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Alban Berg: Alban Berg, in full Alban Maria Johannes Berg, (born February 9, 1885, Vienna, Austria—died December 24, 1935, Vienna), Austrian composer who wrote atonal and 12-tone compositions that remained true to late 19th-century Romanticism. He composed orchestral music (including Five Orchestral Songs, 1912), chamber music, songs, and two groundbreaking operas, Wozzeck (1925) and Lulu (1937).
Apart from a few short musical trips abroad and annual summer sojourns in the Austrian Alps, Berg spent his life in the city of his birth. At first, the romantically inclined youth leaned toward a literary career. But, as in most Viennese middle-class homes, music was regularly played in his parents’ house, in keeping with the general musical atmosphere of the city. Encouraged by his father and older brother, Alban Berg began to compose music without benefit of formal instruction. During this period his output consisted of more than 100 songs and piano duets, most of which remain unpublished.
In September 1904 he met Arnold Schoenberg, an event that decisively influenced his life. The death of Berg’s father in 1900 had left little money for composition lessons, but Schoenberg was quick to recognize Berg’s talent and accepted the young man as a nonpaying pupil. The musical precepts and the human example provided by Schoenberg shaped Berg’s artistic personality as they worked together for the next six years.
In the circle of Schoenberg’s students, Berg presented his first public performance in the fall of 1907: Piano Sonata (published 1908). This was followed by Four Songs (1909) and String Quartet (1910), each strongly influenced by the young composer’s musical gods, Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner.
Having come into a small inheritance, Berg married Helene Nahowski, daughter of a high-ranking Austrian officer, in 1911. The Bergs took an apartment in Vienna, where he settled down to devote the remainder of his life to music, although they participated freely in the intellectual life of the city. Among their closest friends were Adolf Loos, one of the pioneers of modern architecture, and the painter Oskar Kokoschka.
A characteristic of Berg's creative activity was the slow, often hesitant, manner in which he gave final form to the musical ideas that, for the most part, were the result of sudden inspiration. This fastidious, perfectionist manner of composing explains his relatively small number of works. In 1912 Berg finished his first work since his student days with Arnold Schoenberg, Five Orchestral Songs. The inspiration for this composition came from postcard messages addressed to both his friends and his foes by the eccentric Viennese poet Peter Altenberg (pen name of Richard Engländer, who was known as “P.A.”). These sometimes erotic postcard texts were sufficiently nonconformist to prompt Berg to use them as background for even less traditional music than he had composed in the past. But when two of these songs were presented at a concert of the Academic Society for Literature and Music in March 1913, they provoked a near riot, in which performers and audience freely participated.
The genesis of Berg's first work for the stage was a memorable theatrical experience: the performance of German dramatist Georg Büchner's (1813–37) Woyzeck (published 1879), a drama built around a poor working man who murders his faithless sweetheart and then commits suicide while their child, unable to comprehend the tragedy, plays nearby. The theme fascinated Berg. But his work on the opera—which, varying the spelling, he would call Wozzeck—was delayed by World War I. During the course of the war, Berg (always in frail health) worked in the War Ministry. When he did begin composition, he was confronted by the gigantic task of compressing 25 scenes into three acts. Although he managed to write the libretto in 1917, he did not begin composing the score until the war was over. He completed the opera in 1921 and dedicated it to Alma Mahler, the widow of Gustav Mahler, the composer and conductor who had dominated Vienna's musical life during Berg's youth.
Wozzeck—perhaps the most frequently performed theatrical work in the atonal idiom—represents Berg's first attempt to deal with social problems within the framework of opera. From numerous statements he made, it is evident that he intended the opera to portray far more than the tragic fate of the protagonist. He wanted, in fact, to make it symbolic of human existence. Musically, its unity stems from large overall symmetries within which are set traditional forms (such as the passacaglia and sonata), excerpts in popular music style, dense chromaticism (use of notes not belonging to the composition's key), extreme atonality, and passing approaches to traditional tonality, all of which function to create a work of notable psychological and dramatic impact. Although it antedates Schoenberg's early 12-tone compositions, the opera also includes a theme using the 12 notes of the chromatic scale.
After 137 rehearsals, Wozzeck was presented in its entirety for the first time on December 14, 1925, at the Berlin State Opera, with Erich Kleiber conducting. Critical response was unrestrained. Typical of the prevailing attitude was the reaction of a reviewer in the Deutsche Zeitung: "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."
But another critic described the music as "drawn from Wozzeck's poor, worried, inarticulate, chaotic soul. It is a vision in sound."
