Alban Berg was heavily into numerology, as were a great number of Viennese at the time (including Sigmund Freud and Arnold Schoenberg). Berg had an obsession with his "fateful number" 23 which influenced his compositions and work habits. For instance he would begin and end projects on the 23rd of the month. As well, the time signatures of his music are all in multiples of 23, so it is not uncommon to find Berg pieces in 46/23 or 69/23 time.

Berg noted other occurences of the number 23 in his life. For example, his first asthma attack occured on July 23rd and he was drafted into the army under regulation 23.

Normal people would chalk this up to coincidence but you have to be a little crazy to write something as perverse as an atonal opera. Oddly enough, it seems that this 23-madness was shared by William S. Burroughs (see the node '23')

Austrian composer. Born 1885 in Vienna, died 1935, also in Vienna. An atonal modernist composer, by and large, but really a major force in forging a new style, the Second Viennese School.

Studies and Influences

Alban Maria Johannes Berg was the son of a prosperous Viennese salesman, but after his father's death, the family relied on a wealthy aunt's support. In school, Berg was fascinated by music, and he started composing in 1900. He also took a considerable interest in women, and yada yada yada in 1902 one of the family's servants had his baby (a girl named Albine). With all the composing and fathering, et cetera, it is hardly surprising his final exams were poor. Apparently, Berg attempted to take his own life, but failed.

Berg studied with Arnold Schoenberg from 1904, while holding down some unimportant civil service job. Anton Weber took up lessons with Schoenberg around the same time. Berg composed his Seven Early Lieder (songs), which really run the gamut from Romantic to some very modern stuff (I've seen it called Impressionist); they sound like very competent exercises. In just 3 or 4 years, as Schoenberg moved first to great structuralism, and then away from tonality, much of the future character of Berg's work was created. The three composer were later thought to have created a "Second Viennese School" of music.

Early Work

Early work, such as the Four Lieder, is often overwhelmingly dissonant, highly dependent on attack and relaxation of the rhythm, and intense (sometimes frightening) emotion set against almost content-less formalism (e.g. an ascending scale). Berg's 1910 String Quartet is considered his musical coming of age; theme and melody appear only as extra tools -- snippets of melody are thrown into the musical fray, and immediately broken apart. First-time listeners often complain that the music is overly morbid, or disturbing. Whether or not this is a true reflection of Berg's angst, or the reflex reaction of tonality-trained hearing, is hard to decide. Perhaps it's not a case of either-or. In any case, this very reaction meant Berg had to publish his own works, as no-one else was willing to print them.

Berg was a pioneer in dodecaphonic music, although at no time was this his exclusive medium. Singing continued to play an important part in Berg's work; no doubt this can be traced to Mahler's gigantic influence on (Schoenberg and) Berg. During the First World War, Berg was employed by the War Ministry in a clerical position, having been judged unfit for active service. He worked on his music through the war, mostly the opera Wozzek, based on a play by Georg Buchner, which he completed in 1922.


As usual, Berg had to publish his own work, and could not afford to; Alma Mahler picked up the tab, and the opera is gratefully dedicated to her. The opera premiered at the Berlin State Opera in 1925 amidst high controversy over director Erich Kleiber's choice. The abstractly structured, alternately tonal and atonal music was an abrupt departure from tradition, and the opera was denounced variously as an over-nationalist German piece, as a [bourgeois decadent creation, and as a case of anti-German subversion. This must be a credit to the playwright's and the composer's ability to raise important and relevant cultural and social questions. It was, however, a sensational success, and played for years around Germany and abroad. In fact, Berg lived off this new source of income right up until the Nazis banned it in 1933 (for leftist tendencies, apparently).

Growing not only more proficient, but also more confident, Berg turned to ever more complex endeavours. Fascinated with numerology and hidden meaning, Berg constructed pieces around rather abstract personal or whimsical hints. In the Chamber Concerto for Piano and Violin with 13 Wind Instruments, a tribute to his mentor Schoenberg and his friend Weber, he hid their two names, simply taking all the letters signifying notes from their names (in German notation, A-H, as well as S by some creative reading). Numerological constants abound, too. A rather complicated structure, much of it anyway not readily apparent to the listener, completes the suggestion that Berg was deliberately handicapping himself, trying to compose expressive music despite whatever arbitrary restrictions he could come up with.

Berg's new style, formal yet highly expressive, spiced with melody and harmony, but relying on neither, has been acclaimed ever since. The classically conditioned ear rebels at first. Where is the melodic theme? Where is the music you can whistle? (You whistle a tune, or play it in your head, by following whichever voice is leading the orchestra -- usually the highest one. But if the conventional wisdom, that there is such a voice, is abandoned, a one-voice representation of the music is a complete non sequitur.) Dissonance is first of all jarring (intentionally of course). But Berg retained enough of his classical base to produce music which can also strike a deeper chord (pun intended). In the year of his own death, Berg mourned the passing of Alma Mahler's young daughter, Manon Gropius, with his haunting violin concerto To the memory of an angel. To my mind, it is one of his finest achievements. Bits of Bach and folk music contrast with crashing atonal aural assaults, set against almost contemplative twelve-note structures.

A premature end

Berg died in 1935 (aged 50), close to the completion of his hyper-dramatic opera Lulu. The subject matter he chose and adapted (from plays by Wedekind) is rife with betrayal, violence, sexuality, and, well, most of the baser emotions. Lulu, an unwitting seductress, leaves a trail of calamity in her adventures (including several dead or hurt husbands and lovers) as she rise through society, then descends, and finally, an escaped convict and forced into prostitution, she is murdered by Jack the Ripper. These tumultuous events are matched by some rather wild, violent, music, making this one of the most expressive of modern operas. This is all the more surprising, when one consdiers the preponderance of heavily formalised, abstract technique, e.g. dodecaphonic sections and a rather Baroque eye (ear?) for vary large-scale patterns.

Some web resources:

  • very comprehensive
  • with discography

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