Alban Berg Facts
The Austrian composer Alban Berg (1885-1935) adopted the revolutionary twelve-tone method, but he frequently combined it with tonality.
Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, and Anton Webern have often been called the second Viennese school. (The first Viennese school included those classical composers of the 18th century who wrote many of their important works in Vienna; Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are the most outstanding representatives.) Schoenberg, the great innovator, first transcended the limitations of traditional tonality and then organized his new sounds according to the twelve-tone method.
Schoenberg's principal European disciples, Berg and Webern, followed his ideas but developed them in quite different directions. Webern pushed many of Schoenberg's innovative concepts as far as was possible in the 1940s. In fact, Schoenberg even said on one occasion, "Webern always exaggerated!" But Berg always seemed to be linking Schoenbergian techniques with those of earlier music: sometimes he used baroque or classical forms (sonata, rondo, passacaglia, fugue); at other times he quoted older compositions within the framework of the twelve-tone method (Wagner's Tristan prelude, Bach's chorale Es ist genug, a Carinthian folksong). Such links with the familiar aided in winning acceptance for Berg's music and in preparing the ear to accept even more complex contemporary styles.
Berg was born on Feb. 9, 1885, in Vienna. His father was an export salesman; his mother the daughter of a court jeweler. At the age of 14 Berg began to develop an intense interest in music, and the following year he composed his first songs. He neglected his school studies and failed in his matriculation examinations. Sinking into a profound depression, which was intensified by an unhappy love affair, he attempted suicide in the fall of 1903. He overcame this spiritual crisis, and after his graduation in 1904 he took the job of unpaid accountant in a government office.
A decisive change in Berg's life soon took place. His brother, who had read one of Schoenberg's newspaper advertisements as teacher of theory and composition, secretly took some of Alban's songs to Schoenberg. Impressed with the talent they revealed, Schoenberg invited Berg to become his pupil, at first without fee, later at modest cost. Compositions written during the period of study with Schoenberg include the Seven Early Songs (1905-1907), the Piano Sonata, Op. 1 (1908), the Four Songs, Op. 2 (1908-1909), and the String Quartet, Op. 3 (completed in 1910). Berg married Helene Nahowska in 1911. The World War I years were difficult for Berg. At first enthusiastic about his military service, he soon suffered a physical breakdown caused largely by asthma, which had tormented him for years. He was transferred to office work in the Ministry of War and remained there until the war's end.
The Opera Wozzeck
Berg completed his first opera, Wozzeck, in 1921. He arranged his own libretto from a play by Georg Büchner. There are three acts of five scenes each. In Act I the protagonist is shown in his relation to the world around him; in Act II the drama develops; in Act III the catastrophe occurs, followed by an epilogue. Each act consists of a series of strict musical forms. The first act is composed of five character pieces; the second is a five movement symphony; and the third is made up of six "inventions" (the extra section being an elaborate orchestral interlude between the fourth and fifth scenes).
However, Berg did not want these forms to be obvious to the listener. He stated, "From the moment when the curtain rises until it descends for the last time there must not be anyone in the audience who notices anything of these various fugues and inventions, suite movements and sonata movements, variations and passacaglias. Nobody must be filled with anything else except the idea of the opera— which goes far beyond the fate of Wozzeck. And that—so I believe—I have achieved!" The continuing success of Wozzeck since its premiere in Berlin in 1925 proved that Berg was right.
In the last 10 years of his life Berg turned to the twelvetone method. Works employing this method include the Chamber Concerto for violin, piano, and wind instruments (1923-1925); the Lyric Suite for string quartet (1925-1926); Der Wein, a concert aria for soprano and orchestra (1929; text by Baudelaire in the German translation of Stefan George); Lulu, a three-act opera (1928-1935; text by Frank Wedekind, last act unfinished); and the Violin Concerto (1935). In these compositions the twelve-tone method is treated in a free and personal manner. The Chamber Concerto is preceded by a musical motto including the letters of Schoenberg's, Berg's, and Webern's full names, insofar as these can be translated into musical notation. In the Lyric Suite strict twelve-tone movements alternate with those in which the tonal material is more freely treated. The Violin Concerto has a tone row made up almost entirely of triads, a procedure that most twelve-tone composers avoided.
Early in 1935 the American violinist Louis Krasner commissioned Berg to write a violin concerto. While he was thinking about the form the work should take, a tragedy occurred in his intimate circle: the death of Manon Gropius, the 19-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler. Berg quickly composed the concerto as a tribute to her memory. It was completed on Aug. 11, 1935. Ironically, it became his farewell to life. An insect bite led to general blood poisoning. On Dec. 24, 1935, he died, his thoughts preoccupied to the last with his unfinished opera Lulu.
Further Reading on Alban Berg
Two good biographies of Berg are H. F. Redlich, Alban Berg: The Man and His Music (1957), and Willi Reich, The Life and Work of Alban Berg (1963; trans. 1965). Both contain important selections from Berg's writings. René Leibowitz, Schoenberg and His School (1947; trans. 1949; repr. 1970), has a section on Berg. Leibowitz is not always accurate in details, but he communicates his appreciation for Schoenberg and his followers.
Additional Biography Sources
Carner, Mosco., Alban Berg: the man and the work, London: Duckworth, 1975; New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1977, 1975, 1983.
Monson, Karen., Alban Berg, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979.
Neighbour, O. W. (Oliver Wray), The New Grove Second Viennese School: Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, New York: Norton, 1983.
Reich, Willi, The life and work of Alban Berg, New York: DaCapo Press, 1981.
Simms, Bryan R., Alban Berg: a guide to research, New York: Garland Pub., 1996. □