Upon completion of Wozzeck, Berg, who had also become an outstanding teacher of composition, turned his attention to chamber music. His Chamber Concerto for violin, piano, and 13 wind instruments was written in 1925, in honour of Schoenberg's 50th birthday.
Berg searched for a new opera text. He found it in two plays by the German dramatist Frank Wedekind (1864–1918). From Erdgeist (1895; "Earth Spirit") and Büchse der Pandora (1904; "Pandora's Box"), he extracted the central figure for his opera Lulu. This work engaged him, with minor interruptions, for the next seven years, and the orchestration of its third act remained incomplete at his death (it was completed by the Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha and given its premiere in Paris in 1979). Musically complex and highly expressionistic in idiom, Lulu was composed entirely in the 12-tone system.
With the seizure of power by the Nazis in Germany in 1933, Berg lost most of his income. Although, unlike their teacher Schoenberg, Berg and his friend and colleague Anton Webern were of non-Jewish descent, they, with Schoenberg, were regarded as representatives of "degenerate art" and were increasingly excluded from performances in Germany. The meagre response that Berg's works evoked in Austria caused him particular anguish. Abroad, however, he was considered more and more as the representative Austrian composer, and his works were performed at leading musical festivals.
Berg's last complete work, the Violin Concerto, originated under unusual circumstances. In 1935 the American violinist Louis Krasner commissioned Berg to compose a violin concerto for him. As usual, Berg procrastinated at first. But after the death of Manon, the beautiful 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler (by then the wife of the architect Walter Gropius), Berg was moved to compose the work as a kind of requiem and to dedicate it to the "memory of an angel"—Manon. Having found his inspiration, Berg worked at fever pitch in the seclusion of his villa in the Austrian province of Carinthia and completed the concerto in six weeks. By the time the work was finally presented by Krasner in Barcelona in April 1936, it had become a requiem not only for Manon Gropius but for Berg as well. One of the major violin concerti of the 20th century, it is a work of highly personal, emotional content achieved through the use of 12-tone and other resources—symbolic as well as musical.
In mid-November 1935 he returned, a sick man, to Vienna. Although his mind was completely absorbed in his desire to finish the opera Lulu, he had to be hospitalized in December with septicemia and, after a deceptive initial improvement, he died suddenly.
A man of strikingly attractive appearance and reserved aristocratic bearing, Berg had also a generous personality that found expression in his correspondence and among his friends. He was an outstanding teacher of composition who encouraged his pupils to undertake significant work of their own. Few honours were accorded Berg in his lifetime; however, within a few years after his death he had become widely recognized as a composer who broke with tradition and mastered a radical technique and yet blended old and new to create, with Schoenberg and Webern, what became known as the 20th-century (or Second) Viennese school.
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."
Alban Berg's father Konrad was a well-to-do export merchant who had come to Vienna in 1867 from Nuremberg: his ancestors were officials at the Bavarian court. His mother, Johanna Braun, was Viennese: her father, the court jeweller Franz Xaver Melchior Braun, was gifted both musically and artistically. Alban had two elder brothers, Hermann (1872) and Charley (1882) and a younger sister Smaragda (1887). He spent a pleasant childhood in Vienna and in the summer at the 'Berghof on Lake Ossiach in Carinthia. His musical talents began to manifest themselves when he was fourteen, stimulated by his sister's excellent piano playing and his brother Charley's singing. His father died in 1900, but help from a rich aunt enabled Alban to continue his studies at the Realschule. His first compositions, three songs, date from this year; on the 23rd July he had his first attack of bronchial asthma, an illness which afflicted him throughout his life and made him superstitious about the number 23. By 1902 he had written more than 30 songs and duets. In 1903 he failed his final school examination, and a love affair made him attempt suicide. However, he passed his examination in the following year and entered the civil service. Shortly afterwards Charley saw an advertisement for pupils by Arnold Schoenberg and took some of Alban's songs to him without telling his brother. Arnold Schoenberg agreed to take him as a pupil, free to start with, but for a fee when the Alban Berg family came into an inheritance in 1906. The earliest of the songs which Alban Berg later published as Seven Early Songs was written in 1905: in 1906 Alban Berg was able to give up his job and devote himself entirely to music.
