Alban Berg: Biography & Music

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Alban Berg was a Viennese composer of the early 20th century. He was a part of the Second Viennese School along with Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. This lesson will examine his life and music, especially his operas.

Sticks and Stones

On December 14, 1925, the world heard the opera Wozzeck for the first time. It delivered to audiences a wild, riotous, reckless adventure as well as a brutal story. One critic for a German newspaper wrote, 'As I was leaving the State Opera I had the sensation of having been not in a public theatre but in an insane asylum.… I regard Alban Berg as a musical swindler and a musician dangerous to the community.' Let's meet that 'musical swindler.'

Life in Vienna

Vienna in 1880. The Opera House is right of center.
Photo of Vienna Opera House 1880

Born on February 9, 1885 to Johanna and Conrad Berg, Alban Maria Johannes Berg was fortunate to enjoy a comfortable home in Vienna, Austria. At the time, Vienna was the cultural and musical capitol of the world. Great musicians, conductors, and composers lived and worked there. Young Alban no doubt absorbed the music that surrounded him in his home, in the street, and in the concert halls.

Alban showed an interest in composing as a young teen. Encouraged by his family, he wrote over 100 songs and piano pieces with no formal musical training. After the death of his father in 1900, there was no extra money for music lessons. Alban continued to study on his own and learn from the music he heard everyday.

Lessons with Schoenberg

Friend and mentor, Arnold Schoenberg.
Photo of Arnold Schoenberg

In 1904, Berg became the pupil of composer Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg developed the twelve-tone system of composition. This system replaced the traditional approach to melody, rhythm, and harmony with a series of twelve notes, called a tone row. This row became the foundation for a thematic development in the composition. It was a rigorously structured and atonal method of composing.

Berg was a giant sponge, soaking up everything Schoenberg taught him. Schoenberg became his great mentor and friend. Berg embraced the twelve-tone system, but with his own stylistic differences. A fan of the late Romanticism of Mahler and Wagner, Berg soon found a happy synthesis between strict tone rows and fat, lush harmonies.

Schoenberg had another talented pupil, Anton Webern, who also adopted the twelve-tone system and became a close friend to Berg. These three composers, Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, were known as the Second Viennese School. Their work and music were influential throughout the musical world for decades to come.

Berg's Music

Berg was a slow, careful composer, so he did not compose a large number of pieces. His first post-student piece was Five Songs on Picture Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg. It caused a riot at its premier in 1913. Audiences were not ready for Berg's extreme atonalism and unconventional orchestrations. The performance was stopped, and the work sat on the shelf until 1952 when it was finally given a full performance. As Berg's music matured, he did eventually find an appreciative audience.

Berg wrote other chamber and orchestra works that were more or less well-received. They all displayed his experiments with tone rows, counterpoint, and extended harmony. But he found his true genius with his first opera, Wozzeck.

A scene from Wozzeck, staged in Moscow in 2010.
Production photo of Wozzeck

Wozzeck tells the story of a man who murders his girlfriend and then commits suicide while their child plays nearby. It's not exactly a cheerful tale. Berg found it to be symbolic of the plight of humanity and strove to portray its psychological complexity in music. To do this he pretty much used everything but the kitchen sink. He used dense chromaticism, tonality, popular music, extreme atonality, even a bit of twelve-tone. The result was amazingly effective. Wozzeck is the most commonly performed atonal opera today.

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