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York in 1885. Six years later she sent Antonín Dvořák a telegram inviting him to become its director. For only eight months of teaching and six concerts a year he would receive $15,000 – 25 times his income in Prague. Dvořák arrived in New York in September 1892. Two months later the composer wrote to a friend in Prague: “The Americans expect great things of me and the main thing is, so they say, to show them to the promised land and the kingdom of a new and independent art, in short, to create a national music!”
Dvořák sympathized with the wish of his patron to support the black population in particular. At the conservatory he met the African-American vocal student Harry T. Burleigh, who earned money for his lessons by sweeping the floors. The Negro spirituals Burleigh sang as he worked fascinated the new conservatory director. In a newspaper interview in May 1893 he declared: “I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States.” Dvořák engaged Burleigh as his assistant; the student served as the composer’s copyist but often sang for him as well in order to provide him with inspiration for his work.
Without directly quoting spirituals, plantation songs or Native American music in his Ninth Symphony, the composer nevertheless drew on several characteristic elements. For example, the pentatonic scale and plagal cadences are already found during the slow introduction. In the main theme of the first movement Dvořák used the syncopated rhythm known as the “Scotch snap”. Other American peculiarities include the diminished sevenths and the accompanying drone fifths in the second theme. The melancholy English horn theme in the slow movement is based entirely on pentatonicism. Dvořák also recognized the technique of circling around a central key note, as he used it in the main theme of the finale, as a characteristic feature of American folklore. Unlike his earlier symphonies, in the new work he did not develop the themes symphonically for the most part but repeated them unchanged, making the work more accessible.
Dvořák’s symphony was announced as the result of his studies of “Negro and Indian music”, and the premiere by the New York Philharmonic was accompanied by great anticipation. The audience already cheered after the second movement, and Dvořák had to take a bow from his box. The triumph was even greater at the conclusion. The New York Herald Tribune praised the new work as “a symphony which proves that there is such a thing as American art music”.