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Alban Berg

Alban Berg

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.

Later Works

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

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 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. □

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Berg, Alban (Maria Johannes)

Berg, Alban (Maria Johannes) (b Vienna, 1885; d Vienna, 1935). Austrian composer whose output, though small, is among the most influential and important of the 20th cent. One of four children of a well-to-do family, had little formal mus. education but comp. romantic songs when he was 15. In 1904 began private comp. lessons with Schoenberg and decided to devote his life to mus., giving up a job in the Civil Service. With his friend and fellow-pupil Webern, entered the avant-garde artistic life of Vienna—the Sezession artists, the poet Peter Altenberg, the painter Kokoschka—but the dominating figure was Mahler. Some of his songs were perf. at a concert by Schoenberg pupils in Vienna, Nov. 1907, the pf. variations a year later, and the str. qt. in 1911. When 2 of the 5 Altenberglieder with orch. were perf. in Vienna in Mar. 1913, cond. Schoenberg, the concert was continually interrupted and eventually abandoned. In May 1914 Berg attended a perf. of Büchner's play Woyzeck and determined to make an opera of it. Military service delayed work, but the mus. was eventually finished in 1922 and was perf. in Berlin, Dec. 1925. It caused a furore but its success with the public was never in doubt, despite critical polemics. In the next decade Berg's powers were at their height and he comp. the Chamber Conc. (1925), the Lyric Suite for str. qt. (1926), and the concert aria Der Wein (1929). In 1929 began adaptation of 2 Wedekind plays as an opera lib. called Lulu. By 1934 he had completed the mus. in short score and begun full instrumentation. In the spring of 1935 began vn. conc. commissioned by Louis Krasner. Impelled by news of the death of the beautiful 18-year-old Manon Gropius, daughter of Mahler's widow by her 2nd marriage, worked unwontedly quickly and finished the conc. in Aug. 1935, dedicating it ‘to the memory of an angel’. Four months later he too died, through blood poisoning from an insect-bite. It has recently been established that several of Berg's works, incl. the Lyric Suite, Lulu, and the Violin Concerto, contain mus. cryptograms referring to his love for Frau Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (and others).

Berg has become, to the general public, the most acceptable of the so-called ‘12-note’ or ‘dodecaphonic’ composers, probably because he never was an orthodox atonalist. His work is nearer to the Mahler idiom than to the Schoenbergian. In Wozzeck atonality is very freely used and applied to a highly formal structure, each scene being in a particular mus. form (variations, passacaglia, fugue, etc.). From the Lyric Suite onwards, Berg used 12-note procedures nearer to, but still significantly different from, the Schoenberg method. Technical methods notwithstanding, however, it is the emotional content of Berg's mus. which has awoken a ready response in listeners, particularly the Vn. Conc., which quotes the Bach chorale Es ist genug at its climax. Prin. comps.:OPERAS: Wozzeck (1914–22); Lulu (1929–35), Act 3 realized from short score by Cerha (1978–9).ORCH.: Three Pieces, Op.6 (1913–14); 3 movements from Lyric Suite arr. for str. orch. (1928); Chamber Concerto for pf., vn., and 14 wind instr. (1923–5); vn. conc. (1935).VOICE AND ORCH.: 7 Early Songs (1905–8, orch. 1928); 5 Altenberglieder (1912); 3 Fragments from Wozzeck, Op.7 (f.p. Frankfurt 1924); Der Wein (1929); Lulu-Symphonie (1934).CHAMBER MUSIC: Variations on an Original Theme for pf. (1908); pf. sonata (1907–8); str. qt., Op.3 (1910); 4 Pieces for cl. and pf. (1913); Lyric Suite for str. qt. (1925–6); Adagio from Chamber Concerto arr. for vn., cl., and pf. (1935).SONGS: 7 Early Songs (1905–8); 4 Songs, Op.2 (1909–10); and about 70 early songs.

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Berg, Alban

Alban Berg (äl´bän bĕrk), 1885–1935, Austrian composer. In his youth he taught himself music but in 1904 he became the pupil and close friend of Arnold Schoenberg. Later Berg himself taught privately in Vienna. He adopted atonality and later the twelve-tone technique of Schoenberg (see serial music), although he tempered it with the lyric and dramatic qualities of the Viennese romantic tradition. His masterpiece, the opera Wozzeck (based on the play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner; Berlin, 1925), written in a free atonal style (see atonality) with occasional intrusions of tonality, aroused strenuous protest, but it has since been acclaimed as a major work of the 20th-century musical stage. His Chamber Concerto (1927) marked a turn to twelve-tone composition, but it is in his Lyric Suite (1927) for string quartet and his opera Lulu (based on two plays by Wedekind; Zürich, 1937) that the mature twelve-tone style is manifested with great technical intricacy yet richly expressionistic. Though Lulu was left incomplete in its orchestration, it was completed by Friedrich Cerha. His Violin Concerto (Barcelona, 1936), his last completed work, written as an elegy on the death of Alma Mahler's 18-year old daughter, combines eloquent lyricism with the rigors the twelve-tone technique and of the classical form. He also wrote songs and chamber music.

See his letters to his wife, ed. and tr. by B. Grun (1971); G. Perle, The Operas of Alban Berg (2 vol., 1980–85); biographical studies by W. Reich (tr. 1965) and D. Jarman (1979).

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Berg, Alban

Berg, Alban (1885–1935) Austrian composer. A student of Arnold Schoenberg, he composed his later works in a complex, highly individualized style based on Schoenberg's twelve-tone music technique. His Wozzeck (1925) is regarded as one of the masterpieces of 20th-century opera. He also composed a fine violin concerto (1935). Another opera, Lulu, unfinished at his death, was completed by Friedrich Cerha.

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Alban Berg Quartet

Alban Berg Quartet. Austrian str. qt. founded in 1971. Gives annual series of concerts in Vienna. Salzburg Fest. début 1978. Present membership Gunter Pichler (vn.), Gerhard Schulz (vn.), Thomas Kaskuda (va.), Valentin Erben (vc.).

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