I’ve been listening quite a bit lately to a rather astonishing piece of music: the Violin Concerto (“To the Memory of an Angel”) by Alban Berg. This is the first time in years that I’ve really delved into twelve-tone music. In the past, I have almost always found twelve-tone music to be cold and sterile-sounding, as if the mechanics of twelve-tone composition completely ruled out what, for me, has always been of primary concern in music: the creation and conveyance of emotion. So much twelve-tone music strikes me as academically interesting but artistically barren. Not so with this concerto. Despite its atonal structure, this is as emotional a work as one is ever likely to hear. The emotion is harder to get at; it’s not conveyed with lush melodies and traditional harmonies, but it most definitely is there.
The Concerto was written as a Requiem of sorts for a person Berg knew, and it ended up serving as Berg’s own Requiem in a way: he died before the work was premiered, so he never heard it. Upon listening to it, I was struck by the fact that it is not really a virtuoso showpiece, the way many concertos are (although I doubt any violinist would consider it an easy work). The focus is not on the technique, but rather on the dialogue that takes place between the soloist and the orchestra. Where many young violinists can display their skills in performances of, say, the Brahms Concerto, I can’t imagine any young violinist being able to really play this work convincingly; it requires musicianship — in the expressive sense — that most young virtuosi simply do not as yet possess. This is particularly true toward the work’s conclusion, when the twelve-tone music gives way to a more tonal texture surrounding a chorale that Bach himself had harmonized two hundred years before. (In fact, the Chorale is directly foreshadowed in the work’s tone-row itself, something which I did not realize until I read an analysis of the work in Grout’s History.) The depth of feeling in the concerto’s closing moments is amazingly tragic and heartbreaking. Death seems to inspire the best in so many composers — Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, and Britten all wrote amazing Requiems, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 is a Requiem by any other name. Berg’s amazing Violin Concerto certainly belongs in that class.