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Alban Berg, photograph before 1935

Alban Maria Johanne Berg (February 9, 1885 – December 24, 1935) was an Austrian composer. He was a member of the Second Viennese School with Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, and produced compositions that combined Mahlerian Romanticism with a personal adaptation of Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique.


Life and work

Berg was born in Vienna, the third of four children of Johanna and Conrad Berg. His family lived comfortably until the death of his father in 1900.


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. In late February or early March 1902 he fathered a child with Marie Scheuchl, a servant girl in the Berg family household. His daughter, Albine, was born on December 4, 1902.

Berg had little formal music education before he became a student of Arnold Schoenberg in October 1904. With Schoenberg he studied counterpoint, music theory, and harmony.[1] By 1906, he was studying music full-time; 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.[2]

Berg studied with Schoenberg for six years until 1911. Berg admired him as a composer and mentor, and they remained close lifelong friends. Berg may have seen the older composer as a father figure, as Berg's father had died when he was only 15.

Among Schoenberg's teaching was the idea that the unity of a musical composition depends upon all its aspects being derived from a single basic idea; this idea was later known as developing variation. Berg passed this on to his students, one of whom, Theodor Adorno, stated: "The main principle he conveyed was that of variation: everything was supposed to develop out of something else and yet be intrinsically different".[3] The Piano Sonata is an example—the whole composition is derived from the work's opening quartal gesture and its opening phrase.

Innovative composer

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 painter 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 wealthy family (said by some to be in fact the illegitimate daughter of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria from his liaison with Anna Nahowski);[4] despite the outward hostility of her family, the two were married on May 3, 1911.

In 1913, two of Berg's Five Songs on Picture Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg (1912) were premièred in Vienna, conducted by Schoenberg. Settings of aphoristic utterances, the songs are accompanied by a very large orchestra. The performance caused a riot, and had to be halted; the work was not performed in full until 1952 (and its full score remained unpublished until 1966).

From 1915 to 1918, Berg served in the Austrian Army and during a period of leave in 1917 he began work on his first opera, Wozzeck. 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.

Success, death and honors

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 a performance in Berlin. Today Wozzeck is seen as one of Berg's most important works. Berg completed the orchestration of only the first two acts of his later opera, the critically acclaimed Lulu, before he died. The last act, which was complete in partitur format, was completed after Helene Berg's death by Friedrich Cerha, and the full opera has entered the repertoire as one of the landmarks of contemporary music and, like Wozzeck, remains a consistent audience draw.

Among Berg's best-known pieces is his elegiac Violin Concerto. Like much of his mature work, it employs a personal adaptation of Schoenberg's twelve tone technique that enables the composer to use this technique to produce passages employing more conventional tonal harmonies, including quotations from historical tonal music, such as a Bach chorale and a Carinthian folk song. The Violin Concerto was dedicated "to the memory of an Angel," Manon, the deceased daughter of architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler.

Other well known Berg compositions include the Lyric Suite (seemingly a significant influence on the String Quartet No. 3 of Béla Bartók), Three Pieces for Orchestra and the Chamber Concerto for violin, piano and 13 wind instruments; this latter is written so conscientiously that Pierre Boulez has called it "Berg's strictest composition."

Berg died in Vienna, on Christmas Eve 1935, apparently from blood poisoning caused by a boil on his back. He had been reduced to poverty due to Nazi persecution and blacklisting of all Modernist music, so to save money he tried to refrain from entering hospital, and his wife performed an ill-advised home surgery using a pair of scissors. Later he was rushed to hospital, but too late to prevent the onset of blood poisoning. He was 50 years old.

Berg is remembered as one of the most important composers of the Twentieth Century and to date is the most widely performed opera composer among the Second Viennese School. His popularity has been more easily secured than many other Modernists since he plausibly combined both Romantic and Expressionist idioms. Though Berg's Romanticism has seemed a drawback for some more Modernist composers, the Berg scholar Douglas Jarman writes in the New Grove: "As the 20th century closed, the 'backward-looking' Berg suddenly came as Perle remarked, to look like its most forward-looking composer."[5]

