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Alban Berg

From Wind Repertory Project
Alban Berg

Biography

Alban Maria Johannes Berg (9 February 1885, Vienna – 24 December 1935, Vienna) 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.

Berg 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. 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. 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.

Berg studied with Schoenberg for six years until 1911. Berg admired him as a composer and mentor, and they remained close lifelong friends. 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 W. 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". The Piano Sonata is an example—the whole composition is derived from the work's opening quartal gesture and its opening phrase.

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 1913, two of Berg's Five Songs on Picture Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg (1912) were premièred in Vienna, conducted by Schoenberg in the infamous Skandalkonzert. Settings of aphoristic poetic utterances, the songs are accompanied by a very large orchestra. The performance caused a riot, and had to be halted. This was a crippling blow to Berg's self-confidence: he effectively withdrew the work, which is surely one of the most innovative and assured first orchestral compositions in the literature, and it was not performed in full until 1952. The full score remained unpublished until 1966.

From 1915 to 1918, Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian Army and during a period of leave in 1917 he accelerated 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.

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 the first performance in Berlin. Today Wozzeck is seen as one of the century's most important works.

Other well-known Berg compositions include the Lyric Suite (1926), which was later shown to employ elaborate cyphers to document a secret love affair; the post-Mahlerian Three Pieces for Orchestra (completed in 1915 but not performed until after Wozzeck); and the Chamber Concerto (Kammerkonzert, 1923–25) for violin, piano, and 13 wind instruments: this latter is written so conscientiously that Pierre Boulez has called it "Berg's strictest composition" and it, too, is permeated by cyphers and posthumously disclosed hidden programs.

Berg is remembered as one of the most important composers of the 20th century and to date is the most widely performed opera composer among the Second Viennese School. He is considered to have brought more human values to the twelve-tone system, his works seen as more emotional than Schoenberg's. His popularity has been more easily secured than many other Modernists since he plausibly combined both Romantic and Expressionist idioms. Though Berg's Romanticism at one time 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 [George] Perle remarked, to look like its most forward-looking composer."


Works for Winds


References