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Alban Berg (1885-1935)

Alban Berg was born in Vienna, the third of four children of Johanna and Conrad Berg. His family lived quite comfortably until the death of his father in 1900.

He 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. He had very little formal music education until he began a six-year period of study with Arnold Schoenberg in October 1904 to 1911, studying counterpoint, music theory, and harmony; by 1906, he concentrated on his music studies full-time and by 1907, he began composition lessons. Among his compositions under Schoenberg were five piano sonata drafts and various songs, including his Seven Early Songs (Sieben frühe Lieder), three of which were Berg's first publicly performed work in a concert featuring the music of Schoenberg's pupils in Vienna that same year.

These early compositions would reveal Berg's progress as a composer under Schoenberg's tutelage. The early sonata sketches eventually culminated in Berg's Piano Sonata (Op.1) (1907–8); while considered to be his "graduating composition", it is one of the most formidable initial works ever written by any composer (Lauder, 1986). Schoenberg was a major influence on him throughout his lifetime; Berg not only greatly admired him as a composer and mentor, but they remained close friends for the remainder of his life. Many people believe that Berg also saw him as a surrogate father, considering Berg's young age during his father's death.

An important idea Schoenberg used in his teaching was what would later be known as developing variation, which stated that the unity of a piece is dependent on all aspects of the composition being derived from a single basic idea. Berg would then pass this idea down to one of his students, Theodor Adorno, who 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 Sonata is a striking example of the execution of this idea — the whole composition can be derived from the opening quartal gesture and from the opening phrase.

Berg was a part of Vienna's cultural elite during the heady period of fin de siècle. Among his circle included the musicians Alexander von Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker, painter Gustav Klimt, writer and satirist Karl Kraus, architect Adolf Loos, and poet Peter Altenberg. In 1906, Berg met Helene Nahowski, singer and daughter of a wealthy family; despite the outward hostility of her family, the two married on May 3, 1911.

In 1913, two of Berg's Five Songs on Picture Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg (1912) were premiered in Vienna under Schoenberg's baton. The pieces - settings of unpoetic, aphoristic utterances accompanied by a very large orchestra - caused a riot, and the performance had to be halted; the work was not performed in full until 1952 (and its full score remained unpublished until 1966).

From 1915 to 1918, he served in the Austrian Army and it was during a period of leave in 1917 that he began work on his first opera, Wozzeck. Following World War I, he settled again in Vienna where he taught private pupils. He also helped Schoenberg run the Society for Private Musical Performances, which sought to create an ideal environment for the exploration of unappreciated and unfamiliar new music by means of open rehearsals, repeated performances and the exclusion of all newspaper critics.

The performance in 1924 of three excerpts from Wozzeck brought Berg his first public success. The opera, which Berg completed in 1922, was not performed in its entirety until December 14, 1925, when Erich Kleiber directed a performance in Berlin. The opera is today seen as one of his most important works; a later opera, the critically acclaimed Lulu, was left with its third act incomplete at his death.

Berg's best-known piece is probably his elegiac Violin Concerto. Like so much of his mature work, it employs a highly personal adaptation of Schoenberg's twelve tone technique that enables it to combine frank atonality with more traditionally tonal passages and harmonies; additionally, it uses actual quotations of pre-existing tonal music, including a Bach chorale and a Carinthian folk song. The Violin Concerto was dedicated to Manon, the deceased daughter of architect Walter Gropius and Alma Schindler.

Other well known Berg compositions include the Lyric Suite (seemingly a big influence on the String Quartet No. 3 of Béla Bartók), Three Pieces for Orchestra and the Chamber Concerto for violin, piano and 13 wind instruments.

Berg died on Christmas Eve, 1935, in Vienna, apparently from blood poisoning caused by an insect bite. He was 50 years old.


Recordings
Sonata