Alban Maria Johannes Berg (February 9, 1885 – December 24, 1935) was an Austrian composer and member of the Second Viennese School with Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, who produced compositions that combined Mahlerian Romanticism with a personal adaptation of Schoenberg’s atonal twelve-tone technique. Berg was born on February 9, 1885, in Vienna, Austria, the third of four children of Conrad and Johanna Berg. His father ran a successful export business and owned properties throughout Vienna, as well as an estate in Carinthia known as the Berghof. As practicing Catholics, the family also garnered income from a shop Berg’s mother operated, a Devotionalienhandlung. Apart from a few short musical trips abroad and annual summer sojourns in the Austrian Alps, Berg’s life was spent in the city of his birth. In his youth, Alban was more interested in literature than music and as a child leaned toward a literary career. However, as in most Viennese middle-class homes, music was regularly played in his parents’ house, in keeping with the general musical atmosphere of the city, so encouraged by his father and older brother, Alban began to compose music without benefit of formal instruction. He did not begin to compose until he was fifteen, when he started to teach himself music, and during this period his output consisted of more than 100 songs and piano duets, most of which remain unpublished.
Berg’s family lived comfortably until the death of his father in 1900. Having graduated from Gymnasium after repeating two years, Berg found himself working as a trainee civil servant, but in September 1904 he met Arnold Schoenberg, an event that decisively influenced his life. The death of Berg’s father had left little money for composition lessons, but Schoenberg was quick to recognize Berg’s talent and accepted the young man as a nonpaying pupil. Berg had received little formal music education before he became a student of Schoenberg in October, 1904. With Schoenberg he studied counterpoint, music theory, and harmony. By 1906, he was studying music full-time, and by 1907, he began composition lessons. His student compositions included five drafts for piano sonatas. He also wrote songs, including his Seven Early Songs (Sieben Frühe Lieder), three of which were Berg’s first publicly performed work in a concert that featured the music of Schoenberg’s pupils in Vienna that year. The early sonata sketches eventually culminated in Berg’s Piano Sonata, Op. 1 (1907–1908); it is one of the most formidable “first” works ever written. This was followed by Four Songs (op. 2, 1909) and String Quartet (op. 3, 1910). Berg studied with Schoenberg for six years until 1911. Berg admired him as a composer and mentor, and they remained close lifelong friends.
Berg was a part of Vienna’s cultural elite during the heady fin de siècle period. His circle included the musicians Alexander von Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker, the painters Oskar Kokoschka and Gustav Klimt, the writer and satirist Karl Kraus, the architect Adolf Loos, and the poet Peter Altenberg. In 1906, Berg met the singer Helene Nahowski, daughter of a high-ranking Austrian officer. Despite the outward hostility of her wealthy family, the two were married on May 3, 1911. The Bergs took an apartment in Vienna, where he settled down to devote the remainder of his life to music. In 1913, two of Berg’s Five Songs on Picture Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg (1912) were premièred in Vienna, conducted by Schoenberg in the infamous Skandalkonzert. Settings of poetic utterances, the songs are accompanied by a very large orchestra. The performance caused a riot, and had to be halted. This was a crippling blow to Berg’s self-confidence: he effectively withdrew the work, and it was not performed in full until 1952. The full score remained unpublished until 1966.
The genesis of Berg’s first work for the stage was a memorable theatrical experience: the performance of German dramatist Georg Büchner’s (1813–37) Woyzeck (published 1879). The theme fascinated Berg, but was delayed by World War I. From 1915 to 1918, Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian Army and during the course of the war, Berg, always in frail health, worked in the War Ministry, but while on leave in 1917 he accelerated work on Wozzeck, compressing 25 scenes into three acts. Although he managed to write the libretto in 1917, he did not begin composing the score until the war was over. He completed the opera in 1921. After the end of World War I, he settled again in Vienna where he taught private pupils. He also helped Schoenberg run his Society for Private Musical Performances, which sought to create the ideal environment for the exploration and appreciation of unfamiliar new music by means of open rehearsals, repeat performances, and the exclusion of professional critics. Three excerpts from Wozzeck were performed in 1924, and this brought Berg his first public success. The opera, which Berg completed in 1922, was first performed on December 14, 1925, when Erich Kleiber directed the first performance in Berlin.
Other well-known Berg compositions include the post-Mahlerian Three Pieces for Orchestra, completed in 1915 but not performed until after Wozzeck; the Chamber Concerto (Kammerkonzert, 1923–25) for violin, piano, and 13 wind instruments: and the Lyric Suite (1926). Berg began searching for a new opera text. He found it in two plays by the German dramatist Frank Wedekind (1864–1918). From Erdgeist (1895; “Earth Spirit”) and Büchse der Pandora (1904; “Pandora’s Box”), he extracted the central figure for his opera Lulu. Berg completed the orchestration of only the first two acts of this later three-act opera Lulu, before he died. With the seizure of power by the Nazis in Germany in 1933, Berg lost most of his income. He interrupted the orchestration of Lulu because of an unexpected and financially much-needed commission from the Russian-American violinist Louis Krasner for a Violin Concerto (1935). Berg worked at fever pitch in the seclusion of his villa in the Austrian province of Carinthia and completed the concerto in six weeks.
In mid-November 1935, Berg returned, a sick man, to Vienna where he died on Christmas Eve, 1935, from blood poisoning apparently caused by an insect-sting-induced carbuncle on his back. He was 50 years old The Violin Concerto was posthumously premièred at Barcelona, Spain, in April 1936. The first two acts of Lulu were successfully premièred at Zürich in 1937, but for personal reasons Helene Berg subsequently imposed a ban on any attempt to “complete” the final act, and the orchestration was commissioned from Friedrich Cerha and premièred in Paris under Pierre Boulez only in 1979, soon after Helene Berg’s own death. 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. His popularity has been more easily secured than many other Modernists since he plausibly combined both Romantic and Expressionist idioms.
My collection includes the following works by Alban Berg:
Chamber Concerto for Piano and Violin with (13) Winds (1925)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (1935)
Five Orchestral Songs after Texts from Postcards of P. Altenberg, op. 4 (1912).
Lyric Suite (1926): Three Pieces.
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources