Personalities | Alban Berg | Modern Era | Classical

(Al’-ban Bârg) 1885–1935
Austrian composer

Berg came from a cultured background, but had little serious musical training until, at 19, he began studying with Schoenberg. His progress was rapid, but although he was Schoenberg’s most naturally talented and most devoted pupil, Mahler’s influence on him remained strong.

His first published work, the Piano Sonata op. 1 (1907–08), confidently uses a multiplicity of themes in a manner that strongly recalls Mahler, but in his next work, the Four Songs op. 2 (1909–10), he is already following Schoenberg in his explorations of atonality. In the remarkable String Quartet op. 3 (1910) he went further than his teacher had yet done in combining atonality with large-scale formal structures.

With the Altenberg-Lieder op. 4 (1912), he found his own distinctive voice, a post-Mahlerian world-weariness and profoundly original orchestral palette, mingling with a need to impose order on the disorder of atonality. With the Three Orchestral Pieces op. 6 (1914–15), completed when he was 30, he was fully equipped for the sequence of masterpieces that occupied the remaining 20 years of his life.

Later Works

The opera Wozzeck (1917–22) is a pitying and angry study of the exploitation of an underdog, so powerfully moving, despite its advanced language, that its popular success made Berg financially independent. The Chamber Concerto (1923–25), written in honour of Schoenberg’s 50th birthday, is an exuberant play on the musical letters of his name, Berg’s own and Webern’s. The Lyric Suite for string quartet (1925–26), a work of extreme emotion and technical demands on its players, has an elaborate secret programme about Berg’s love for Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, a passion that also strongly affected his second opera, Lulu (1929–35). He broke off working on this story to write first a large-scale concert aria, Der Wein (‘Wine’, 1930) and then, in response to the tragically early death of Manon Gropius – the daughter of Mahler’s widow, Alma, by her second marriage – a Violin Concerto (1935). In its bitter protest and poignant tenderness and its incorporation of two folk melodies and a chorale by J. S. Bach, it has become the most widely popular of all works using Schoenberg’s serial technique. Berg died of blood poisoning following an insect bite before finishing Lulu. Although the opera was very nearly complete, his widow’s objections made it impossible for the opera to be heard in full until she died, 42 years later.

Recommended Recording:
Wozzeck; Schoenberg: Erwartung, soloists, Vienna PO (cond) Christoph von Dohnányi (Decca)

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