Alban Berg

ALBAN BERG (1885 – 1935)

Alban Berg’s name and repute derive from his being a student of Arnold Schoenberg, as had also been Anton Webern. The group of three, between 1903 and 1925, became known as the Second Viennese School.  The idea of a “Second” Viennese School implies that there was a “First” Viennese School, which would have comprised Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, with Schubert sometimes added.  Personally, I think it pretentious however much one may hold the lads of the second in esteem.  It gives no credence to those in between times and I doubt that Mozart or Haydn would have accepted being referred to as a school, whilst Beethoven would have treated it with complete disdain. 

Berg was born in Vienna and apart from a few short musical trips abroad and annual summer sojourns in the Austrian Alps, he spent his life in that city. That much he had in common with Schubert. He was at first inclined toward a literary career. However, music was regularly played in his parents’ house, in keeping with the ambience of the time and place. He must have displayed a natural talent – there are some who have it and more who don’t – but encouraged by his father and older brother, Berg began to compose music even though he had not as yet received any formal instruction. During this period his output consisted of more than 100 songs and piano duets, most of which remain unpublished.

Berg’s father died in 1900 leaving very little, certainly not enough for Berg to be able to afford lessons in composition. To add to his troubles, Berg became involved in an affair with Marie Scheuchl, a servant girl in the household who became pregnant and gave birth in December 1902 to a baby girl. The servant was of course to be blamed and was dismissed. All these incidents affected Berg so much that in the autumn of 1903, he attempted suicide. In September 1904 came a pivotal point in his career when he would meet Arnold Schoenberg, an event that decisively influenced his compositional path. Fortunately, Schoenberg was quick to recognize Berg’s talent and took him on as a non-paying pupil. Schoenberg was to become the guiding factor in shaping Berg’s artistic personality as they worked together over the next six years.

Berg presented his first public performances in 1907 largely to fellow members of the Schoenberg circle.  There followed his single movement  piano sonata in 1908. Each year there followed, at a somewhat slow pace, Four Songs (1909), a string quartet in 1910, the year his pupillage to Schoenberg ended. His musical gods and influences, apart from Schoenberg were Wagner and Mahler. Wagner had died back in 1883 but his all-pervading influence still remained. Mahler was the uncrowned king of the Vienna Opera, from 1897 till 1907 when he left the Opera and The Philharmonic to take over at New York. Mahler’s leanings were different.  Mahler was the arch romantic, as OTT as Tchaikovsky.  Schoenberg had come from much the same background, fourteen years Mahler’s junior, deeply romantic to begin with as in his Verklaerte Nacht but so overripe that he realized that he would need to do something to stop the rot from further setting in. It was against that background that he sought to do away with the accepted home key centres by abolishing tonality itself.  In this Berg, a romantic himself, would follow down the same path.  Mahler on the other hand continued with tonality, pressing it to its very limits such that it was by his death in 1911 on the edge of bursting apart and stretching itself like an elastic band towards atonality.  Both schools were travelling in opposite directions and yet meeting up in the same place.  Thus Mahler was recognized by the Second Viennese School who held him, for all his romantic extremes, in great esteem.

In 1911, Berg, came into a small inheritance and married Helene Nahowski, whom he had met in 1906, daughter of a high-ranking Austrian officer.  The couple live on in Vienna, where he devoted the remainder of his life to music. It was their world in which they took part in the cultural and  intellectual life of the city. His circle included composers Alexander von Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker, artists Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka, the writer and satirist Karl Kraus, the Austro-Czech pioneer of modern architecture Adolf Loos, and the poet Peter Altenberg.

Composers all fall into one of two distinctions. Either a composer composes inside his mind so that what comes out emerges as the finished article. Mozart and Schubert are just two such composers who appear to fall into this category. The vast majority have a rougher time of it. Their initial rough ideas once on paper or in sketch books have to be further drafted, worked on and forged into shape.  Beethoven fell into this classification. With him what we hear sounds like the work of someone inspired and not the work of a musical sculptor who has had to hammer and chisel his way there. With Berg it was worse than that with his creative activity slowed down until there arrived a sudden rush of inspiration. His fastidious and perfectionist manner of composing would explain  the relatively small number of his works. With Mozart I can imagine him whistling whilst he worked and out would come Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. With Berg? Well I can’t imagine an atonal composer whistling his note row!

In 1912 Berg completed “Five Orchestral Songs”, his first work since ending his studies with Schoenberg two years before. The inspiration for this composition came from postcard messages written by the eccentric Viennese poet, Richard Engländer under his nom de plume, Peter Altenberg. The texts of these postcards have been described as erotic. Berg felt prompted to use them to stretch further his modernism. It transpired that when two of these songs were presented at a concert of the Academic Society for Literature and Music in 1913, it provoked a near riot, in which performers and audience freely participated.  1913 was a good year for riots as Stravinsky also would discover.

