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Alban Berg's Violin Concerto Laments a Young Girl's Life Cut Short

Composer Alban Berg (1885-1935)

Twentieth-century Austrian composer Alban Berg dedicated his Violin Concerto to the memory of the 18-year-old daughter of a friend. As WRTI’s Susan Lewis reports, the work evokes emotion not typically associated with the 12-tone style.

Leonidas Kavakos performs Berg's Violin Concerto on The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert broadcast on WRTI, Sunday, May 7th at 1 pm.

Walter Gropius and his daughter Manon, from his marriage to Alma Mahler, in Dessau, 1927.

Manon Gropius was the daughter of Alma Mahler (widow of Gustav Mahler) and Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius. She died of polio in 1935.

Alban Berg wrote his violin concerto as he was mourning her untimely death. He wrote a letter to Manon's parents saying, "words cannot express my feelings, but soon you will hear them in my violin concerto."

Radio script:

SL: It starts with four open strings of the violin.

GS: It gives this feeling that he just opened his violin case, and – these are the thoughts that came into my head, and from this grows a tone row.

In a letter to Manon's parents, Berg wrote, "Words cannot express my feelings, but soon you will hear them in my violin concerto."

SL:  Shaham says this particular choice of 12 tones, with major and minor chords, creates a bittersweet mood. 

GS: Especially in the first movement where he depicts the life of Manon Gropius. He writes these dances.. or PLAYS...and all the dances are seen through this lens, which has this particular flavor to it.

SL: The music, says Shaham, tells a powerful emotional story, creating a feeling of yearning.

GS: There’s no question that his technique was flawless, but ultimately this is about moving an audience.

SL: Berg died suddenly at the end of 1935, a few months after finishing the concerto. Premiered the next spring, it has become one of Berg’s most popular works.

Listen to more from Gil Shaham about the powerful story behind Berg's Violin Concerto.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.