Alban (Maria Johannes) Berg


More even than that of Anton Webern , Alban Berg had Arnold Schönberg to thank for bringing out the musical genius in him.  Webern  had a thorough musical grounding before meeting Schönberg but the works dating from before Berg's first encounters with him showed little technical expertise.  However, four years of study were to pay off, first with his Seven Early Songs, then with his Piano Sonata Op. 1.  Both were lush, romantic works, influenced by Schönberg's own theories of expanded tonality as exemplified by his pieces Verkärte Nacht and Pelleas und Melisande.

Unlike Webern, sensuality was to be a key characteristic of Berg's music.  As the three composers developed the construct of serialism, Berg became the perfect refutation to those who would suggest that such methods were dry and academic.  In work and life, he epitomised the decadence of Europe between the wars, and the "morally degenerate" themes of his operas Wozzeck and Lulu were to be a favourite target of the Nazis after his death.

Berg's operas are probably his crowning achievements - they make wide use of serial techniques and atonality but remain accessible to audiences, mainly due to applying these methods to well-known forms like waltzes and marches.  They also emulate his teacher in the use of "Sprechstimme", a notated emulation of the glissandi of speech.  The work's revolutionary nature meant Berg was unable to find a publisher, but he found financial assistance from Alma Mahler, widow of the composer Gustav Mahler  and a friend of the Berg family.

His late introduction to music made Berg insecure regarding his abilities, so he took great pains to ensure that his pieces contained the internal relationships which Schönberg viewed as the mark of the true craftsman.  This makes his pieces rewarding to listen to and study, but as with Schönberg it fed a quasi-mystical obsession with numerology - certain numbers would signify certain meanings, a coding which is still being interpreted by academics today.

In 1935, the year of his own death, Berg received a commission for a violin concerto, an opportunity he used to commemorate the death of the daughter of Alma Mahler and her new husband, architect Walter Gropius.  Manon Gropius had died at age 18, and so it was that Berg's Violin Concerto was subtitled "To the Memory of an Angel".  Mixing tonality and serialism, chorales and folksongs, it was Berg's last completed work.  Berg died of general septacaemia, initially brought on by an insect bite, in December of that year.

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