Schoenberg warned me his concerto's difficulties were . . . . . . greater than Berg's
Louis Krasner performed the world premi`eres of two landmark works of 20th-century music -- the Violin Concerto of Alban Berg (1936), which Mr. Krasner himself commissioned, and the Violin Concerto of Arnold Schoenberg (1940). When we heard that later performances by Mr. Krasner could now be heard on a recording, we asked him for a few reflections on being so close to these remarkable pieces. Here they are, including parts of what he wrote in his ``Personal View,'' which accompanies the record (G M 2006). IN all violin literature, one cannot find two more contrasting concertos than those of Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg. The works were conceived within a year of each other. Each draws forth the distinct nature and temperament of its creator. It is little realized that Schoenberg began his concerto before Berg but completed it many months after the Berg had been heard. Thus, timewise, the Schoenberg concerto cradled the Berg, and after an expeditious period of time, responded to it.
The Violin Concertos of Brahms and Tchaikovsky were both composed in 1878, within months of each other. Some 50 years later, in the 1930s, both the Brahms and Tchaikovsky concertos were firmly established in the conservatories and in the concert halls as important, traditional repertoire of the past.
The Berg and Schoenberg concertos were written in 1935 and 1936, also within months of each other. Now, 50 years later, although their worth is unquestioned by knowledgeable musicians and critics, these works are still thought of as ``contemporary'' and ``novel'' -- certainly not a part of the established, traditional conservatory and concert hall repertoire.
Is it not because this music of the 1930s, written in anticipation of the onrushing advances of the electronic and nuclear age, necessarily reflects the radical changes in society's recent and future experience?
Although the lifelong personal bond between Schoenberg and Berg is well-known, the historic and even deeper creative bond between the two men was best expressed in Schoenberg's own words: ``Let us -- for the moment at least, -- forget all that might have at one time divided us. For there remains for our future what could only have begun to be realized posthumously: One will have to consider us three -- Berg, Webern, Schoenberg -- as a unity, because we believed in ideals, once perceived, with intensity
and selfless devotion; nor would we ever have been deterred from them, even if those who tried might have succeeded in confounding us.''
The Berg Violin Concerto was wrung from the depths of Berg's inner agony. To be sure, in early 1935 many external circumstances arrayed themselves in a mosaic of pressures, which left Berg virtually no choice but to direct his thoughts to the Violin Concerto -- thoughts that had hitherto been only remotely on his mind in spite of my persistent entreaties for such a work. Close friends, as well as his publishers, urged him to respond favorably to my continued appeals: A Berg violin concerto might indeed counter the frequently heard charges against so-called ``cerebral'' 12-tone music.
Berg found himself depressed and discouraged, and without finances. German performances of his music had been systematically canceled owing to Nazi pressures; worse still, the Austrian government had publicly declared Berg ``no longer to be considered an indigenous composer in his fatherland.'' This was a bitter blow to him. And his beloved Vienna was torn apart by political turmoil (leading eventually to the Nazi takeover of 1938).
Suddenly Berg is shocked by the death in Venice of his dear and talented friend, Manon Gropius, the 19-year-old daughter of architect Walter Gropius. Visions of the Violin Concerto began to appear: a heartfelt memorial for the beautiful and angelic Manon. Berg ``hears'' melodic lines that embody his own as well as Manon's deep affinity for and sense of belonging to his native Austria -- Berg, still smarting from the hurt inflicted by those government ministers.
The composing gets under way, and six convulsive weeks follow. Tender folksong melodies flow from his hand, intermingling with climaxes and anguished ``catastrophic'' chords. Then unexpectedly and without warning, a painful illness strikes Berg. The bed-ridden composer continues his fretful search for a ``right'' Bach chorale to be incorporated in the score. When the wondrous, magical, long-awaited chorale finally is found, Berg feels an inner exultation. He works uninterruptedly, despite suffering pa in and being confined to bed, without pausing for food or rest -- in a frenzy, as if possessed. ``I must press on; I have no time,'' he responds to his pleading wife.
At one point during his work on the composition he invited me to visit him at his summer home. He had just started Part II of the score. He asked me to play for him. ``Please, just improvise,'' he said. I did, for what seemed like hours. In July of 1935 I received the completed manuscript in Switzerland. Later that year Berg died in Vienna.
Sailing to Europe for the Berg concerto's premi`ere, I met Rudolf Kolisch, the brother-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg, on board the ship. I played parts of the Berg concerto for him, and he showed me photostats of pages from Schoenberg's Violin Concerto, still in the process of composition.
The Schoenberg concerto was completed in September 1936. After almost 50 years, the work still stands to the literature of the violin as the Himalayas stand to the face of the earth. Schoenberg composed it when, uprooted, in loneliness and dejection, his fortunes were at their lowest ebb. Perhaps because of this, the composer struck out in this concerto with deliberate challenge, tenacious determination, and an extraordinary concentration of musical materials and imagination, while combining composition al and violinistic virtuosity. ``You will have to wait for a six-fingered violinist to perform it,'' he was told early on by a most distinguished violinist. ``I can wait,'' Schoenberg replied.
It was in Vienna, in March of 1938, during the violent and destructive Nazi takeover, that I received the welcome letter from Schoenberg offering me the privilege and honor of presenting the premi`ere of his Violin Concerto. I had written him several times expressing my great interest in the work.
Schoenberg's response and offer came only after the Alban Berg concerto had in two short years received several performances by important international orchestras and had achieved serious and what proved to be lasting success. The master warned me pointedly that his concerto's difficulties were ``different ones, and greater than those of the Berg concerto.''
Later, when I played the work for Schoenberg, he expressed delight at the confirmation of its ``playability.'' ``I always felt confident,'' he explained, ``because I have myself fingered every note of it on the violin.''
For me, experience with the newborn Berg and Schoenberg concertos in the presence of their creators can be likened only to the awe and elation of Neil Armstrong as he floated his first footsteps on the surface of the moon.