Personalities | Alban Berg | Modern Era | Opera

1885–1935, Austrian

The composer of just two operas, Berg was a man who took atonality and stretched it to its expressionistic limits. While Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) are often referred to as the First Viennese School, the so-called Second Viennese School consists of Berg together with fellow student Anton Webern (1883–1945) and their teacher, Arnold Schoenberg.

Schoenberg’s Student

Berg was born in Vienna into a wealthy family, but he did not have a formal musical education. He wrote his first composition in 1901, and three years later, after a short spell as a civil servant, he began studying under Schoenberg, whose style was advancing rapidly towards atonality. Berg’s studies formed and crystallized Schoenberg’s theories of harmony and serialism as laid out in Harmonielehre (‘The Theory of Harmony’, published 1911). And at a time when Vienna’s cultural life was burgeoning, Berg also had numerous opportunities to take in all the important musical compositions and theatrical productions of the day. For instance, although the theatrical works of Frank Wedekind were regarded as shocking and were banned by the German authorities, in 1905 Berg saw a private performance of Die Büchse der Pandora (‘Pandora’s Box’), one of two Wedekind plays that he would later adapt for his setting of the incomplete Lulu (1929–35).

Audience Responds Riotously

The last of Berg’s tonal vocal compositions, Sieben Frühe Lieder (‘Seven Early Songs’, composed 1905–08), was influenced stylistically by Romanticism and Impressionism. However, in 1913 two of his five Altenberg Lieder caused a riot when performed to an unruly audience, and the songs were not performed again until 1952.

Shocking Subject Matter

Unlike Schoenberg and Webern, Berg wrote in an instinctively theatrical style, and his first opera, Wozzeck, connects viscerally with the audience. The work was based on Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck (1836), which Berg saw in Vienna in 1914. Drawn to this work, he envisioned it as the basis for an opera and returned to see it numerous times. Although army service slowed its progress, the opera was completed in 1922 and performed in Berlin in December 1925. Friends and colleagues were surprised and shocked by the subject matter, and even Schoenberg found the depiction of common people in degraded circumstances tragic and unappealing.

Secretly Coded Compositions

Berg was fascinated by numerology, and serialism proved to be mathematical nirvana in terms of his compositional style. He often used the palindrome as a writing device, and when theorists delved into his work they unearthed personal messages that had been ‘encoded’ in his Lyric Suite (1925–26). Presumably, these secret messages were intended for Berg’s mistress, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, causing his wife to be so incensed that she subsequently tried to suppress information pertaining to such compositional devices.

Berg’s final work, commissioned by Louis Krasner, was his famous violin concerto (1935). It was, in fact, commissioned while he was composing both Lulu and the concert aria Der Wein (‘Wine’, 1930), and he was not compelled...

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