Echoes of Alban Berg

Inside a great Violin Concerto, a palimpsest of history and memory.


Even knowing what would be inside the box did not prepare me for the velocity of the shiver down my spine.

Death mask of Alban Berg by Anna Mahler, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

That elegant face, familiar from countless photographs. Eyes serenely closed. Lips gently parted.

Sitting on a brightly lit table at a Harvard library on a recent Wednesday morning was the death mask of Alban Berg.

The great composer died 80 years ago next month, at the age of 50. The mask preserves a moment of fleeting tragedy in eerily pristine detail, as if modernism had its own Pompeii. Maybe, in a way, it did.

The mask was cast by Anna Mahler, daughter of Gustav Mahler, one of Berg’s musical idols. It would seem to belong in Berg’s Vienna, on display somewhere near the grandly imperial Ringstrasse, or in the leafy environs of the “Waldhaus,” his country home in Carinthia.

It is here, instead, because of the same man who helped bring Berg’s final work, the enrapturing Violin Concerto, into existence: Louis Krasner.

Boston concertgoers with longer memories no doubt remember Krasner well, as this Ukrainian-born, American-educated violinist became a beloved local figure, teaching for over two decades at New England Conservatory until his death in 1995. He was also, after studies in Europe in the 1920s, a passionate champion of the music of Berg and his close colleagues, Schoenberg and Webern. Yet his enthusiasms did not end there. “Frankly,” wrote Aaron Copland in a 1964 letter, “you radiate a quality which is rare these days: the spirit of idealism and devotion to music that I enjoy being near.”

Berg’s death mask, Copland’s letter, and many other treasures from Krasner’s rich life in music now form an archival collection of their own at Harvard’s Houghton Library. I never had the honor of meeting the man, but as the Boston Symphony Orchestra returns to Berg’s Violin Concerto this week, it seemed time to visit Krasner’s archives. I did not leave disappointed.

Berg told the world that his concerto was written in memory of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler and the architect Walter Gropius (and Anna Mahler’s half-sister), after her death from polio at 18. Yet ever since scholars began learning to decode the encrypted signs and ciphers in Berg’s music, the piece also has come to be seen as a Requiem for himself.

Yet another layer emerges as one delves into Krasner’s recollections of the concerto’s earliest years. His remarkable stories link Europe and America in the 1930s. They play out aboard trans-Atlantic steamers, in the cafes and concert halls of Austria, in Berg’s rustic retreat, and generally across a continent poised on the edge of an abyss.

It’s a performance history that, even while known by Berg specialists, deserves to be returned to the broader public memory of this extraordinary work. The piece’s Vienna premiere in 1936 drives the point home with particular clarity. It was not just a Requiem for Manon or for himself, but also for a particular German-Jewish alliance that had nourished central European music for decades. Krasner was witness to its end.

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“You know that’s not my kind of music!” Berg told the violinist when he found the gumption to propose a commission for a new work. Berg had dodged the idea by associating the concerto repertoire with vapid show pieces. As Krasner recalled years later: “My response was not difficult to conceive: ‘Meister — Beethoven and Mozart also wrote violin concertos.’”

“ ‘Ah-Ja,’ [Berg] said softly and smiled.”

Krasner had become convinced that Berg was the man to write a concerto that would show the sensual, overtly expressive possibilities of 12-tone music — an idiom that was often tagged then, as now, with being all brain and no heart.

Even after Berg agreed to the assignment, there were lingering doubts that he would actually fulfill it. His health was not good, and he was consumed with the task of completing his opera “Lulu.” Yet back in the United States, Krasner eventually caught word that Berg had been spotted at local violin recitals around Vienna. This could only be a good sign.

In summer 1935, Berg summoned Krasner for a memorable day at the Waldhaus near the Wörthersee.

Alban Berg’s “Waldhaus,” near the Wörthersee in Carinthia.

The composer was in an elated mood. He loved the fact that Brahms had written his own violin concerto just across the lake. He asked Krasner to simply play his violin in his presence, to improvise his own music without resorting to any standard repertoire. The exercise took Krasner back to his own youth, when he would improvise for hours. And he was apparently not the only one trafficking in the domain of memory.

When Berg was 17, he fathered a child with a woman who worked in his family’s kitchen. The concerto includes an allusion to a Carinthian folk song, now often seen as a veiled reference to that first love. But it is references to Berg’s passionate (if possibly unconsummated) affair with a woman named Hanna Fuchs-Robettin that scholars have found even more widely spread in the concerto and other works.

Berg’s secret letters with Fuchs convey something of the intensity of his feelings. These were not garden-variety billets-doux. “If during the remainder of my life,” he wrote, “I should be granted but one other of those blissful moments, if only to speak to you with one glance of the everlastingness of my love — then all the sorrows of my leftover life would be transfigured by a gleam of indescribable beauty.”

With both parties married, and with limited chances for encountering each other in person, Berg embraced the fantastical notion that he could address his Hanna in public, in the broad light of day, through the messages inscribed in his music. Before a Prague performance of his “Lyric Suite” that he hoped she would attend, Berg wrote: “Will the music be powerful enough, despite its modernity, to speak to you and speak as forcibly and unambiguously as it is intended? Intended as a confession (one that concerns no one but you!) of our encountering love!”

