Michael McCooe: Composer – Alban Berg

Born in 1885, Alban Berg was a turn-of-the-century Austrian composer. By the time he died in 1935, Berg had gained a reputation as a master composer of orchestral and chamber music, who was also known for writing two ground-breaking operas, ensuring that his legacy lives on to this day.

Schoenberg’s pupil

Born into a middle class family in Vienna, Alban Berg preferred literature over music as a child, only starting to compose at age 15. In 1904, he began studying with iconic composer Arnold Schoenberg, learning music theory, harmony and counterpoint. His time with Schoenberg radically influenced Berg’s artistry, leading him to adapt Schoenberg’s iconic 12-tone technique in his own compositions. Berg presented his first performance in 1907, as part of a showcase for Schoenberg’s pupils.

The next year, Berg published his first composition, Piano Sonata. It characterised Schoenberg’s teachings on musical variation, where a whole piece is built from a simple idea. It was followed up by his Four Songs and String Quartet pieces in 1909 and 1910. In 1911, Berg and his wife took an apartment in Vienna, soon becoming a part of the city’s cultural elite during its fin de siècle period, where he mixed with the likes of Alexander von Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker and Gustav Klimt.

Courting controversy

Berg faced a backlash in 1912, when two of his Five Songs on Picture Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg were debuted in Vienna. Based on erotic postcard texts and accompanied by a huge orchestra, these pieces provoked a riot when performed, so the work was not played in full until 1952. In 1915, Berg signed up for the Austrian army, fighting in World War One until 1918. However, Berg took a leave of absence in 1917, when he wrote what would become his first ground-breaking opera, Wozzeck.

Wozzeck is an opera based on German playwright Georg Büchner’s incomplete work, Woyzeck, for which he adapted the libretto himself. Exploring controversial themes, such as militarism and everyday sadism, Wozzeck chronicles the tale of soldiers and average citizens in a rural German-speaking town. When excerpts of Wozzeck were performed in 1924, they brought Berg his first public success. The full piece was debuted in 1925 and Wozzeck is still regularly performed to this day.

Master composer

Berg kept working throughout the late 1920s. In this period he wrote some now-iconic pieces, such as 1926’s Lyric Suite, a six-movement work for string quartet, which used elaborate ciphers to document a secret love affair. During this time, Berg also released Three Pieces for Orchestra, which was a post-Mahlerian affair and his Chamber Concerto, for piano, violin and 13 wine instruments. Written very conscientiously, the Chamber Concerto has since been labelled Berg’s strictest orchestral work.

Moving into the 1930s, Berg started writing two of his most iconic works. The first was the opera Lulu, which is based on German playwright Frank Wedekind’s two Lulu plays, known for depicting a society “riven by lust and greed.” Berg died in 1935, before he could finish Lulu, so it was debuted incomplete in 1937. The second piece was Berg’s Violin Concerto, which like most of his mature work, employs Berg’s adaptation of the 12-tone technique, mixed with late 19th Century Romantic influences. It has become Berg’s most performed work and is often regarded as the best composition he ever wrote.

Forward-thinker

During his lifetime, critics accused Berg of being backwards-looking, due to his penchant for including late 19th Century Romantic themes into his compositions. As time has passed, many have now come to regard Alban Berg as a musical innovator, who took traditional concepts and made them exciting and was never afraid to confront controversial, risqué themes. This ensured that Alban Berg won a place in the hearts of many music enthusiasts, a position he is sure to maintain in the 21st Century.

You can listen to some of my favourite classics on my Michael McCooe SoundCloud profile, which is updated on a regular basis.