Length: c. 22 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (both = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd = alto saxophone), bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, gong, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle), harp, strings, and solo violin
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 13, 1945, Otto Klemperer conducting, with soloist Joseph Szigeti
About this Piece
The article from which the following is excerpted appeared in the Viennese newspaper Wiener Tag on October 21, 1936, ten months after Alban Berg's death. The author is Otto Klemperer, at the time Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic:
"When I was invited by the management of the Vienna Philharmonic to conduct two concerts during the present season, they expressed the wish that I should perform a novelty, suggesting Alban Berg's Lulu Suite. I had already conducted it with considerable success in America... But as the Suite had been previously performed in Vienna, it seemed to me that the laudable decision of this famous orchestra to present a commemorative performance for Berg was such a noble and precious testament of esteem that it would be more suitable to perform the master's last work, not yet heard in Vienna - his Violin Concerto... which belongs here, to Vienna, to Austria, where it was created and with which it is intimately bound up... I cancelled two European concerts to give myself the necessary time for rehearsals. I also cut down on my social engagements in Los Angeles, then I began my study of Berg's score.
"At that time I was physically in Los Angeles while in spirit I was in Vienna, in the Hohe Warte or Hietzing, and in Carinthia... Berg lived in Hietzing… in the Trautmannsdorfstrasse. The last time I was with him there, on a fine summer afternoon in 1935, and he had played his opera Lulu to me, he had not yet written the Violin Concerto. Who could have imagined that this work would be his own requiem, as well as a requiem for... the young Manon Gropius [daughter of Gustav Mahler's widow, Alma, and the architect Walter Gropius], with her dreamlike beauty... whom I had met in Mahler's house in the Hohe Warte. I could see her before my very eyes, pale and quiet, in that famous room with its walls formed by the glass cabinets in which Mahler's manuscripts were kept... And then I saw Berg, who was just as much at home there as in his own house and in the Carinthian countryside... where he heard the folk tune, a Ländler ["Ein Vogel auf'm Zwetschgenbaum" - A Bird in the Plum Tree], with which he associated the fresh, naive manner of this young girl. The tune was woven into the score of the Violin Concerto and concludes on a tremendous climax. At this high point of the work I felt, death makes its cruelest appearance, but death never means the end. The second movement begins with the J. S. Bach chorale Es ist genug: 'It is enough! Lord, if it please Thee, my Jesus, come! World, good night. I go to the heavenly house, with a heart full of joy. My sorrows remain below.' The variations on this chorale, the sounds that emanate from the violin, that bring into being a completely new world for the instrument, the way in which at the conclusion the music seems to span the cosmos, from the lowest depths to the sublime heights, all of this I came to experience in Los Angeles… Now, in a few days' time, Alban Berg's [Violin Concerto], played by the finest orchestra of Europe, the Vienna Philharmonic, will be given its performance. I look forward to that moment with humility and joy."
The soloist for the Vienna premiere was the American violinist Louis Krasner, who had commissioned the work and to whom it is dedicated. Krasner was the soloist as well at the world premiere, April 19, 1936, part of that year's Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Barcelona. The conductor was Hermann Scherchen.
Manon, it should be mentioned, was struck down by polio in the spring of 1934. She died a year later, memorialized by this sublime music, dedicated "to the memory of an angel," as Berg wrote on the title page of the manuscript.
Further to Klemperer's comments: the chorale employed comes from Bach's cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, BWV 60 (Oh Eternity, Thou Fateful Word). It has a subtitle, "Dialogue Between Fear and Hope," and its text contains the words "Blessed are those who die in the Lord," both surely intended by Berg as references to Manon. Finally, the "Es ist genug" chorale is not actually by Bach but by Johann Rudolph Ahle (1626-1673): harmonized by Bach, immortalized by Berg.
– Herbert Glass