Bach, Brahms, Schoenberg: Marginalia on Berg's Violin Concerto

By Walton, Chris | Musical Times, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Bach, Brahms, Schoenberg: Marginalia on Berg's Violin Concerto


Walton, Chris, Musical Times


The present writer is grateful to Douglas Jarman for his advice, and to Isobel van der Walt for her invaluable help in procuring various source materials.

SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, on 12 February 1933, Arnold Schoenberg gave a lecture on the Frankfurt Radio that later, in its Americanised form, became known as 'Brahms the progressive'. The centenary of the birth of Brahms was the occasion for it, though Schoenberg in fact gave it three months 'early', on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Wagner's death instead. This was no matter of chance, for his avowed intent was a provocative redrawing of the boundaries of the 'progressive' in music in order to place Brahms and Wagner on a more equal footing. Schoenberg wanted 'to recognise the true connection that exists between them; [to see] to what extent both were progressive musicians and academicians, fantasists and formalists'.1

That lecture has achieved iconic status, with even its (English) title becoming a catchphrase to be quoted, copied, queried and parodied in numerous essays since. I wish here, however, to consider a specific case in which that lecture might have had a more direct impact on the work of a near contemporary. One of the music examples that Schoenberg used in his lecture was taken from Brahms's Fourth Symphony. His script reads as follows:

... if one also considers that Wagner's leitmotif technique essentially represents an attempt to unify the thematic material of a whole opera, indeed of a whole tetralogy, so is this once more a purely formalistic intention, just as Brahms undertakes in no more of a formalist manner, e.g. in his E minor symphony, when in the final movement he deploys the thirds of the first.2

Schoenberg omits to mention here that the fourth and final movement of the Brahms is a passacaglia based on a fragment taken from Bach's Cantata no. 150 (and the 'deployment ' to which he refers is to be found in bars 233-36, as he later made clear in the revised, English version). Brahms's source had been common knowledge for several years, while the passacaglia itself seems to have featured in Schoenberg's composition classes for even longer. Webern's Passacaglia op.1, for example, was obviously modelled to a large degree on the last movement of Brahms's Fourth Symphony. Of interest to us here is that the chain of interlocking major and minor thirds, to which Schoenberg reduced the opening of the Brahms symphony, found a parallel in a work by Alban Berg just two years later. In a letter to Schoenberg of 28 August 1935, Berg gave the note row that he was using for his newest work, a violin concerto (to judge from his published correspondence, it was the first rime since his Lyric suite nine years earlier that he had notified his former teacher of a row he was using, which suggests that this case was particularly significant to him):

For my part I can report to you that the Violin Concerto has been finished for 14 days already [...]

For the whole thing, I've chosen a very fortunate row (since D major and other similar 'violin concerto' keys are out of the question), namely:3

There is an undoubted similarity between the two music examples above that is underlined by the fact that in both works, the opening statement of the row/theme is followed by its inversion (bars 1-4 and 5-9 of the Brahms, as Schoenberg's above example illustrates, and bars 15-18 and 24-27 in the Berg). In each case, too, the theme/row is a horizontal delineation of its (vertical) accompanying harmony. Yet to use a chain of thirds (ascending or descending) as the thematic basis for a movement was nothing new. As Raymond Knapp has observed, the opening of Mozart's Fortieth Symphony is constructed thus, while as Nottebohm's edition of Beethoven's sketches had long proven, the latter had considered using a chain of thirds for the opening of his Fifth Symphony.4 When one considers, however, that the correlations between Brahms's Fourth Symphony and Berg's concerto do not begin and end with a chain of thirds, then they begin to seem less a matter of chance and more one of design. …

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