Alban Berg (1885-1935)

Alban Berg was a great musician, and he was, before all else, a great musical dramatist.

Alban Berg's music demonstrates better than any other the individual expressive qualities possible within the highly structured style developed by the composers of the Second Viennese School. Even when writing in a pure twelve-tone style, Berg employs a lyrical and harmonic language that hearkens back to the late romantic style of Mahler. For this reason, he is the most easily approached composer of this style.

With the untimely death of Alban Berg it would appear that the period of atonal composition is for the time being already concluded. The prospects for European music of our times had become, by this, still darker than they were already.

“I never entertained the idea of reforming the artistic structure of the opera with Wozzeck...I wanted to composer good music, to develop musically the contents of B??chner’s immortal drama, to translate his poetic language into music; but other than that, when I decided to write an opera, my only intentions, including the technique of composition, were to give the theater what belongs to the theater. In other words, the music was to be so formed as consciously to fulfill its duty of serving the action at every moment.”

Alban Maria Johannes Berg (February 9, 1885, - December 24, 1935) was an Austrian composer. He was a member of the so called Second Viennese School, producing works that combined Mahlerian romanticism with Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve tone technique.

Berg was born Alban Maria Johannes Berg in Vienna on February 9th, 1885.  His father Conrad Berg was a well placed salesman in the export trade who had moved from Nuremberg to Vienna in 1867.  Alban’s mother Johanna Anna Berg was the daughter of a Viennese citizen, and had forbears from Nordbohmen and Baden. He spent most of his life living there. He was more interested in literature than music as a child, and did not begin to compose until he was fifteen, when he started to teach himself music. He had very little formal music eduction until he began a six year period of study with Arnold Schoenberg in October 1904. Schoenberg was a major influence on him; Berg not only greatly admired him as a composer, but many people believe that he saw him as a surrogate father (Berg’s own father died when he was 15).

For the first two years of his study under Schoenberg, Berg worked as a civil servant, but from 1906 he concentrated on music full time, and in 1907 saw the first performance of his work: three of the Seven Early Songs were given in a concert of music by Schoenberg’s pupils in Vienna.

In 1913, Berg’s Five songs on picture postcard texts by Peter Altenberg were premiered in Vienna. The piece caused a riot, and the performance had to be halted - a complete performance of the work was not given until 1952.

From 1915 to 1918, he served in the Austrian Army, and it was during a period of leave in 1917 that he began work on his first opera, Wozzeck. Following World War I, he settled again in Vienna where he gave private music lessons. He also helped Schoenberg in the running of the Society for Private Musical Performances.

The performance in 1924 of three excerpts from his opera Wozzeck brought him his first public success. Wozzeck, which Berg had written between 1917 and 1922, was completed at that time, but was not performed until 1925 in a performance conducted by Erich Kleiber. The work is today seen as one of his most significant. A later opera, also critically acclaimed, Lulu, was left incomplete at his death.

Berg is probably best known for his Violin Concerto, which, like much of his work, combines atonality with tonal passages, and uses Schoenberg’s twelve tone technique in a way as to admit Wagnerian harmonies. Other well known Berg compositions include the Lyric Suite (thought to be a big influence on the String Quartet No. 3 of B??la Bart??k) and the Chamber Concerto for violin, piano and 13 wind instruments.

Berg died on Christmas Eve 1935, in Vienna, from blood poisoning caused by an insect bite.