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Alban Berg (Composer)

Austrian composer. Along with Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, a member of what is known as the Second Viennese School.

Alban Berg‘s music demonstrates better than any other the individual expressive qualities possible within the highly structured style developed by the composers of the Second Viennese School. Even when writing in a pure twelve-tone style, Berg employs a lyrical and harmonic language that hearkens back to the late romantic style of Mahler. For this reason, he is the most easily approached composer of this style.

Berg was born into a well-to-do family in Vienna and was encouraged in his intellectual pursuits. But despite an aptitude for music, he never received strong formal training until he began his studies with Arnold Schoenberg in 1904. Under Schoenberg‘s guidance, Berg moved from a rather tonal approach to a purely atonal style over the course of his first three works. He continued in this path, writing mostly smaller works. A decisive moment came in 1914, when he saw a production of George Bьchner‘s play Woyzeck. The play had a great impact on Berg, and he began immediately to transform the work into an opera (Wozzeck). He continued this project while serving in the army in World War I, finishing the work in 1922. It was premiered in 1925 in Berlin and proved a critical and financial success.

In Wozzeck Berg created a rich mix of styles and approaches. On the surface, the language ranges from post-romantic to purely atonal, freely mixing popular and folk elements. Underlying this is an exacting approach to form: the first act is a suite of five character pieces, the second is a symphony in five movements, and the third is a series of five variations set on different ostinatos. None of this, however, is merely intellectual diversion. Instead, each idea is developed to support the dramatic action on the stage.

Through his next works, Berg embraced the twelve-tone procedure more fully. This can be seen in his Lyric Suite (1926), his Violin Concerto (1935) and Lulu, his second opera, left incomplete at his death. In the concerto, especially, we can see how the twelve-tone approach becomes a transparent technique. Berg devised his pitch materials in such a way as to allow for rich, and surprisingly consonant, harmonies. From the opening, which comprises a series of open fifths in the violin and harp, to the final movement, which incorporates a quotation from a chorale setting by Bach, the work is both technically masterful and musically satisfying.

Berg‘s life came to an early end. The tensions of the Nazi rise to power and the effects of generally ill health began to take their toll. In the fall of 1935 a simple insect bite turned into fatal blood poisoning. He died on Christmas Eve.


2 operas: Wozzeck (1917–1922) and Lulu (unfinished, 1935)

Orchestral music, including Three Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6 (1915), Chamber Concerto (1925), Three Pieces from Lyric Suite (1928), and Violin Concerto (1935)

Chamber music, including String Quartet (1910) and Lyric Suite (1926)

Piano music, including Piano Sonata, Op. 1 (1908)

Songs, including Four Songs, Op. 2 (1910)

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