He heard a number of Schoenberg's works, including Verklarte Nacht, the first string quartet and the chamber symphony. He was deeply impressed by Arnold Schoenberg's teaching and his personality, and developed from a dreamy and sensitive boy into a serious artistic personality. The remainder of the Seven Early Songs were written during this period and also the Piano Sonata Op.1. Some of Alban Berg's early works were performed in concerts of works by Arnold Schoenberg's pupils; his style continued to develop, and he finished the songs Op.2 in 1909. In the same year he met Oskar Kokoschka and saw a good deal of the poet Peter Altenberg, whose 'picture postcard texts' he set three years later for soprano and orchestra.
In 1907 Alban Berg met Helene Nahowski, who was later to become his wife. His studies with Arnold Schoenberg ended in 1910; the String Quartet Op.3 was the last work written under Arnold Schoenberg's guidance. In 1911 the piano sonata and string quartet were performed for the first time but received little attention. On the 3rd May Alban Berg married Helene Nahowski. The Altenberg songs, written in 1912, were first performed in the following year and caused such an uproar in the audience that the concert had to be stopped. Alban Berg wrote the Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano in the summer, and he planned a large orchestral work for Arnold Schoenberg's fortieth birthday on the 13th September 1914. He first started a symphony, but later wrote the Three Orchestral Pieces Op.6. In May 1914 he saw Buchner's play Woyzeck at the Vienna Kammerspiele and decided to make it into an opera. From the 1st August 1915, till the end of the war he was called up for military service; he was first trained for active service, and then sent to the War Ministry as unsuitable for the front. He finished his adaptation of the text of Wozzeck (as he renamed it) in 1917, and the opera was complete in short score in the autumn of 1920.
The devaluation of the Austrian currency after the war brought problems for Alban Berg, and he was compelled to earn his living by teaching. He also took charge of some of the rehearsals for the Society for Private Musical Performances which Arnold Schoenberg founded in November 1918. He finished the scoring of Wozzeck in April 1921, and invited subscriptions for the publication of the piano score; in this he was helped by Gustav Mahler's widow Alma Maria, and he dedicated the work to her. Copies of the score were sent to the larger German opera houses, but without result. In the summer of 1923 the Orchestral Pieces were performed under Webern for the first time in the Austrian Music Week in Berlin, and the string quartet had a great success at the International Chamber Music Festival in Salzburg. At the same time the conductor Hermann Scherchen persuaded Alban Berg to make a concert suite out of Wozzeck, and performed it with enormous success at a music festival in Frankfurt on the 11th June 1924. Meanwhile Erich Kleiber decided to perform the opera in Berlin, and the first performance took place at the Staatsoper on the 14th December 1925. In spite of many attacks on the work its success with the public grew steadily, and by 1936 there had been 166 performances of it in 29 different cities; Alban Berg was able to be present at many of these.
He next returned to chamber music with the Chamber Concerto for violin, piano and thirteen wind instruments (1923-5), dedicated to Arnold Schoenberg on his fiftieth birthday and containing themes derived from the musical letters in the names Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Alban Berg and Anton Webern. This was followed by the Lyric Suite for string quartet (1925-6); in two of the six movements of this work Alban Berg used the twelve-note method (which Arnold Schoenberg had recently developed) and he used it intermittently in his remaining works. The Lyric Suite was first performed in Vienna on the 8th January 1927 by the Kolisch Quartet, who gave it more than 100 performances in eight years. The Chamber Concerto had more or less simultaneous first performances in Berlin, Zurich and Vienna in March 1927.
Alban Berg was now thinking about another opera. On the 30th January 1928 he visited Gerhart Hauptmann in Rapallo to discuss with him an opera based on Hauptmann's Vnd Pippa Tanzt; but in the spring he decided on Lulu, based on Frank Wedekind's plays The Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box, which he had seen in 1905 in Vienna, and began work on it at once. This was interrupted in the spring of 1929 by a request from the singer Ruzena Herlinger to write a concert aria with orchestra for her. Alban Berg wrote Der Wein, settings of three Baudelaire poems in the German translations of Stefan George - though they can also be sung in the original French. This work had several performances at music festivals in the following years. In 1930 he was made a member of the Prussian Academy of Arts, but turned down an invitation to become a professor at the Berlin Music High School. In 1932 he bought a cottage on the south bank of the Worthersee; but after the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany in 1933 his performances there decreased and so did his income. He worked feverishly on Lulu, finishing the short score in April 1934; in order to do this he spent the whole winter of 1933-4 at his country cottage, often in dire financial straits. In spite of his international fame his work was still not appreciated in his native Austria, and he was embittered by this.
