All three of the works on this program come from Berlin and Vienna in the 1930s, when the stature of these legendary cultural capitals was increasingly compromised by the rise of Nazism.
While the Third Reich
The decades following World War I found Germany and its ally Austria devastated by a demoralizing military defeat, a punitive peace treaty, and economic chaos. Even so, musical life in the major centers Berlin and Vienna flourished much as it had before the war until the looming shadow of Nazism became impossible to ignore. By the outbreak of World War II in 1939, many major musical figures had fled Hitler’s anti-Semitism, among them composer Arnold Schoenberg, conductor Bruno Walter, and pianist Artur Schnabel. History has harshly judged those who stayed in Germany and tried to compromise with the Nazis, including composers Richard Strauss and conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler.
Although the Weimar Republic was ultimately brought down by an assault from its political right, there were equally virulent forces on the left. Among those giving voice to the Marxist point of view was the playwright Bertolt Brecht. Following the success of the satirical Die Dreigroschenoper (“The Threepenny Opera”), Brecht and his musical collaborator Kurt Weill turned their attention to a full scale opera, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (“Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”).
Brecht’s fictitious city is a corrupt, capitalist façade; in Mahagonny, the pursuit of pleasure trumps everything and having no money is a capital offense. Not surprisingly, the opera was controversial from the very beginning; its 1930 premiere in Leipzig was disrupted by Nazi demonstrations and it was banned completely in 1938.
Following Weill’s death in 1950, conductor Wilhelm Brückner-Rüggeberg assembled a concert suite from Mahagonny, similar to the suite which Weill himself had arranged from Die Dreigroschenoper. Its scenario is as follows:
I. Overture to Act I
II. “Alabama Song.” Jenny Smith and her fellow prostitutes arrive in Mahagonny in search of whisky, boys and dollars.
III. “Auf nach Mahagonny” Jimmy Mahoney and his fellow lumberjacks arrive from Alaska, also looking for fun.
IV. “Ich habe gelernt” Jimmy hires Jenny and their relationship begins.
V. Hurricane. A storm threatens to destroy Mahagonny.
VI. Crane Duet. Having been convicted and sentenced to death for having no money, Jimmy bids Jenny farewell as they watch two cranes fly overhead.
VII. Finale. As Mahagonny burns, its citizens realize that their supposed utopia is actually a living hell.
Hindemith: Mathis der Maler
In both its subject matter and its tortuous road to the stage, Paul Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler (“Mathias the Painter”) (1933–35) reflects its composer’s conflict with Nazi censorship. While still in the midst of writing Mathis der Maler’s libretto, Hindemith composed a symphony of the same name; almost all of its music would ultimately appear in the finished opera. Despite the symphony’s highly successful premiere under Furtwängler in 1934, the opera was condemned by the Nazis; the title character’s opposition to mob rule and a scene that depicts a book burning clearly revealed Hindemith’s anti-Nazi views.
Based on the life of German painter Matthias Grünewald, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1524–25, and the Protestant Reformation, Mathis der Maler addresses the question that all musicians in Nazi Germany had to answer: should an artist speak out concerning the political issues of the day or is his sole responsibility to serve his art? In the opera, Mathis chooses art over politics, but Hindemith had no choice but to speak out; by 1938 his situation in Germany had become intolerable and he fled into exile, first to Switzerland, later to the United States.
Berg: Violin Concerto
Alban Berg died in 1935, three years before the Nazis’ annexation of Austria; yet, he too was victimized by Hitler’s purge of “degenerate” music when his hit opera Wozzeck was banned in Germany.
Had he lived to hear his Violin Concerto performed, Berg would certainly have seen it suffer a similar fate; he might also have been pleasantly surprised to see it enter the standard violin concerto repertoire after the war; today, it is undoubtedly the most frequently performed work of the Schoenberg-Berg-Webern school.
The reasons for its relative popularity are many. Although composed according to Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method, the first eight notes of its tone row outline four traditional triads (G minor, D major, A minor, and E major), giving the music an underpinning of traditional harmony even at its most dissonant. The final four notes of the tone row are identical to the first four notes of a Bach chorale; it is quoted in Bach’s harmonization at the beginning of the concerto’s final section. (This evening, we will precede the concerto with a performance of this chorale, “Es ist genug” from Bach’s Cantata No. 60).
Beyond these technical considerations lies the music’s rich emotional world. Berg dedicated the concerto to the memory of Manon Gropius—the daughter of Gustav Mahler’s widow, Alma—who died at age nineteen after being paralyzed by polio. Manon’s memory is evoked through references to a Carinthian folk song, a Viennese waltz, and the Bach chorale, while the opening of the second movement portrays her violent struggle with death. As Berg’s last completed composition, the concerto can be heard as his own poignant memorial as well.
Berg’s Violin Concerto was commissioned and premiered by violinist Louis Krasner, a 1922 graduate of NEC and a member of its faculty from 1976 until his death in 1995. NEC now honors a faculty member each year at Commencement with the Louis and Adrienne Krasner Teaching Excellence Award.