Berg, Alban (1885–1935)

views updated

BERG, ALBAN (1885–1935)


Austrian composer.

Alban Berg lived in Vienna at a time when his musical mentors, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg, changed the course of Western music. Following Mahler, Berg's music reflects his life and contemporary Viennese society in autobiographical "programs" encoded in musical symbols. Following Schoenberg, Berg initially wrote tonal music, then nontonal music from 1908, and twelve-tone music from 1923. Berg's compositional style is related to but also distinct from his colleagues in the "second Viennese school," his teacher Schoenberg and fellow pupil Anton Webern. Berg achieved success in his lifetime, particularly with his first opera, Wozzeck (first performed in 1925), but he suffered as others did with the rise of Adolf Hitler. His output is relatively small, with seven numbered opuses and seven additional works, but has had great influence.

In Berg's early songs (to 1908), from which the Sieben frühe Lieder (Seven early songs) were orchestrated in 1928, he engaged the German lied tradition. He developed rapidly after studies with Schoenberg commenced in 1904; following preliminary instrumental studies, the Piano Sonata, op. 1 (1907–1908), is a one-movement work that reflects Berg's awareness of contemporary French music. The Vier Lieder, op. 2, for voice and piano (1909–1910; Four songs) move to a nontonal language in the fourth song, but the retention of cyclic aspects of tonality, embodied in the "circle of fifths" progression in which voices move in cycles of the same intervals, is a thread that continues throughout Berg's oeuvre, in cycles of not only pitch but rhythm, serial order, and orchestration.

Berg's two-movement string quartet, op. 3 (1910), is an unusual large-scale instrumental nontonal piece; an acclaimed performance in 1923 at the International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in Salzburg was a first success for Berg. It was also the last work written under Schoenberg's tutelage. In his subsequent Altenberg Lieder for voice and orchestra, op. 4 (1912), and Vier Stücke for clarinet and piano, op. 5 (1913), Berg reflected literary trends from writers Karl Kraus and Peter Altenberg in composing highly condensed, aphoristic pieces. An abbreviated performance of two of the songs at a scandalous concert in March 1913, and a confrontation with Schoenberg over the nature of his recent works, was followed by a return to the more characteristically substantial Drei Stücke for orchestra, op. 6 (1914–1915). These pieces are also studies for Wozzeck, finished in 1922.

Georg Büchner's fragmentary play Woyzeck (1837), adapted by Berg as Wozzeck, foreshadowed many of the aspects of expressionism, an artistic movement in Germany in the early twentieth century. The antihero's psychosis, ill-treatment by society, murder of his mistress Marie, suicide, and the life cycle that traps his child are all themes that resonated with the times, as reflected in the contemporary art of the painter Oscar Kokoschka, among others. The story of the downtrodden soldier also reflected Berg's own experiences in World War I. Berg's combining of instrumental forms and drama is described in his lecture on the opera, given before several of the many performances.

The themes of injustice shift in his second opera, Lulu (1927–1935)—adapted from Frank Wedekind's controversial plays Erdgeist (1895; Earth spirit) and Die Büchse der Pandora (1904; Pandora's box)—to the character of Lulu, who starts off as a figure like Eliza Doolittle in Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion but becomes a sexual and spiritual force embodying society's fears and desires. Taking inspiration from Kraus's lecture on Wedekind's Die Büchse der Pandora in 1905, Berg conceived of Lulu's three husbands, her victims in act 1, returning musically to take revenge in act 3 as her clients when she has become a prostitute. Berg inserts himself as Dr. Schoen's son, the composer Alwa, who, along with the lesbian Countess Geschwitz and other lovers, falls under Lulu's spell to his ultimate destruction. Lulu dies at the hands of Jack the Ripper in the mixed fiction-realism of the story. Berg sets the drama with musical palindromes, twelve-tone character rows derived from serial cycles, leitforms associated with characters, and many corresponding details of tempo and orchestration.

Berg's twelve-tone works follow the neoclassical trends of the time. They include the Kammerkonzert (1923–1925) and second string quartet, the Lyrische Suite (1925–1926), both partially twelve-tone in language, the commissioned concert aria Der Wein (1929), and the violin concerto (1935), composed around the time of Lulu. The concerto includes a chorale from J. S. Bach, "Es ist Genug" (It is enough), woven into the twelve-tone fabric of the triadic-based row (G, B-flat, D, F-sharp, A, C, E, G-sharp, B, C-sharp, D-sharp, F), as a public requiem for Alma Mahler's daughter but also a fore-shadowing of Berg's own death in December 1935.

Berg's music has undergone censure in the Webern-influenced 1950s and renewed acclaim in later revivals of tonal and Romantic ideals. The unfinished Lulu was completed by Friedrich Cerha and premiered in its full form in 1979. Unfolding details of Berg's life, including his daughter, Albine, born in 1902 to a family servant, his marriage to Helene Nahowski in 1910, and an affair with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin in 1925 documented in an annotated score of the Lyric Suite discovered by George Perle, await a definitive biography. Berg scholarship begins with his own writings, sketches, letters, and analyses, writings from Theodor Adorno and Hans Redlich, and the work of George Perle.

See alsoOpera; Schoenberg, Arnold.


Adorno, Theodor W. Alban Berg: Master of the Smallest Link. Translated by Juliane Brand and Christopher Hailey. Cambridge, U.K., 1991.

Hall, Patricia. A View of Berg's "Lulu" through the Autograph Sources. Berkeley, Calif., 1996.

Headlam, Dave. The Music of Alban Berg. New Haven, Conn., 1996.

Jarman, Douglas. The Music of Alban Berg. Berkeley, Calif., 1979.

Perle, George. The Operas of Alban Berg. 2 vols. Berkeley, Calif., 1980–1985.

Redlich, Hans. Alban Berg: The Man and His Music. London, 1957. Abridged translation of Alban Berg: Versuch einer Würdigung. Vienna, 1957.

Dave Headlam