Friday, June 1, 2018

Alban Berg (1885-1935)

No. 281 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT  series of audio montages, which can be found in our archives at


After a series of Russian podcasts, the next few planned montages will explore “modern times”, 0 in anticipation of later chapters of Project 366. This week’s share features one of the prominent voices of the Second Viennese School, Austria’ Alban Berg.

As in most Viennese middle-class homes, music was regularly played in his parents’ house, in keeping with the general musical atmosphere of the day. Encouraged by his father and older brother, Alban Berg began to compose music without benefit of formal instruction. During this period his output consisted of more than 100 songs and piano duets, most of which remain unpublished.
In September 1904 he met Arnold Schoenberg, who was quick to recognize Berg’s talent and accepted the young man as a nonpaying pupil. The musical precepts and the human example provided by Schoenberg shaped Berg’s artistic personality as they worked together for the next six years.

Berg wrote atonal and 12-tone compositions that remained true to late 19th-century Romanticism. In the circle of Schoenberg’s students, Berg presented his first public performance in the fall of 1907: Piano Sonata (published 1908). This was followed by Four Songs (1909) and String Quartet (1910), each strongly influenced by the young composer’s musical gods, Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner.

Our opening work, "Der Wein" (The Wine), is a concert aria for soprano and orchestra, composed in 1929. The lyrics are from Stefan George's translation of three poems from Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal. The aria was dedicated to Ružena Herlinger, its commissioner and first performed in Königsberg on June 4, 1930 with Hermann Scherchen.

Berg wrote two operas: Wozzeck (1925) and Lulu . The inspiration for Berg’s Lulu can be found in two plays by the German dramatist Frank Wedekind (1864–1918). From Erdgeist (1895; “Earth Spirit”) and Büchse der Pandora (1904; “Pandora’s Box”), he extracted the central figure for his opera. This work engaged him, with minor interruptions, for the span of 1929-34. By then, the rise of Nazism and Berg’s close association to Schoenberg meant his work was proscribed and placed on the list of degenerate music. It was at this point that he set aside the work on the opera to prepare a concert suite, in case the opera could never be performed, and also considered expanding it into a Lulu Symphony. The suite is featured in today’s montage.

Berg’s last complete work, the Violin Concerto, originated under unusual circumstances. In 1935 the American violinist Louis Krasner commissioned Berg to compose a violin concerto for him. As usual, Berg procrastinated at first. But after the death of Manon, the beautiful 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler (by then the wife of the architect Walter Gropius), Berg was moved to compose the work as a kind of requiem and to dedicate it to the “memory of an angel”—Manon.

By the time the work was finally presented by Krasner in Barcelona in April 1936, it had become a requiem not only for Manon Gropius but for Berg as well. One of the major violin concerti of the 20th century, it is a work of highly personal, emotional content achieved through the use of 12-tone and other resources—symbolic as well as musical.

I think you will love this music too.