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Alban Berg was one of the most prominent students and colleagues of Arnold Schoenberg in the Second Viennese school. His music is remarkable for its fusion of atonal and twelve-tone serial compositional technique with a very personal expressivity and its integration of late romantic stylistic elements into a thoroughly modern compositional language.
Berg was self-taught in his early years, initially showing an interest in literature before beginning to compose, completing over 100 songs while still in his teens. He began studying withArnold Schoenberg in 1904, over time evolving from the late-romantic style of his early songs toward the atonal language of Schoenberg. He remained a student for 6 years, but the two stayed close for his entire life. His first publically performed work was thePiano Sonata (1907), certainly one of the most renowned first opus numbers of all time. Other works composed during his studies with Schoenberg were theFour Songs (1909) and the String Quartet (1910).
Following his studies with Schoenberg, Berg married Helen Nahowski in 1911 and the next year completed theFive Orchestral Songs (1912). The second and third songs were premiered on 31 March 1913, in a concert arranged by Schoenberg at Vienna’s Grosser Musikvereinssaal. The concert began withAnton Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, which provoked some protest from the audience. A work of Zemlinksy fared better, but Schoenberg’s ownChamber Symphony was the cause of more interruption. In the end, it was Berg’s songs that pushed the audience over the edge, leading to a full-blown riot and ending the concert before the planned finale,Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. The event was major news but was overshadowed by a similar scandal only weeks later with the premiere ofStravinky ’s Rite of Spring.
One of Berg’s greatest and most acclaimed works was, and remains, the opera Wozzeck (1921). He was inspired to write the opera after seeing the Viennese premiere of Georg Buchner’s play of the same name. In the story of an oppressed soldier who jealously murders his wife, Berg found a parallel for the condition of mankind. He began work in 1917, completing the libretto himself before the outbreak of World War I. Following the war, during which time he worked in the War Ministry because of chronic health problems, he resumed his composition, completing the opera in 1921. On 14 December 1925, following 137 rehearsals, Wozzeck was premiered by the Berlin State Opera directed by Erich Kleiber. The score is characterized by extreme dissonance, (although with tonal elements) and adoption of historical forms; critics were polarized, but the opera was a great public success.
1926 saw the completion of Berg’s next major work, the Lyric Suite for string quartet. It was composed with elements of the twelve-tone method developed by Schoenberg in the previous years, but used in Berg’s characteristically free style. It is an intensely expressive and seemingly programmatic work, descending further into darkness with each of the six movements, and fading into silence at the end. An annotated score was discovered in the 1970’s by the musicologist George Perle. It had been a gift from Berg to Hanna Fuchs-Robbetin, who he had met while he was staying with the family during a holiday in Prague. It was filled with references to a long-term passionate secret affair between the two. There were programmatic notes for each movement and explanations for the many hidden musical symbols referring to the couple. Within the suite there are multiple instances of a quotation from Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony; in his annotated score Berg had written the original text: “You are my own, my own.”
Following the triumph of Wozzeck, Berg began work on a second opera, finding his characters and text in two plays by the German playwright Frank Wedekind: Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box). The protagonist,Lulu, is a beautiful woman who uses her allure to climb the social ladder, leaving a trail of dead partners behind her until the inevitable fall comes, ending with her murder in a London brothel. Both narratively and musically the opera is a palindrome; the second half, depicting Lulu’s misfortune, goes back through the same musical material as the first, with Berg even calling for the same actors to return in different roles. Berg uses a different twelve-tone row for each character, much in the style of the leitmotifs used by his early hero,Richard Wagner.
With the rise of Nazism in Germany and the years leading up to the German annexation of Austria, Berg’s music was increasingly excluded from performance as an example of degenerate art, although its popularity wasn’t diminished abroad. His last completed work came about in 1935 with a commission for a concerto from the American violinist Louis Krasner. Berg worked with uncharacteristic urgency, inspired by the recent death of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius. TheViolin Concerto in two movements, representing life and death, is a striking fusion of twelve-tone serial technique and tonal material. The row is organized almost completely in thirds, with the first major and minor triads based on the open strings of the violin. In one of the most remarkable quotations in music history, near the end of the work the last four notes of the row transform into the first four notes of the choraleEs ist genug (It Is Enough) of J.S. Bach, which then appears orchestrated in the clarinets.
Berg had put aside Lulu to complete his feverish work on the violin concerto but, soon after completing it, he was hospitalized and suddenly died from septicemia. The first two acts of the opera were premiered in Zurich in 1937, and were followed by an orchestral suite reduced from music intended for the third act. Upon Berg’s death much of the third act remained in un-orchestrated, short score format. Following his death his widow invited several prominent composers to complete the opera, but all refused, leading her to insist upon the Zurich version as the final one. However, the completion of the opera was secretly commissioned by the publisher, Universal Editions, from Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha, and the complete version was premiered in 1979 after the death of Helene Berg. In the small body of work he left behind, Alban Berg created a strikingly beautiful and human vision of the atonal music created by the second Viennese school composers. The tonal elements that persisted within his music, inherited from his beloved late-romantic repertoire, provided audiences with footholds, points of reference, made all the more meaningful by the surrounding, swirling dissonances. It is very much a modern music, but one that has audibly absorbed the past rather than negated it, and one that contains moments of powerful beauty.