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Alban Berg & Igor Stravinsky

 B i o g r a p h y

Alban Berg 1885-1935

Berg was born Alban Maria Johannes Berg in Vienna on February 9th, 1885.  His father Conrad Berg was a well placed salesman in the export trade who had moved from Nuremberg to Vienna in 1867.  Alban's mother Johanna Anna Berg was the daughter of a Viennese citizen, and had forbears from Nordbohmen and Baden. Johanna was robust and energetic and could not undertand how anyone could ever become ill.  Perhaps Alban got more from his father in this respect.  Watznauer is quoted in Reich's biography of Berg as follows:

Behind [Conrad Berg's] proud and worthy bearing the keen observer might have recognized a constant tiredness, a weariness that could not be concealed.  [A year before his passing] death was already nestling in the most important engine of the body.  His heart would sometimes let him down...[However,] he would not take a rest, but worked on without a break as if there was nothing particularly the matter with him, and simply accepted he risk. (12)

We will see that this is the prototype for the last months of Berg's life.
Berg had three siblings.  The oldest, Conrad, who was 13 years older than Alban, emigrated to America at a young age and attained a respectable position in business.  Three years older than Alban was Charley, who followed in his father's career footsteps.  Smaragda was two years younger than Alban, and the two were close friends.  Alban's early piano lessons were from his sister's governess.
On March 30th 1900 Conrad Berg died suddenly of a heart attack.  His business fell into the hands of strangers and the family's finance took a downturn.  Only the generosity of a well-off aunt allowed Berg to continue his academic studies.

Berg's interest in music had begun to take off in 1899, and he composed his first songs during the 1900-1 schoolyear.  Literature also fascinated him at this time, as it always would.  Apparently Berg also had a keen interest in the opposite sex.  In late February or Early May of 1902 he fathered a child with Marie Scheuchl, a servant girl in the Berg family household.  The female child, Albine, was born on December 4, 1902.  The father was to make reference to the mother in a characteristically secretive manner in his last work, the Violin Concerto.  Berg's various creative endeavors had the unfortunate result of causing him to neglect his studies.  He performed miserably on his matriculatory exams in 1903, and this, likely along with the stress caused by his fatherhood, led to a suicide attempt in the autumn of that year.
Matriculation was achieved in the 1903-4 school year, and in October 1904 Berg entered the Viennese government office.  He was supposedly headed for a career as a civil servant, but the contents of his room would have told the compassionate observor that other things were in store.  In his room were portraits of Beethoven, Ibsen, and Mahler, as well as a statue of Brahms.

At this time Arnold Schoenberg was living in Vienna, earning his living by making transcriptions of pieces in the classical repertoire and by teaching musical theory and composition.  By 1904 he had already composed the Gurrelieder, Verklärte Nacht, and Pelleas und Melisande, works that placed him at the forefront of modern music.  They were however, close in spirit to the late romanticism of Mahler, Strauss, and Wolfe.
In 1904, Charley Berg saw an advertisement for Schoenberg's teaching services and urged Alban to take up studies with him.  He did, Schoenberg accepting Berg as a student though he could not at first pay for the lessons.  Schoenberg said contradictory things about the compositions Berg showed him at the outset of his studies.  At one point, emphasizing how much he had taught the young composer, he pointed out that Berg's work had previously been limited to Lieder, and that "even the piano accompaniements to them were songlike in style.  He was absolutely incapable of writing an instrumental movement or inventing an instrumental theme."  At another time Schoenberg wrote that he "recognized at once that [Berg] had real talent."  Perle suggests "it seems more likely that Schoenberg's recognition of Berg's 'real talent' was based on an estimate of his personal and intellectual qualities." (Perle 1980:1)
Between 1905 and 1908 Berg wrote the Seven Early Songs (Sieben Frühe Lieder), songs which range in style from High Romanticism to Impressionism.  Berg's two published student works are a set of piano variations and the song An Leukon (1907).  These were composed at the same time as Anton Webern's Passacaglia, Op. 1.  In contrast to the Berg works, the Passacaglia is well-composed and expressive and is a signpost of its composer's personal style.  This owes to the fact that Webern, who had been a student of Schoenberg's for approximately the same amount of time as had Berg, had a strong musical background.  He had studied piano, cello, and theory as a child and harmony, counterpoint, and musicology with Guido Adler at the University of Vienna.

Schoenberg was to take Webern and Berg through a series of radical stylistic changes as his own musical language developed.  Schoenberg's musical transformations began with his First Quartet, Op. 7 (1905).  With this work he turned away from the programmatic content and grandiose textures and dimensions of Gurrelieder and Pelleas to a more classical conception of formal design.  The First Chamber Symphony (1906) and the Second Quartet (1907), Opp. 9 and 10, carry this tendency further.  In these works, Schoenberg attempted to strengthen the structural powers of tonal music, but in the process began to create a musical armature that would replace tonality.
The Second Quartet of Schoenberg is truly a turning point in Western Music.  The first three movements are fully tonal, though they use extravagant means of extending tonality.  In the final movement, "the concept of a tonal center as represented in the major-minor system is discarded, its rejection explicitly indicated by the absence of a key signature." (Perle 1980:4)
Schoenberg's lessons for Berg formed the basis of the Harmonielehre.  Berg learned the principals of traditional music: harmony, and counterpoint.  Also, Schoenberg showed him the way to modern music and modern expression.  First came the ideas from Brahms and Bach about development and variation.  According to Schoenberg, the German tradition of music was based on the ideal of all musical occurrences in a piece of music deriving from a single motive.  That is, a piece of music should logically unfold from a basic starting point, as does a plant from a seed.

