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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
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
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.
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