Alban Berg

1885–1935

Romantic/20th Century

Alban Berg was an Austrian composer, and part of the ‘Second Viennese School’ – along with Arnold Schoenberg (his teacher) and Anton Webern. People say ‘Second Viennese School’ to separate it from the earlier First Viennese School, which included Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Music by composers like Berg is very different: they didn’t like the big Romantic style that was popular when they were little – so they rebelled.

Until then, music had mostly been written ‘in a key’ – which makes it sound comfortable to our ears. But these composers decided that wasn’t necessary! They wrote ‘atonal’ music instead – music that isn’t in any key at all. It can sound weird. We often don’t know where it’s going and can’t make sense of it.

Berg was brought up in an educated household in Vienna surrounded by art and good conversation. Schoenberg inspired him to write his first big work: his Piano Sonata. This is one of his easiest works to enjoy. It does have a key centre, although for quite a long time our ears can’t really work out what it is.

But audiences began to find his work difficult. Poor Berg suffered the humiliation of having some songs booed off the stage in Vienna – there was actually a riot in the hall! Sometimes new art (visual or musical) has made people angry because they want something prettier and more comforting. But to move forward and keep life interesting it can be important for artists to push limits and challenge their audience.

While he served as a soldier in the First World War, Berg worked on a big opera called Wozzeck, a tragic story of love, passion and betrayal. He started to write another dark and tragic opera, Lulu, but he died in 1935 from an insect bite before he could finish it. Someone else completed it in the end.

Berg struggled with money. As a composer he relied on being ‘commissioned’ – being asked to write music in return for money. So he needed to be quite popular… but he wasn’t! Today, we understand that Berg was ‘ahead of his time’ – sometimes we only understand the brilliance of an artist much later.

Alban Berg, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Try a bit of Berg below...

Violin Concerto: I. Andante – Scherzo

This might be Berg’s most-performed instrumental piece – and it was his last. He died soon after completing it.

Performers: Rebecca Hirsch, violin; Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra; Eri Klas

Taken from Naxos 8.554755

Lyric Suite: V. Presto delirando

Berg’s Lyric Suite is one of his most famous pieces. It uses ‘twelve-tone’ technique (all twelve notes in a chromatic scale are treated equally) to structure the music.

Performers: New Zealand String Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.557374

Wozzeck: Act I Scene 1: The Captain’s Room

Wozzeck was the first atonal opera ever written. It’s complicated and dark.

Performers: Carl Johan Falkman, baritone (Wozzeck); Ulrik Qvale, tenor (Captain Hauptmann); Stockholm Royal Opera Orchestra; Leif Segerstam

Taken from Naxos 8.660076-77

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Which playwright’s work is Wozzeck based on?

a. Frank Wedekind
b. William Shakespeare
c. Georg Büchner

 Which number was special for Berg?

a. 23
b. 42
c. 33

 How many piano sonatas did Berg write?

a. Six
b. One
c. None

 Berg was a principal member of which Viennese School?

a. First
b. Second
c. Third

 What kind of tonality did Berg use?

a. Atonality
b. Traditional tonality
c. Modality


Key Facts…

Key Facts…
  1. Berg was a friend of the famous artist Gustav Klimt.
  2. Berg learned almost everything he knew about music from his teacher and mentor Arnold Schoenberg.
  3. Although we don’t know why, Berg liked the number 23 and sometimes incorporated it into his music.
  4. Berg has an asteroid named after him! It’s called ‘4528 Berg’. Not very catchy…
  5. Romanticism and atonality are combined in Berg’s work – his music is very sensitive and emotional, as well as being in no particular key.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Orchestral Music and Concertos


Violin Concerto

This might be Berg’s most-performed instrumental piece – and it was his last. When he’d finished it, he described how it felt to compose it: ‘the work gave me more and more joy’. He died soon after completing it.

Performers: Rebecca Hirsch, violin; Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra; Eri Klas

Taken from Naxos 8.554755


3 Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6

Berg dedicated these three pieces to Arnold Schoenberg, his teacher and mentor, with ‘immeasurable gratitude and love’.

Performers: Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra; Eri Klas

Taken from Naxos 8.554755

Solo and Chamber Music


Piano Sonata, Op. 1

Berg wrote this sonata around 1909, and unusually for a sonata it’s only got one movement. It’s sort of in B minor, but only sort of! It’s very expressive.

Performers: Peter Hill, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553870


4 Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 5

Written in 1913, these tiny little pieces are very complex for their size! They’re constantly shifting in terms of tempo, harmony and dynamics.

Performers: Peter Schmidl, clarinet; Madoka Inui, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.557232


String Quartet, Op. 3

Written in 1910, Berg’s String Quartet is clever and complex. He thought about every single bar in great detail. It’s very original – even more than usual for Berg!

Performers: New Zealand String Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.557374


Lyric Suite

Berg’s Lyric Suite is one of his most famous pieces. It uses ‘twelve-tone’ technique (treating all twelve notes in a chromatic scale equally) to structure the music.

Performers: New Zealand String Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.557374

Operas


Wozzeck (excerpt)

Wozzeck is one of Berg’s most famous operas. It was the first atonal opera ever written – that means the first opera with music that wasn’t ‘in a key’. It’s very complicated and dark.

Performers: Carl Johan Falkman, baritone; Ulrik Qvale, tenor; Stockholm Royal Opera Orchestra; Leif Segerstam

Taken from Naxos 8.660076-77


Lulu (excerpt)

Lulu might actually be even darker and sadder than Wozzeck! It’s about an unhappy woman who can’t find any sense of inner peace. How do you think the music reflects this?

Performers: Vienna Symphony Orchestra; Herbert Hafner

Taken from Naxos 9.80123-24