The First World War would cause a general slow down on composition and performance affecting both sides of the conflict.  Berg was no exception. During 1915 he was called up for military duty in the Austro-Hungarian Army although, because of his health, always frail, he was assigned to a desk job in the War Ministry.  It was during this period that he first alighted on the theme of Wozzeck for his first opera. During the war he had found a summer home at  a lakeside in Carinthia where he could work in quiet, shades of Mahler who had had his annual summer lakeside home to compose and escape the travails of conductorship.   After the end of World War I, Berg, settled back home in Vienna, took on private pupils in composition and building  international reputation in this field of activity.

Wozzeck took a long time to hit the boards.  Although first performed in 1925 it was born out of an earlier period. The original story, entitled Woyzeck, was written by a German dramatist Georg Büchner (1813–37). Büchner, one of the famous revolutionaries of the period was best known for his play, “Danton’s Death”.  For his part in the production of a revolutionary pamphlet he fled Germany and settled in Strasbourg. He died of typhus aged 24 and it is considered he would have been ranked alongside Goethe and Schiller had he survived.   The text of Woyzeck was not discovered until 1879. Berg first began work on a libretto during the First World War, compressing 25 scenes into three acts. By 1917 he had completed the libretto  but only began composing the score after the war. He completed the opera in 1921 and dedicated it to Alma Mahler, widow of the composer.

Wozzeck is an atonal work and was first performed in December 1925 at the Berlin State Opera, with Erich Kleiber conducting. It had needed no fewer than 137 rehearsals.  Critical response was not slow in coming”

 “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”. Another critic described the music as “drawn from Wozzeck’s poor, worried, inarticulate, chaotic soul. It is a vision in sound.”

Once Wozzeck was completed and produced, Berg turned his attention to music in smaller dimension. His Chamber Concerto for violin, piano, and 13 wind instruments was written in 1925, in honour of Schoenberg’s 50th birthday.

In May 1925 Berg met Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, sister of Franz Werfel who was husband number 3 of Alma Mahler. Berg secretly and cryptically dedicated his Lyric Suite to Hanna. By then he had been happily married to Helene Nahowski for 14 years, but he was increasingly prone to taking time out and his feelings for Hanna were intoxicating. Over the course of five days they embarked on a torrid affair. Hanna certainly provided the spark for the Lyric Suite, a string quartet which he completed on 30 September 1926. Berg then searched for a theme for a new opera text. He found it by a combination of two plays by the German dramatist Frank Wedekind out of which he created the central character for his opera, Lulu. This work engaged him, with minor interruptions, for a mere seven years until his death and, even then, the orchestration of the third act remained unfinished. Ultimately the Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha was able to make a completed version and given it received its first performed in Paris in 1979. Lulu was composed entirely in the 12-tone system.

It was from Germany during the time of the Weimar Republic that Berg derived the greatest source of income, most of which was to dry up once the Nazis came to power in 1933. Neither Berg nor Webern were of Jewish descent as was Schoenberg but they too were regarded as representatives of “degenerate art” and performances of their works in Germany became banned. There was a similar knock on effect in his native Austria which caused particular anguish for Berg. Abroad, however, he was recognized more and more as an Austrian composer, and his works were performed at leading musical festivals.

Berg’s last complete work, the violin concerto, originated under an unusual mix of circumstances. With diminishing income he was in need of new commissions. In 1935 he received one from the Russian born American violinist, Louis Krasner, for a violin concerto. It was a musical form he had not previously tackled and, as ever, he was slow to in getting going. What changed it was news of the death from polio of Manon Gropius, the beautiful 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler (by then Alma Werfel, ex-wife of Walter Gropius). Berg began to treat the work as a kind of epitaph, inscribing its dedication to the “memory of an angel”. Suddenly he had found his inspiration and worked at fever pitch in the quiet of his Carinthian lakeside villa. He completed the concerto in six weeks. It was first performed by Krasner in Barcelona in April 1936 but by this time it had become a requiem not only for Manon but for Alban Berg himself as well.  He died on Christmas Eve in 1935 having after having received an insect bite and contracted septicaemia.  He became very ill and, shortly after entering hospital, his death came suddenly. The violin concerto has become one of the major works of the genre, of highly personal, emotional content achieved through a 12 tone note row but which itself included a theme from a Bach chorale.

He is described as man of strikingly attractive appearance with reserved aristocratic bearing.   In looks he reminds me a little of the actor Robert Donat. Possibly, as a result of his youthful looks comment is often made as to how young he was when he died. Yes, 50 is young but Tchaikovsky was 51 when he died and his 51 from his photos makes him seen well, veritably venerable.

With Berg one feels there was so much more to have been said. Sadly. we will never know.