Major compositions







Analytical writings

  • Adorno, Theodor W. Alban Berg: Master of the Smallest Link. Trans. Juliane Brand and Christopher Hailey. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Bruhn, Siglind, ed. Encrypted Messages in Alban Berg’s Music. New York: Garland Publishing, 1998.
  • Headlam, Dave. The Music of Alban Berg. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
  • Jarman, Douglas. Dr. Schon's Five-Strophe Aria: Some Notes on Tonality and Pitch Association in Berg's Lulu. Perspectives of New Music 8/2 (Spring/Summer 1970).
  • Jarman, Douglas. Some Rhythmic and Metric Techniques in Alban Berg's Lulu. Musical Quarterly 56/3 (July 1970).
  • Jarman, Douglas. Lulu: The Sketches. International Alban Berg Society Newsletter, 6 (June 1978).
  • Jarman, Douglas. The Music of Alban Berg. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.
  • Jarman, Douglas. Countess Geschwitz's Series: A Controversy Resolved?. Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 107 (1980/81).
  • Jarman, Douglas. Some Observations on Rhythm, Meter and Tempo in Lulu. In Alban Berg Studien. Ed. Rudolf Klein. Vienna: Universal Edition, 1981.
  • Jarman, Douglas. Lulu: The Musical and Dramatic Structure. Royal Opera House Covent Garden program notes, 1981.
  • Jarman, Douglas. The 'Lost' Score of the 'Symphonic Pieces from Lulu'. International Alban Berg Society Newsletter 12 (Fall/Winter 1982).
  • Lauder, Robert Neil. Two Early Piano Works of Alban Berg: A Stylistic and Structural Analysis. Thesis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1986.
  • Perle, George. The Operas of Alban Berg. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
  • Schmalfeldt, Janet. "Berg’s Path to Atonality: The Piano Sonata, Op. 1". Alban Berg: Historical and Analytical Perspectives. Eds. David Gable and Robert P. Morgan, pp. 79-110. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Schweizer, Klaus. Die Sonatensatzform im Schaffen Alban Bergs. Stuttgart: Satz und Druck, 1970.
  • Wilkey, Jay Weldon. Certain Aspects of Form in the Vocal Music of Alban Berg. Ph.D. thesis. Ann Arbor: Indiana University, 1965.

Biographical writings

  • Brand, Juliane, Christopher Hailey and Donald Harris, eds. The Berg-Schoenberg Correspondence: Selected Letters. New York: Norton, 1987.
  • Grun, Bernard, ed. Alban Berg: Letters to his Wife. London: Faber and Faber, 1971.
  • Floros, Contantin. Trans. by Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch. Alban Berg and Hanna Fuchs. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.
  • Redlich, H.F. Alban Berg, the Man and His Music. London: John Calder, 1957.
  • Reich, Willi. The life and work of Alban Berg. Trans. Cornelius Cardew. New York : Da Capo Press, 1982.
  • Monson, Karen. Alban Berg: a biography. London: Macdonald and Jane's, 1979.
  • Carner, Mosco. Alban Berg: the man and the work. London: Duckworth, 1975.
  • Redlich, Hans Ferdinand. Alban Berg, the man and his music. London: J. Calder, 1957.
  • Leibowitz, René. Schoenberg and his school; the contemporary stage of the language of music. Trans. Dika Newlin. New York: Philosophical Library, 1949.


  1. ^ Monzo, Joe. "Schoenberg's Harmonielehre", Sonic Arts. 1999 June 5.
  2. ^ Lauder (1986)
  3. ^ Adorno, p. 33
  4. ^ Georg Markus, Der Kaiser Franz Joseph I.: Bilder und Dokumente; Anna Nahowski and Friedrich Saathen, Anna Nahowski und Kaiser Franz Joseph : Aufzeichnungen / erstmalig herausgegeben und kommentiert von Friedrich Saathen, Böhlau, 1986.
  5. ^ Jarman, Grove


  • Adorno, Theodor W. Alban Berg: Master of the Smallest Link. Trans. Juliane Brand and Christopher Hailey. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
  • Jarman, Douglas. "Alban Berg", Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed April 9, 2007), (subscription access)
  • Warrack, John and Ewan West. The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 1992. ISBN 0-19-869164-5

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Bust of Alban Berg at Schiefling, Carinthia, Austria

Alban Maria Johannes Berg (February 9, 1885December 24, 1935) was an Austrian composer. He was a member of the Second Viennese School along with Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, producing works that combined Mahlerian romanticism with a highly personal adaptation of Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique.


  • "If...Berg departs so radically from tradition, through his substitution of a symmetrical partitioning of the octave for the asymmetrical partionings of the major/minor system, he departs just as radically from the twelve-tone tradition that is represented in the music of Schoenberg and Webern, for whom the twelve-tone series was always an integral structure that could be transposed only as a unit, and for whom twelve-tone music always implied a constant and equivalent circulation of the totality of pitch classes."
    • George Perle (1990). The Listening Composer, p. 98. California: University of California Press. ISBN 0520069919.
  • "I think the origin of all this clamour for tonality is not so much the need to sense a relationship to the tonic, as a need for familiar chords: let us be frank and say "for the triad"; and I believe I have good reason to say that just so long as a certain kind of music contains enough such triads, it causes no offence, even if in other ways it most violently clashes with the sacred laws of tonality."
    • Alban Berg, quoted in Reich, Willi (1971). Schoenberg: A Critical Biography, p.34. Translated by Leo Black.

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File:Alban Berg Bueste Schiefling
A statue of Alban Berg.