The triumvriate of composers Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern is often referred to as the "Second Viennese School"; Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven make up the First.  The major precursor for the ideas of the Second Viennese School was Gustav Mahler.  On 9 December, his work in Vienna having come to an end, Mahler departed for America; there he would conduct at the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.  Berg and about 200 other "faithful" met Mahler at the train station at the time of his leaving to demonstrate their appreciation of his accomplishments.

Berg met Helene Nahowski, his future wife, in 1907.  He composed a setting of Theodor Storm's poem Schliesse mir die Augen beide and dedicated it to Helene.  In 1925 Berg composed another setting to the same poem, but this time dedicated it to a different woman.  Also foreshadowing the future was Berg's first attack of bronchial asthma on July 23, 1908.  This ailment was to interfere with the remainder of Berg's life.  The date of the first attack, the 23rd, became Berg's "fateful number."  Berg's belief in the fatefulness of 23 was "confirmed" by the theories of Wilhelm Fliess, who held that male life cycles were governed by that number.  Compositions beginning with the Lyric Suite in 1926 incorporated the number 23 in a variety of ways.

* * *

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

"I haven't understood a bar of music in my life, but I've felt it."
Igor Stravinsky

"Even during his lifetime, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was a legendary figure. His once revolutionary work were modern classics, and he influenced three generations of composers and other artists. Cultural giants like Picasso and T. S. Eliot were his friends. President John F. Kennedy honored him at a White House dinner in his eightieth year.

"Stavinsky was born in Russia, near St. Petersburg (Leningrad), grew up in a musical atmosphere , and studied with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He had his first important opportunity in 1909, when the impresario Sergei Diaghilev heard his music. Diaghilev was the director of the Russian Ballet, an extremely influential troupe which employed great painters as well as important dances, choreographers, and composers. Diaghilev first asked Stravinsky to orchestrate some piano pieces by Chopin as ballet music and then, in 1910, commissioned an original ballet, The Firebird, which was immensely successful. A year later (1911), Stravinsky's second ballet, Petrushka, was performed, and Stravinsky was hailed as a modern master. When his third ballet, The Rite of Spring, had its premiere in Paris in 1913, a riot erupted in the audience--spectators were shocked and outraged by its pagan primitivism, harsh dissonance, percussiveness, and pounding rhythms--but it too was recognized as a masterpiece and influenced composers all over the world.

"During World War I, Stravinsky sought refuge in Switzerland; after the armistice, he moved to France, his home until the onset of World War II, when he came to the United States. In the 1920s and 1930s he was an international celebrity,constantly touring in Europe and the United States, and his compositions--which had originally been inspired by Russian folk music--became cooler and more objective. During his years in the United States (he lived outside Los Angeles), his young musical assistant, Robert Craft, familiarized him with the works of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, and in the 1950s Stravinsky astonished his followers by adopting Schoenberg's twelve-tone system.

"Unlike Schoenberg and Bartok, Stravinsky got well-paying commissions for his work and was an astute businessman; he also loved order and discipline an said that he composed 'everyday, regularly, like a man with banking hours.' In his seventies and eighties he was still touring conducting his rich and intense late works.

Stravinsky's Music:

"Stravinsky's extensive output includes compositions of almost every kind, for voices, instruments, and the stage; and his innovations in rhythm, harmony, and tone color had an enormous influence on twentieth-century music.

"His development shows dramtic changes of style. The three early ballets--The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913)--call for very large orchestras and draw upon Russian folklore and folk tunes. Durning World War I, he wrote for chamber groups, using unconvetional combinations of instruments and incorporating ragtime rhythms and pupular dances (an example as The Soldier's Tale, 1918). From about 1920 to 1951 (the 'neo-classical' era) he was inspired largely by eighteenth-century muisc; the ballet Pulcinella (1920) was based partly on the music of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736), and the opera The Rake's progress (1951) was modeled on Mozart. His neoclassical works emphasize restraint, balance, and wit and are far removed from the violence of the Rite of Spring. But his shift to the twelve-tone system in the 1950s was an even more dramatic change of approach, since until then all his music ahd had a clear tonal center. Taking inspritation from Anton Webern (1883-1945), Stravinsky now wrote brief works in which melodic lines were 'atomized' into short fragments inconstantly changing tone colors and registers.

"Despite such stylistic changes, however, all his music has an unmistakable 'Stravinsky sound.' Tone colors are dry and clear; the beat is strong. His work abounds in changing and irregular meters, and sometimes several meters are heard at once. Ostinatos--repeated rhythmic or melodic patterns--often unify sections of a piece. His treatment of musical form is also unique: rather than connecting themes with bridge passages, he makes abrupt shifts, but his music nevertheless sounds unified and continuous. The effectiveness of his rhythms, chords, and melodies often depends largely on his orchestration, in which hightly contrastin tone colors are frequently combined. And his music has rich, novel harmonies--he makes even conventional chords sound unusaual.

"Stravinsky drew on a wide range of styles, from Russian folk songs to baroque melodies, from Renaissance madrigals to tango rhythms. He sometimes used existing music to create original compositions, but more often the music is entirely his own, while vaguely suggesting a past style."

Building A Classical Music Library by Bill Parker, Jormax Publications, Minneapolis, Minnesota, page 247-249.

"Just as appetite comes by eating, so work brings inspiration, if inspiration is not discernible at the beginning."
Igor Stravinsky

 A l b u m s

Kammerkonzert · Ebony Concerto (Deutsche Grammophone, 1982)