The extraordinarily successful performance of the symphony which he had extracted from Lulu, given in November 1934 in Berlin under Kleiber, and the many performances of his instrumental works and songs which were given in honour of his fiftieth birthday in February 1935 raised his spirits temporarily; he was working hard on the full score of Lulu. He hoped that the first performance of the opera would improve his situation. Meanwhile, in the spring of 1935, he was asked to write a violin concerto by the Russian-American violinist Louis Krasner; the death of Manon Gropius, the eighteen-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler by her second marriage inspired the form of the work, the second movement of which is divided into two parts, 'Catastrophe' and 'Deliverance', the latter being a set of variations on the Bach chorale 'Es ist genug' (It is enough). He finished the score on the 11th August, working extremely rapidly, and on the same day he spoke to the musicologist Willi Reich about his plans for future works after the scoring of Lulu was finished. He was thinking about a third work for string quartet, chamber music with piano, a symphony, a work specially written for radio, and above all a work for film: his favourite idea was to have a film made of Wozzeck which would underline and clarify its dramatic details. But at the beginning of September he received an insect bite which caused an abscess to grow on his back; this was treated by a doctor and healed for the moment. On the 12th November Alban Berg returned from the country to Vienna and was in a feverish condition at the first Viennese performance of the Lulu symphony. On the 14th December he corrected the proofs of the piano score of the violin concerto; on the 16th December his abscess burst internally, causing general blood poisoning. He was taken to hospital the next day and operated on at once, but a second operation and a blood transfusion were of no avail and his heart could not stand the strain. He died on the 24th December 1935 in the arms of his wife, in his fifty-first year.
After Berg's death Arnold Schoenberg offered to complete the unfinished score of Lulu, to the delight of Helene Alban Berg. But after looking through the score he wrote that he was unable to undertake the task, giving as his official reason that the work would be more difficult and would take longer than he had anticipated. In fact he was annoyed by the description in the text of a Jewish character. Webern also felt unable to complete the score, and so the opera has remained a torso: it is only possible to perform the first two acts and the two sections of the third act which Alban Berg orchestrated for the Lulu symphony. In this form Lulu was given its first performance at the Zurich Stadttheater on the 2nd June 1937. The violin concerto was first performed at the International Society for Contemporary Music's festival in Barcelona on the 19th April 1936, with Louis Krasner as soloist. Webern was to have conducted, but he was so overcome with emotion at the loss of his friend and colleague that he spent the whole of the first rehearsal on the first few bars of the work, and in the end the performance was conducted by Hermann Scherchen.
In his lifetime Alban Berg was the most popular of the so-called 'second Viennese school' (including Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Webern) and it was usually stated that this was because Alban Berg did not follow Arnold Schoenberg's methods as strictly as his two colleagues. However time has shown that Alban Berg's music appealed to audiences because of its expressive, lyrical and dramatic qualities, which had nothing to do with technical considerations. Alban Berg used classical forms in his larger works to a great extent; thus the first act of Wozzeck is a set of pieces representing the various characters in their relations to Wozzeck himself, consisting of a Suite, a Rhapsody, a Military March and Cradle Song, a Passacaglia and an Andante affettuoso quasi Rondo. Similarly the Second act is a symphony in five movements- a movement in sonata form, Fantasy and Fugue, Largo, Scherzo and Rondo con introduzione, while the third act consists of six Inventions, on a theme, on a note, on a rhythm, on a chord, on a tonality and on a regular rhythmical figure. But little of this is perceptible to the audience in the theatre, who find Wozzeck a gripping and moving drama with admirably and indeed overwhelmingly expressive music. Similarly the Chamber Concerto of 1925 adopts some ideas from Arnold Schoenberg's recently discovered twelve-note method; thus the first movement is a set of variations in which the second variation presents the theme in mirror form, the third in inversion and the fourth in retrograde inversion. The second half of the slow movement is the mirror form of the first half, while the third is a combination of the material of the two previous movements. Here again these ingenuities are not readily perceptible to the listener, who finds the concerto a very remarkable and exciting work. In the Lyric Suite one cannot really distinguish aurally between the movements which use the twelve-note method and those which do not. In Lulu each character has his or her own note-series which is derived from the basic series, usually by taking notes at stated intervals from the original series; Alban Berg was evidently afraid of monotony if he based a full-length opera on a single series, but Arnold Schoenberg showed in his Moses and Aron that this need not be the case. Alban Berg's music is thus a continuation of the Viennese classical and romantic traditions in a new form; it has links with the past, but also looks forward to the future. His two operas are certainly among the greatest of our time - Lulu will surely take its place beside Wozzeck in the repertory if and when it is possible to complete the score - and his orchestral and chamber works are among the most original and exciting in modern music.
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