When Berg received a commission for a concerto from the violinist Louis Krasner in January 1935, he was busy working on Lulu and set the commission aside. On April 22 of that year, the beloved daughter of his friend Alma Mahler, Manon Gropius, died at the age of 18, and Berg ceased work on the opera to compose his Violin Concerto as a memorial. Working at an unusually fast pace, Berg completed the score by August 11, though did not live to hear its premiere in April 1936. Some commentators have lamented the fact that work on the Violin Concerto prevented Berg from completing Lulu, which many view as his most important work. Yet the Violin Concerto has become Berg's single most popular and regularly programmed work. Beyond the firmly tonal works of his youth, the Violin Concerto is also Berg's most accessible score in its compelling combination of both tonal and atonal idioms.
As with many of Berg's pieces, the concerto follows a program governed by a strict formal design. The four movements are may be grouped into two parts of two movements each, with only a short break between movements two and three. The first two movements are structured like a Classical sonata-allegro and dance movement, respectively, and together form a musical portrait of the girl. The second part reverses the typical pattern of the Classical symphony, placing an Allegro, in this case an intense and elaborate cadenza-like movement first, followed by an Adagio, a set of variations after the Bach chorale It Is Enough. These movements represent the catastrophe of death and, ultimately, the sublimity of transfiguration.
Berg's use of tonality in the Violin Concerto is unique. The tone row upon which the work is constructed begins on a string of thirds that alternately outline minor and major triads, lending a distictive tonal element to passages that are apparently otherwise atonal. The work's tonal aspect is futher embodied in Berg's incorporation of a Carinthian folk song in the second movement and the aforementioned use of Bach's chorale, with Bach's own harmonization, in the third. (The last four notes of Berg's row, in fact, "coincide" -- certainly by design -- with the first four of Bach's chorale. Throughout, Berg's juxtaposition of tonal and atonal elements, as well as the alternation of richly lyrical, even Romantic passages with more formalized, deterministic sections, create a musical analogy for the more general theme of lost youth.