Alban Berg, with Anton Webern and their teacher Arnold Schoenberg, together make up the group of composers generally known as the Second
Viennese School in the early years of the twentieth century. The technical compositional systems developed by Schoenberg, a logical extension of Wagnerian chromaticism, had a profound
effect on the course of music throughout the century, as traditional tonalities and keys were seemingly abandoned, dissonances differently handled and principles of musical unity
developed into a very different language.
Born in Vienna in 1885, Berg was the son of a prosperous businessman. He had little formal musical education, although he attempted his first compositions in 1901, but owed the
training he had to Schoenberg, whose pupil he became in 1904, after he left school and began unpaid work as an apprentice civil servant. Berg’s father had died in 1900 and he persuaded
his mother to allow him to give up the government career for which he had been trained in order to manage the family properties, enhanced by inheritance that settled them in the
comfortable suburb of Hietzing, near the Palace of Schönbrunn. The cultural milieu in Vienna was a stimulating one, with innovative writers and artists. While Mahler presided at the
Court Opera, aesthetic boundaries were extended by composers such as Richard Strauss and Franz Schreker. Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, written in 1899, had its first performance in
Vienna in 1902, but it was chance that brought Berg to study with him at a time when he was developing his own revolutionary musical ideas. Other strong influences on him were the
writer and satirist Karl Kraus, whose private production of Wedekind’s Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box), the later source of Berg’s unfinished opera Lulu, he saw in 1905, the
writer Peter Altenberg, the architect Adolf Loos, the critic and dramaturg Hermann Bahr and the painter and writer Oskar Kokoschka.
Under the tutelage of Schoenberg Berg continued, with some diffidence, to develop his own distinctive musical language. His studies came to an end in 1911, when Schoenberg moved
once more to Berlin, and the following year he wrote his Altenberger Lieder, Opus 4, works of exemplary brevity and intensity. Two of the songs were performed in 1913 in Vienna under
the direction of Schoenberg, but the concert could not be continued, when a vocal clique in the audience made its objections clear. Schoenberg, who had come from Berlin for the
occasion, expressed his own criticism of the work.
Military service during the war put an end to composition for the moment, but in 1914 Berg had attended a performance of the play Wozzeck, by Georg Büchner, the first staging in
Vienna of the fragmentary work, after its first performance in Munich the previous year. He immediately felt the need to use this as the basis of an opera, making early sketches, which
he was able to continue only in 1917. He finished the initial work in 1921 and the orchestral score early in the following year, and wider interest gradually grew, leading to the
performance of three fragments from the opera in a 1924 concert performance in Frankfurt under Hermann Scherchen. The year 1925 brought the first staging of the whole work at the
Berlin State Opera under Erich Kleiber. Performances in Prague were interrupted by Czech nationalist protests, but in 1927 Berg travelled to Russia for successful performances of
Wozzeck in Leningrad, although the opera was soon dropped from the repertoire as changes in Soviet cultural policy were introduced. A production at Oldenburg persuaded a number of
provincial opera-houses to stage the work, which was establishing itself as an accepted part of repertoire. In 1930 Wozzeck had its première at the Vienna State Opera, a success in
spite of the previous hostility of some, and in 1931 it was given in America for the first time.
Berg had, meanwhile, been working on a second opera, Lulu. In 1934, a suite from the new opera was performed in Berlin under Kleiber, but the work became the object of National
Socialist condemnation, not only of the music itself but also of those who had written favourable criticisms of it. Vienna, of course, was still free, but performances of music by Berg
were discouraged and finally forbidden in Germany, a ban extended to Austria after the Anschluss. In 1935, Berg completed his remarkable Violin Concerto, a commission from the
violinist Louis Krasner, a work in memory of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Mahler’s former wife Alma and the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, who had died of infantile paralysis in
April of that year. By Christmas Eve Berg, himself was dead, having contracted blood-poisoning from an infected insect bite.
Biography selected from Naxos, the World's Leading Classical Music Label.
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