Alban Berg (born Vienna, 9 February 1885; died Vienna 24 December 1935) was an Austrian composer. Alban Berg and Anton Webern were both pupils of Arnold Schoenberg. All three composers in their own way changed the style of musical composition in the early 20th century. They grew up at a time when most composers were still writing Romantic music, but Schoenberg and his pupils started to write atonal music (music which is not in any key) and then twelve-tone music in which all 12 notes in an octave are of the same importance. Although Berg wrote a lot of twelve-tone music he still managed to make it sound quite Romantic at times, more so than Schoenberg or Webern. His most important works are his two operas Wozzeck and Lulu and his Violin Concerto.



Early years

Berg was brought up in the centre of Vienna. His family had plenty of money, but when Berg’s father died in 1900 life became much harder for them. He did not do very well at school. He also had a love affair with a kitchenmaid, with whom he had a daughter.

He was interested in music, played the piano and had started to compose, but he had not done well enough in his school exams to get into the music conservatory. He was not interested in business like his father had been. He got an unpaid job. Then, in 1904, he started to study with Schoenberg. This was the first time he had been given proper music lessons. Two years later, his mother inherited some money, and Berg was then able to give up his unpaid job and concentrate on music.

Schoenberg taught him harmony, counterpoint and music theory, all the things one needs to know to compose well. Berg had lessons from him from 1904 until 1911. His first proper pieces include a Piano Sonata and a String quartet. Here he had already found the modern style which suited him. He wrote harmonies which seemed to float. He often wrote pieces with several movements which are all linked by a common theme. He also liked themes which are heard upside down, or palindromes, where the tune sounds the same forwards as backwards. He met a girl called Helene and they married in 1910.


Berg liked to listen to all kinds of music. In this way he was different to Schoenberg or Webern. Berg was interested in French composers such as Debussy, as well as jazz. He liked the modern theatre and the political works of the playwright Bertolt Brecht and the composer Kurt Weill.

Berg was very grateful to Schoenberg for all that he had learned from him, but he still continued to be quite afraid of him. Schoenberg wrote many letters to him asking him to do things for him (e.g. making piano arrangements of his orchestral pieces) and often criticising him. Only in the 1920s, when Berg had become well-known, did Schoenberg start writing to him more like an equal friend.

Berg wrote Five Orchestral Pieces. It is one of the first important works he wrote without Schoenberg’s help. The music has some modern chords which must have sounded very shocking to the Viennese audience. On 31 March 1913 Schoenberg conducted a concert in Vienna which included some songs by Berg. People in the audience started to fight and the police had to be called. When Schoenberg wrote to Berg criticising his music, Berg lost all his self-confidence. Slowly he started to get more confidence again. He wrote Three Orchestral Pieces op 6. The music sounds quite like Mahler. There are a lot of musical ideas which grow into one another and make a rich sound.

During World War I Berg spent some time in an army training camp. This experience must have been in his mind when he wrote his opera Wozzeck. This opera became very famous. There were a lot of new ideas in it. It is not about a great hero, but about a simple man who is mistreated by people. The music, too, is very different from opera music up to that time. Although it was so modern it was a great success and made Berg world-famous. It gave him more money which, together with a little teaching, allowed him to spend most of his time composing.

Years of fame

Wozzeck has a little twelve tone music in it, but in his next works the twelve tone system is much more important. He wrote Lyrical Suite for String Quartet and a Kammerkonzert (Chamber Concerto) in which the form is made up by mathematical rules. He liked to hide things in his music e.g. favourite numbers or letters from people’s names. These are like secret codes and, in later years, musicians have spent a lot of time trying to work out what Berg was trying to do.

In 1928 Berg started work on his second and last opera: Lulu. He had thought about the opera for many years. He had seen a play called Die Büchse des Pandora (Pandora’s Box) in 1905. Wedekind had played the part of Jack the Ripper. People thought the play was obscene, but it still became very popular, especially after 1918 when there was no more censorship in Germany. He worked on the opera until 1934. He then stopped work on it to write his Violin Concerto. When he heard about the sad death from poliomyelitis of a young girl he knew called Manon Gropius, he dedicated the concerto to her memory. He wrote: “To the memory of an angel”. Manon’s mother, Alma, had been the wife of Gustav Mahler.


Soon after he had finished the concerto Berg was stung by an insect. Soon he had an abscess and he was rushed to hospital but he died. The Violin Concerto had not yet been performed. He had not finished Lulu. The third act was only sketched in short score (showing the main notes, but not exactly what each instrument plays). When the opera was first performed, Act III was just acted out in mime while some other music by Berg was played. Berg’s widow Helene did not want anyone else to finish the opera, so Act III was never performed until after Helene died in 1976. It was finished by a man called Friedrich Cerha and performed in 1977, although a court action had tried to stop it from being performed.

Most important works

  • Kammerkonzert (1925) for piano, violin and 13 wind instruments
  • Wozzeck
  • Lulu
  • Lyric Suite
  • Seven Early Songs
  • Violin Concerto

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