Berg’s Violin Concerto is undoubtedly one of the masterpieces of the 20th century, both as an exposition of the violinist’s skill, but also as an example of twelve-tone technique at its most brilliantly honed.
The fact that a snippet of Bach’s funeral chorale ‘Es ist genug’ could unexpectedly creep into this discordant concerto simply takes Berg’s mastery to another level. But the Austrian was by no means the only composer to intorduce a chorale (or hymn tune) into an otherwise secular (non-religious) work.
Here are six of the best…
1. Igor Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments
The opening of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments sounds as startling today as it would have done when it was first performed in 1920.
Where a snippet from a chorale appears, listeners will be able to distinguish Stravinsky’s distinctive patchwork method – one can imagine the Russian composer starting out with just that chorale and using it as foundation to dissect and intersperse between angular chords. In fact in 1945, he dusted this symphony off to make the chorale into a separate piece.
2. Felix Mendelssohn: Cello Sonata No. 2 in D major, Op. 58
The Adagio of the Second Cello Sonata begins with a set graceful piano spread chords that play a graceful hymn tune – although Mendelssohn regularly quoted chorales by his beloved Bach (above) elsewhere in his music, this one would appear to be his own invention.
The piano ebbs into the background while the cello presents us with an aria of its own, which grows more fiery and recitative-like as it progresses. Before long, the piano’s chords and the cello’s impassioned song intertwine.
Cellist Coenraad Bloemendal once proposed reading this movement as ‘a programmatic representation of the competing religious forces that coexisted in Mendelssohn’s mind.’
3. Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 5
Leonard Bernstein once said that Mahler’s marches ‘are like heart attacks, his chorales like all Christendom gone mad.’ As we power through the tempestuous second movement of his Symphony No. 5, a seemingly incongruous chorale in D major confronts us.
It’s not until we’ve heard that famous Adagietto – the bitter-sweet movement used in Luchino Visconti’s 1971 film, Death in Venice – and the chorale splendidly reproduced in the finale, that its original appearance makes sense: it had anticipated the overwhelming joy of the finale in its varying guises.
4. Alban Berg: Violin Concerto
Setting Lulu to one side, Berg immersed himself into a heartfelt requiem for the death of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius’ 18-year-old daughter, Manon Gropius, through this starkly beautiful Violin Concerto. Composed using serialist technique, the concerto’s row ends with the same pitches Bach at the opening of his funeral chorale, ‘Es ist genug’. Berg in fact quotes Bach’s chorale directly in the last movement of the piece.
5. Kurt Weill: Seven Deadly Sins of the Petits Bourgeois
During the late ‘20s, Kurt Weill went from being a little-known avant-garde composer to a world-famous composer of music for the theatre. Seven Deadly Sins of the Petits Bourgeois opens with the practical Anna I (who sings) and the carefree Anna II (who dances): the two façades of one person.
At the behest of her family, she travels to six different American cities, hampered by a deadly sin in each, with the goal of making enough money to build a little house on the banks of the Mississippi. Through the schmaltz of the Prologue, we are presented with seven packaged sins punctuated by chorale passages narrating Anna’s exploits, sung by the disapproving family.
6. Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra
After a year of precipitously declining health and the diagnosis of leukemia in 1943, Bartók composed one of his most celebrated works, his Concerto for Orchestra.
Sifting past the robust ‘Introduzione’, the second movement titled ‘Games of Couples,’ presents us with skittish woodwind duets in successive pairs, which feature close intervallic interplay derived from Dalmatian folk music. The syncopated rhythm that accompanies these games – performed by side drum without snares – carries over into a sumptuous chorale for brass.