Catastrophe and Idyll
Alban Berg dedicated his Violin Concerto “to the memory of an angel”. The angel’s name was Manon Gropius. She was the daughter of Gustav Mahler’s widow Alma from her marriage to the architect Walter Gropius. Manon contracted polio at the age of 17 and died a year later. To create a memorial for this lovely young woman, adored by all who knew her, Berg broke off work on his second opera Lulu. He was never to complete it because he himself died shortly after finishing the concerto. The homage to Manon became the composer’s legacy.
In this piece Berg was one of the first to apply his teacher Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-note serialism to a solo concerto, but in a way that also makes this compositional method accessible to musical laymen. Whereas Schoenberg carefully avoided fortuitously generated classic triads in order to minimize familiar musical associations, Berg consciously sought an overlap between major-minor harmony and dodecaphony. More than just a compositional device, it also deepens the work’s lyrical content by having traditional harmony and its dissolution suggest the dualism of life and death.
The first of the two movements, each divided into two parts, is a portrait of Manon’s complex nature. The music is at times dreamy, at others rustic, and it even makes room for a Carinthian ländler. In the second movement, the catastrophic outbreak of illness (a nine-tone fortissimo chord) and the young woman’s death are thematicized with a varied quotation from the Bach chorale “Es ist genug”. Finally, the violin loses itself in the highest heights above a reminiscence of the opening bars. Of this ending the German musicologist-philosopher Theodor W. Adorno wrote: “The leave-taking expressed in the music seems to be from the world, dreams and childhood itself.”
Antonín Dvořák, revered as a “Bohemian” composer, is one of the most underrated symphonists of the 19th century. The immense popularity he garnered with his Slavonic Dances led audiences to hear in his works what they were now expecting from him: folk music – and if not Czech then another variety, even presumed American. In fact, Dvořák very seldom quoted original folk music, and the cliché of an unspoiled nature boy and country musician could not be farther from the truth. His art is based on hard work and that in itself makes it often seem so effortless.
Dvořák composed the Fifth Symphony in five weeks during the summer of 1875. This was a period when – thanks not least to his champion Johannes Brahms – he was able to free himself from the drudgery of orchestral obligations (he played the viola), as well as from his teaching and organist duties, and devote himself increasingly to composition. His Fifth reflects mastery and self-assurance. A mood often described as “pastoral” is already evident in the opening bar, but soon further depths are revealed. For example, in the Andante, the cellos introduce a plaintive theme based on the dumka, a Slavonic folksong form, which is taken up by the violins and then the woodwind. The middle section brightens but the melancholic theme eventually re-enters, producing a simultaneity of opposites. The dancelike scherzo follows without a break, a manifestation of Dvořák’s attempts to link symphonic movements. The finale first calls everything into question. For 54 bars, A minor contends with the home key of F major as the main theme mutates and fires with both barrels: Dvořák was also a great dramatist. Only at the end does the turmoil yield to resolution: the trombones distinctly recall the pastoral theme from the first movement, reaffirming faith in the idyll.