Why can't I write a violin concerto?


Bittersweet twelve-tone rows Gil Shaham on Alban Berg's Violin Concerto

On Good Friday, March 25th, Bayerischer Fernsehen will broadcast a concert from January 2014 with Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, in which the violinist Gil Shaham will interpret Alban Berg's violin concerto. In an interview with Andrea Lauber at the end of 2013, Shaham, who was artist in residence with the BR Symphony Orchestra in the 13/14 season, talks about this work.

Andrea Lauber: Gil Shaham, you will play the Berg concert in Munich in January 2014 ...

Gil Shaham: Yes, this concert fascinates me incredibly. For us violinists, it is a blessing that between 1931 and 1939, i.e. in just eight years, there were so many epoch-making works by outstanding composers such as Schönberg, Berg, Hindemith, Walton, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Britten, Bartók, Milhaud, Szymanowski, Hartmann and Bloch were written. That is really a very interesting fact, because in the period before 1930 there were hardly any new violin concertos. Ravel once said: Why should I write a new violin concerto? There is one from Mendelssohn.

AL: You yourself once said that thanks to these concerts you could look back at the time - as if through a kind of "violinist's glasses". What is that supposed to mean?

GS Music can very well capture something of the time in which it was created. Something was in the air in the 1930s: the longing for old Europe and at the same time a dangerous atmosphere of optimism combined with the question of how things will go on. In the case of Karl Amadeus Hartmanns Concerto funebre it becomes very clear. In a letter he writes: "This music is a reflection of our time." Perhaps these composers have found the right instrument in the violin to express their feelings and thoughts. The violin evidently exerted a special fascination on her, because she embodies - unlike z. B. the piano - that single voice that has to assert itself against the orchestra, just like the individual in society. One reason could also be the characteristics of the violin sound, it is often ascribed a nostalgic touch. In the Berg concert there is also a moment when the violin plays this plaintive melody on the G-string and is accompanied by the orchestra in twelve-tone harmony. And suddenly the contrast: clarinets imitate a church organ.

Gil Shaham on Bavarian television

Good Friday, May 25, 10:15 a.m. to 10:45 a.m.
Alban Berg: Violin Concerto "In Memory of an Angel"
Gil Shaham (violin)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Mariss Jansons

AL: The beginning of the Berg concert with the empty fifths creates a very special atmosphere ...

GS Yes absolutely! It always reminds me of the ritual of unpacking the violin: I open the case, take out the violin and tune the strings. And then comes the twelve-tone row that's so bittersweet (sings the series). In her, in this bittersweet, the life of Manon Gropius is reflected for me. We know that Berg wrote the concert in her memory. Manon was the apple of the eye of Viennese society. She was pretty and sought-after - like a second Alma. In the first sentence you can hear that in the country man. Her agony is described in the second sentence. There are passages in it that sound very operatic and passages that get under your skin, like the last four notes of the twelve-tone row that become the melody of the Bach chorale. This passage is transcendent ...


Gil Shaham, 2013

Image source: Luke Ratray


Gil Shaham, 2013

Image source: Luke Ratray


Gil Shaham and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Los Angeles in 1998

Image source: picture-alliance / dpa


Gil Shaham in 2000

Image source: picture-alliance / dpa


Gil Shaham, 2007

Image source: Christian Steiner


The artist on the go

Image source: Luke Ratray

AL: Nevertheless, the skeptics of twelve-tone music don't have to fear anything at this concert, right?

GS No not at all! On the contrary, the concert sounds almost tonal in some places. That is also what fascinates me so much about the concerts of the 1930s: every composer had his own style, and especially at that time the approaches were so different! There is twelve-tone music with Berg and Bartók, with Walton we have tonal melodies by the soloist, which are accompanied by twelve-tone rows in the orchestra. Influences from other styles of music such as B. the jazz can be felt. It was a very exciting time in which many trends and developments flowed into one another.

AL: However, the mountain concert does not offer the soloist very many opportunities to shine ...

GS I always have the feeling of being part of a play. My job is very similar to that of an actor. We have to bring to life what the composer wrote. In the case of the mountain concert, it really is a large-scale drama - to stay in the theater category! And as a soloist, in this case I am "only" part of it ...

AL: You have been playing these concerts on stages around the world for a number of years. Did the audience's reaction surprise you?

GS Absolutely, it showed me that it doesn't always have to be Mendelssohn or Brahms. Still, I didn't expect the audience to accept these works so positively. Because these pieces are anything but loose and flaky, especially the one already mentioned Concerto funebre from Hartmann. The Berg Violin Concerto does not end with a big bang either. But all of these composers wanted to touch people's souls and hearts. And I hope that I can do that too.