Alban Berg

(9 February 1885, Vienna - 24 December 1935, Vienna)


Alban Maria Johannes Berg was an Austrian composer, well known for his atonal and 12-tone compositions. He was a member of the Second Viennese School with Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. The composers of this school theoretically inherited their legacy from a “First Viennese School” (Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven), although these earlier composers were by no means as closely associated with one another as were those of the Second School.

As a child, his interest manifested more in literature than in music. Around the age of 15 he started teaching himself music, which materialized in his first compositions. In October 1904, Berg became Arnold Schoenberg's student, under which he studied counterpoint, music theory, and harmony. By 1907, he began composition lessons, during this period his output consisted of more than 100 songs and piano duets, most of which remain unpublished.

The musical precepts and the human example provided by Schoenberg shaped Berg’s artistic personality as they worked together for the next 6 years until 1911. In the fall of 1907, Berg's gave his first public performance which included his Piano Sonata (published in 1908). Other noteworthy works composed in this period are: the Sieben frühe Lieder (1905-1908), the Vier Lieder op. 2, the String Quartet op.3, Four Songs (1909) and String Quartet (1910). The main influences on Berg's music were represented by Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner.

In 1912 Berg finished his first work since his student days with Schoenberg, Five Orchestral Songs. The inspiration for this composition came from postcard messages addressed to both his friends and his foes by the eccentric Viennese poet Peter Altenberg. The performance of two of the songs held at a concert of the Academic Society for Literature and Music in March 1913, provoked a near riot, and had to be halted. After this experience, Berg withdrew the work, which is surely one of the most innovative and assured first orchestral compositions in the literature, and it was not performed in full until 1952 and remained unpublished until 1966.

Influenced by performance of Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck (the story of a soldier who is tormented by his superiors and ultimately kills himself and his mistress) and maybe by his time in the army during the First World War, from 1917 to 1922, Berg worked on his expressionist opera, called Wozzeck, and upon completion was forced to publish it himself by borrowing the money from his sister Smaragda, to whom the score is dedicated. After 137 rehearsals, Wozzeck (considered the first fully atonal opera)received its premiere on December 14, 1925, after which, Berg began to achieve critical and popular success.

Upon completion of Wozzeck, Berg, who had also become an outstanding teacher of composition, turned his attention to chamber music. His Chamber Concerto for violin, piano, and 13 wind instruments was written in 1925, in honor of Schoenberg’s 50th birthday.

Following the success of Wozzeck, in 1928, Berg began to compose his next and last master piece. He drew his inspiration from the Lulu plays by Wedekind, which dealt with the subject of sexual hypocrisy. His work on this opera, called Lulu, lasted from 1928 to 1935. The opera was a twelve-tone work and was also an example of expressionism in music. This work engaged him, with minor interruptions, for the next seven years, and the orchestration of its third act remained incomplete at his death (it was completed by the Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha and given its premiere in Paris in 1979).

Other well-known Berg compositions include the Lyric Suite (1926), which was later shown to employ elaborate cyphers to document a secret love affair; the post-Mahlerian Three Pieces for Orchestra (completed in 1915 but not performed until after Wozzeck); and the Chamber Concerto (Kammerkonzert, 1923–25) for violin, piano, and 13 wind instruments: this latter is written so conscientiously that Pierre Boulez has called it "Berg's strictest composition" and it, too, is permeated by cyphers and posthumously disclosed hidden programs.

Berg is remembered as one of the most important composers of the 20th century and to date is the most widely performed opera composer among the Second Viennese School. He is considered to have brought more human values to the twelve-tone system, his works seen as more emotional than Schoenberg's. Critically he is seen to have preserved the Viennese tradition in his music.

Berg’s powerful and complex works draw from a broad range of musical resources but are chiefly shaped by a few central techniques: the use of a complex chromatic expressionism, which nearly obscures, yet actually remains within, the framework of traditional tonality; the recasting of classical musical forms with atonal content—i.e., abandoning traditional tonal structure dependent upon a centrally important tone; and a deft handling of the 12-tone approach developed by Schoenberg as a method of structuring atonal music. Berg dealt with the new medium so skillfully that the classical heritage of his compositions is not obliterated, thus justifying the term frequently applied to him: the “classicist of modern music.”

Here  you can find a list of compositions by Alban Berg.