These qualities of confession, and that “gleam of indescribable beauty,” fill the Violin Concerto too, as do references to their respective initials, and to specific numbers Berg linked with each of them. (His was 23. Hers was 10.) To be sure, this work had been embraced for decades before any of these hints were decoded by scholars. Yet the real point is that the sense of Romantic yearning and communicative urgency that so many have heard in Berg’s music were not (only) abstract qualities. Scores such as the “Lyric Suite” and the Violin Concerto were meant for large crowds. But inside the work of art is another work of art, meant for an audience of one.

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Berg completed his concerto in July 1935. Shockingly, by Christmas of that year the composer was dead. He had succumbed to a blood infection resulting from an insect sting.

Krasner agreed to give the world premiere in Barcelona in 1936, an event that promised to claim international attention. No less a figure than Webern himself was to conduct, in tribute to his friend Berg. When the time came, Krasner departed for Europe by steamer.

In one of the more charming coincidences to grace the annals of the Second Viennese School, the violinist Rudolf Kolisch was on the same boat. Krasner played for him parts of the as-yet-unpremiered Berg Violin Concerto, at which point Kolisch dropped a bomb of his own. Berg’s teacher Schoenberg had also written a Violin Concerto, and Kolisch had that score with him on the boat. He brought pages to Krasner’s cabin. “My eyes almost devoured the fearsome looking notes,” Krasner recalled. One imagines them whiling away the hours below the deck, playing their instruments and savoring the music of the future.

Not long afterward, following his rehearsals with Webern in Vienna, the time came for both men to depart for Barcelona. Here, things took a strange turn. Webern wanted to travel together with Krasner by train, but he insisted that they choose a longer route that would take them through Nazi Germany. Krasner, a Jew with a US passport, hesitantly agreed. Yet the strangeness did not end there. At one point, Webern insisted that they both get off the train to have a beer together in the Munich train station. Krasner was bewildered, and recalled sitting in a vast and deserted room, drinking in a tense silence.

After they were back on the train, the subtext finally became clear as Webern remarked: “So Krasner, did anyone do anything to you?” His point, as the violinist understood it, was that reports in the international press of the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews were nothing more than anti-German propaganda.

Ultimately, the rehearsal period in Barcelona, on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, ended in fiasco as Webern suffered something akin to a nervous breakdown and fled the city, leaving the conductor Hermann Scherchen to step into the breach with just a half hour of rehearsal. The premiere went ahead as scheduled and Scherchen pulled off a miracle. Krasner recalled, “the participants on stage and the entire audience were carried, in Berg’s spirit, I felt, to spiritual and devotional heights.”

Incidentally, one awestruck audience member was a 22-year-old English composer who had earlier dreamed of studying with Berg. This young musician described the premiere in his diary as “just shattering.” His name was Benjamin Britten.

Krasner went on to introduce the work in London, Boston, and other cities around the globe. But it was the October 1936 premiere in Vienna that proved the most chilling. The German conductor Otto Klemperer traveled from Los Angeles, where he lived in exile, to conduct the performance with the Vienna Philharmonic. But the orchestra was by then already significantly Nazified, and made it known that they did not want to perform the Berg, a specimen of the progressive modernist music that Hitler deplored.

Klemperer refused to stand down or cancel the concert. The stakes were raised still further when the eminent Austrian-Jewish violinist Arnold Rosé, married to the sister of Gustav Mahler, announced he would be coming out of semi-retirement to sit as concertmaster for the premiere.

The performance took place as planned, but immediately after the tender apotheosis of the score’s final bars, the entire Vienna Philharmonic rose from their seats and “as if on command, turned abruptly, and marched off the stage.” It was an unmistakable gesture of protest. As Krasner recalled, he and Klemperer were left “aghast and alone” on stage before the crowd — alone, with one exception. Arnold Rosé stood up “tall and solitary by his concertmaster’s chair. He applauded and gripped our hands.”

That the episode remains a stain on the history of the Vienna Philharmonic is self-evident. More deeply, it was also — as Krasner later told the scholar Leon Botstein — a moment that marked, in Botstein’s words, “the ironic symbolic end of the distinguished history of Jewish integration in the musical culture of Vienna.”

Berg’s concerto was its swan song too.

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When Germany officially annexed Austria two years later, Krasner was in Webern’s Vienna apartment, showing him the Schoenberg Violin Concerto, but managed to escape. Rosé fled Vienna, too, and lived out the war in England. But his daughter, a violinist named Alma, was sent to Auschwitz, where she conducted the women’s orchestra and ultimately perished. Webern lived through the war in Vienna, and then was accidentally shot by an American soldier while smoking outside his apartment. Schoenberg was buried in Los Angeles in 1951, but his ashes were reinterred in a Vienna cemetery in 1974.

“The past is never dead,” Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even past.” Certain pieces of music have a way of radically expanding one’s sense of the now. The Berg concerto is one of those works.

Back in Houghton library, I packed up Krasner’s archive. I had the impulse to view the death mask once more; instead, I listened on the way home to the music that Krasner had so arduously brought into the world. In that moment, it seemed clear that the concerto and the mask share some important qualities. Both reveal and conceal. Both melt away the years. Both are works of art formed by the impressions of a life.


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This story appeared in the Boston Globe on November 14, 2015 under the headline “Echoes of Alban Berg, resounding in Boston.” Photos above by the author.