Alban Berg

Formally, Alban Maria Johannes Berg, but the two middle names are always dropped. He was born in Vienna in 1885 and died in the same city in 1935, from sepsis arising from an infected insect bite.

He started writing songs when aged 15, though without any formal music training. In 1904, an older brother happened to show some of his compositions to Schönberg, who pretty immediately agreed to take Berg on as a pupil. He remained in that position until 1910 -but he never lost his admiration for his teacher and dedicated four of his twelve major compositions to him.

Berg's exposure to Schönberg at this precise moment naturally encouraged a tendency in the pupil to take up the increasing atonality of the teacher. Thus, Berg's Op. 2 (Four Songs) from 1909/10 is decidedly atonal, but retains an essentially tonal foundation, as most of his later works would go on to do. Partly as a result of this synthesis, whilst Berg's music is unashamedly serial, it also retains a warmth and sensuousness which the serial works of his teacher can sometimes seem to lack.

Berg's musical output is relatively tiny: two operas (one only 2/3rds finished at his death), a string quartet, some songs, a couple of chamber works and, perhaps most famously, a violin concerto. Nevertheless, despite the relative lack of finished compositions, many musicologists would rate him as one of the most significant composers of the twentieth century and a worthy founder member of the 'Second Viennese School' (the first being that of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert: the parallels implied by the similar 'school' name is meant to indicate Berg's contribution to, and conformity within, an unbroken Viennese music culture dating back more than a century at the time). His music is thus quite difficult to listen to at first hearing: it's a 'bit modern'! However, increased familiarity with it by repeated listenings will reveal a broad, underlying adherence to more traditional or 'classical' norms (in this respect, he's a bit like Benjamin Britten, who used serialist techniques to achieve fundamentally tonal results: the irony being that Britten desperately wanted to study with Berg in the early 1930s, but his mother and Berg's early death put paid to those ideas!)

I find his operas difficult to listen to (one reviewer of the first night of Wozzeck declared that he 'had the sensation of being, not in the public theatre, but in an insane asylum. I regard Alban Berg as a musical swindler and musician dangerous to the community'... I wouldn't quite go that far! But it's certainly a challenge for these tonal ears. The violin concerto, on the other hand, is just gorgeous without qualification. One's journey with Berg can be quite the roller-coaster, I guess!

In summary, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica puts it: Berg’s powerful and complex works draw from a broad range of musical resources but are chiefly shaped by a few central techniques: the use of a complex chromatic expressionism, which nearly obscures, yet actually remains within, the framework of traditional tonality; the recasting of classical musical forms with atonal content—i.e., abandoning traditional tonal structure dependent upon a centrally important tone; and a deft handling of the 12-tone approach developed by Schoenberg as a method of structuring atonal music. Berg dealt with the new medium so skillfully that the classical heritage of his compositions is not obliterated, thus justifying the term frequently applied to him: the “classicist of modern music.”

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(since January 9th 2021)

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