Alban Berg: Kammerkonzert
Alban Berg dedicated the Chamber Concerto to Arnold Schönberg for his 50th birthday. This work shows how Berg developed in the meantime: Formal preoccupations acquired an importance still greater than before, violent expressionism gave way to a more flexible and varied esthetic, but the profoundly Viennese character remains and there is no escaping the ‘langsames Walzer-Tempo’!
Alban Berg himself wrote a description of his work in a letter of dedication to Arnold Schönberg. From this letter can be gathered his obsession with the symbolics of numbers. Indeed, the work is based on the number 3 and its multiples. The work combines the names of ArnolD SCHönBErG, Anton WEBErn and AlBAn BErG, of which the letters apt for musical transcription are isolated. The three motifs so conceived are deployed in a kind of dedication with the motto: ‘All good things …’ (‘are three!’ which Berg has completed in sound if not in words).
Continuing this motto, the work has three movements:
1. Thema scherzoso con Variazioni
3. Rondo ritmico con Introduzione
In addition, three families of instruments are used:
1. keyboard instruments: piano
2. string instruments: violin
3. wind instruments: the remaining ensemble
The first movement is written for the piano and wind ensemble; the second for the violin and wind ensemble; the third for the piano, violin and wind ensemble. This movement is preceded by a cadenza for the two solo instruments. The movements are linked and the work forms a whole played without interruption. Berg gradually approaches serial technique in the sense that he mainly uses the four contrapuntal forms of a musical shape as the general basis for development; these forms being the original, the retrograde form, the inversion and the inversion of the retrograde form. This is valid for the variations of the first movement and for the violin’s melodic phrase in the second. Ternary form is reflected in an even more detailed manner in the music itself: Thus the theme of the first movement comprises three sections, each affecting a different tempo. This first movement shows, moreover, Berg combining variation and sonata form. The theme played by the wind instruments and the first variation by the solo piano constitute the exposition. The second, third and fourth variations represent the development followed by the recapitulation effected in the fifth variation. The second movement is linked by a procedure dear to Berg, and comparable only to a cinematic fading in and out, on a fortissimo for the woodwind and piano. The violin and brass have begun to play pianissimo inaudibly; they are left brusquely exposed by the abrupt end of the first movement. The second movement, like the first, bears the stamp of Berg’s obsession with symmetry. The middle of the movement, from which point it plays backwards, is underlined dramatically by the unusual intervention of the piano playing a low C sharp twelve times, like the tolling of a kind of esoteric ‘midnight’. It should also be mentioned that the violin makes a practically inaudible appearance in the first movement, as if the player were trying out the open strings; we know that Berg is fond of this kind of spectacular gesture. The third movement literally combines the two previous ones; it is the most complex by far. It includes a repeat whose (numerical) necessity is perceptible, but whose structural necessity I, for my part, fail to appreciate; it goes against the principle of constant variation systematically set in relief throughout the work. After all, the combination of the first two movements is not mechanical; the musical shapes are transformed, especially as regards rhythm, but all the elements already encountered are found again textually: in superimposition or alternation. As for the end of the movement, and thus of the work, it outlines again a very striking dramatic gesture; the music is drawn out bar by bar by ever longer pedal-points until the extinction of the piano resonances. This work is probably the strictest that Berg ever wrote.
(English translation by Felix Aprahamian)