Alban Berg

Alban Berg
Alban Berg. Photo: Getty Images.

Biography

The composer Alban Berg is remembered as one of the leading members of the so-called ‘Second Viennese School’, along with Anton Webern (1883–1945) and their teacher Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951).

The composer Alban Berg is inextricably linked with Vienna, the city of his birth and death. His musical education coincided with an extraordinary artistic, musical and literary outpouring there in the early 20th century, and his circle of friends included such figures as the influential artist Gustav Klimt. Berg was a leading member of the ‘Second Viennese School’. The group’s music explored the extreme edges of tonality and beyond, which they saw as an extension of the kind of model perfected by their illustrious predecessors Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Berg’s music is generally considered more lyrical and accessible than that of Schoenberg and Webern, who each took slightly different musical directions. His two operas, Wozzeck and Lulu, have found a secure place in the repertoire, although Lulu was left incomplete when Berg died in 1935 as he stopped work on it to write his Violin Concerto.

Influence of Schoenberg

Berg began studying music with Schoenberg in 1904. His early works, especially the Piano Sonata op.1, and his Seven Early Songs are still in a recognisably romantic idiom, albeit one pushed towards tonal extremes. After completing formal studies with Schoenberg in 1911, the two composers remained close collaborators, and Berg’s musical style followed Schoenberg’s through expressionist and freely atonal phases. During the first performance of his Altenberg Lieder in a concert conducted by Schoenberg in 1913 a riot broke out among the audience, with some members objecting to both the music and the text.

In 1923 Schoenberg published his Fünf Klavierstücke (Five piano pieces), op.23, which were the first to use the so-called ‘twelve-tone’ technique he had developed (other twelve-tone techniques had been proposed – including one around the same time by Josef Hauer). Berg used aspects of this to structure his own music, although adapted it to suit his lyrical style, rich with extra-musical allusions. Other composers influential on Berg included Schoenberg’s own teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky and Gustav Mahler, whose music was not as widely known at the time as it is now. The latter featured, often in arrangements, in the concerts of the Society for Private Musical Performances arranged by Schoenberg, Berg and others.

Features of Berg's music

Berg's music is often described as more open and directly lyrical than other members of the Second Viennese School. His works continue an expressionist approach to music, and even purely instrumental works often carry elements of autobiography. Berg’s music often makes use of familiar musical shapes and gestures, so providing a sense of familiarity despite the unfamiliar harmonic sound-world. He also differs from other composers of the Second Viennese School by using direct quotes or allusions to other musical styles – as in the military marches of Wozzeck, the snippets of popular song in Lulu or the use of a Bach chorale in the Violin Concerto.

Key works

  • Operas: Lulu, Wozzeck
  • Orchestral: Violin Concerto
  • Chamber: Lyric Suite; Kammerkonzert
  • Piano: Piano Sonata
  • Voice: Altenberg Lieder

Influence

While Webern had a more discernible influence on post-war modernism, Berg’s style appealed to progressive musicians seeking a broader sound-world still connected to past musical traditions. Benjamin Britten had an equivocal relationship with Berg’s music – he was unsure about Wozzeck, although admired the composer enough to consider studying with him in the 1930s. It is perhaps not too far-fetched to see something of Lulu and Wozzeck in the tortured ‘outsider’ characters of Britten's operas. The exaggerated, expressionist nature of Berg's music also carries on through the 20th century, particularly in the music of composers such as Hans Werner Henze and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.

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