Alban Berg

Composer Alban Berg

A Viennese composer whose romantic modernism is unique and multifaceted. His music communicates with audiences despite his adoption of "atonal" musical techniques.

Vital Statistics
Vienna, February 9, 1885
Vienna, December 24, 1935, of blood poisoning from an abscess
20th Century
Performed As:
Did not perform (basic piano training)
During Lifetime:
The cultural efflorescence of fin-de-siècle Vienna provided the impetus for modernism in the arts: Mahler’s groundbreaking performances at the Vienna Court Opera; dramatists like Arthur Schnitzler and Frank Wedekind; Gustav Klimt and the Vienna Secession painters; Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis; philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein; architect Adolf Loos; journalist/satirist Karl Kraus; and political radicalism, including the Christian Social movement.
Biographical Outline
  • Underachiever: Born into an upper-middle-class family (his father is in the export business), Berg has to repeat two different grades in school. He learns basic piano from his governess and composes enthusiastically, though he is not conservatory material. At 17, he fathers a child by the family's kitchen-maid.
  • Private study, 1904-1911: Berg is an unpaid civil service trainee when his brother and sister respond to a newspaper advertisement on his behalf, and he becomes a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg. Berg progresses rapidly, taking on composition study in 1907 and absorbing his teacher's own experiments in nontonal harmony.
  • Journeyman, 1911-1914: Berg marries Helene Nahowski, despite her family's disapproval. He begins to teach privately, manages his family's properties (his father having died in 1900), and does some work for Schoenberg's publisher. He also performs professional and personal tasks for Schoenberg, who has moved to Berlin.
  • Scandal concert, 1913: A performance of two of Berg's Five Orchestral Songs on Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg, Op. 4, conducted by Schoenberg, causes a near-riot, with fistfights breaking out. The police halt the concert. Later, Schoenberg criticizes the songs for lack of depth and Berg, his confidence shaken, puts them aside. In response to the criticism, Berg works on his Three Orchestra Pieces, Op. 6 (1913-1915).
  • War years, 1914-1918: Berg sees the premiere of Woyzeck, a play by an obscure, 19th-century playwright, Georg Büchner. He decides to set it to music, but is forestalled by his induction into the army in 1915. His health failing, he is posted to an office job at the War Ministry.
  • Operatic breakthrough, 1925: Berg finishes his opera, Wozzeck, in 1922, and the vocal score is published with a loan from a friend of his sister. The new music director of the Berlin State Opera, Erich Kleiber, sees the score, and determines to produce it. The premiere, in 1925, is a critical success. Further productions secure the composer international recognition and enough royalty income to allow him to concentrate on composition.
  • Affair of the heart, 1925-27: In 1925, Berg completes his Chamber Concerto (Kammerkonzert), the first work in which he uses Schoenberg's recently invented 12-tone system of composition. He also has an affair with the wife of a Prague businessman, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. His artistic response to the affair is the Lyric Suite for string quartet, his most famous instrumental work.
  • The Lulu Years, 1928-1935: Berg begins his next opera, Lulu. Work progresses slowly, yet he completes the composition in 1934. In January 1933, the Nazi Party comes to power in Germany and Berg's music is denounced as "cultural bolshevism." With income from performances of his music now nearly nonexistent, he gratefully accepts a commission for a violin concerto from the American violinist Louis Krasner. He writes the concerto during the summer of 1935, and returns to orchestrating his opera. Shortly after the premiere of the Symphonic Suite from Lulu, Berg is rushed to the hospital, where he dies of blood poisoning from an abscess caused by an insect bite.
Fun Facts
  • Enthusiast: Berg preserved a childlike curiosity and sense of wonderment about the world, which allowed him to be open to various cultural currents making their way through Vienna. He was a big fan of movies, and admired Puccini, the "new" opera of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, and jazz (which he used extensively in Lulu). Berg was solicitous of others and easily moved by a friend's emotional distress or discomfort.
  • Daddy dearest: Schoenberg became a father figure to Berg, though their relationship was fraught with tension. Because of the older man's sometimes abusive treatment, a break occurred in the friendship in 1915, which healed only gradually.
  • Life and art: Berg constantly wove autobiographical details into his music. His experiences in the army helped him to sympathize with the downtrodden orderly Wozzeck. In the Lyric Suite, he entwined the initials of his lover and himself in the theme, and built the piece around a program that includes their mutual declaration of love and portraits of her children. Even the orchestration (with the instruments muted throughout) is programmatic — it represents secrecy.
  • Unfinished: Berg died with about 950 measures of Lulu unorchestrated. Although, with the short score and his notes, it would have been easy to finish the job, Helene, the composer's widow, refused to allow it. On her death, composer Friedrich Cerha did finish the orchestration, but it received its first performance in as late as 1976, after a lawsuit to prevent it, brought by the trustees of Helene's foundation, had failed.
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Explore the Music
  • Shooting to fame: While Berg's music isn't easy listening, it has gained extraordinary popularity. Wozzeck is now one of the most frequently performed 20th-century operas. The Lyric Suite is a welcome entry on chamber music programs and has been used by modern dance choreographers, and the Violin Concerto is a staple of many soloists' repertory. Berg's later works display a strong vein of Romantic melody; the composer softens their complex, dissonant harmonies by retaining classical harmonic and melodic elements. (The concert aria The Wine, for example, is based on a minor-mode scale, while the violin concerto begins with major and minor chords.) Listeners may discover that some of the vaunted difficulties of this music sound tame by early-21st-century standards.
  • Elegy: The Violin Concerto is dedicated "to the memory of an angel" — Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walther Gropius, who died of poliomyelitis just before Berg began work on the piece. It quotes Bach's harmonization of the funeral chorale Es ist genug (It is enough), as well as a folksong.
  • It's a Lulu: Berg's final opera is known for being difficult on the soprano playing the lead role. The opera is ambitious, calling for a huge orchestra and even a film at the end of Act 2. Despite the show's inherent difficulties, the current San Francisco Opera production was a major success at its 1989 premiere and has been revived twice since then (1998, 2003).
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