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Alban Berg

Biography

Born: February 2, 1885; Austria   Died: December 24, 1935; Austria   Period: 20th Century
Alban Maria Johannes Berg is one of the central figures of twentieth century musical composition. As one of the triumvirate of the Second Viennese School, Berg produced a rather small body of work that is nonetheless distinguished by a strongly Romantic aesthetic and a distinctive dramatic sense.

Berg's father was an export salesman, his mother the daughter of the Austrian Imperial jeweler. The young Alban's musical training consisted
Read more mainly of piano lessons from his aunt. By his teenage years, however, he had composed dozens of songs without the benefit of formal compositional studies. Berg was a dreamy youth and an indifferent student. In 1903, he endured the end of a passionate (if adolescent) love affair, failed his school finishing exams, and became despondent over the death of his idol, composer Hugo Wolf, all of which led to a suicide attempt. However, he survived to repeat his final year of school and went to work as an apprentice accountant. In 1904 Berg's brother, Charley, took Alban's compositions to Arnold Schoenberg, who accepted Berg as a student. In 1907 Berg met the singer Helene Nahowski, overcame her parents' objections over his poor health (he had severe asthma) and lack of prospects, and married her in 1911.

The composer was drafted into the Austrian army in 1915, served for eleven months, and was discharged for poor health. The army experience led him to revisit Woyzeck Georg Büchner's tragedy about a horribly brutalized private. In 1917, Berg began an operatic adaptation of the play, which occupied him for the next five years. When the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed in the wake of World War I, Berg found work as business manager of Schoenberg's Society for Private Musical Performances, an organization which allowed Vienna's musical avant-garde to enjoy professionally prepared performances before friendly, critic-free audiences.

After a number of interruptions related to personal and familial affairs, Berg completed Wozzeck in 1922. Though initially savaged by critics, the opera eventually gained momentum, enjoying performances throughout Europe and recognition as a masterpiece. Berg's next major work, the Chamber Concerto (1923-1925) was among his first to demonstrate the influence of Schoenberg's twelve-tone method, though the work does not make rigorous, consistent use of twelve-tone practices. In 1925 and 1926, Berg wrote the Lyric Suite for string quartet, parts of which systematically employ twelve-tone principles. The Lyric Suite remains one of the composer's most often performed works; George Gershwin, it is said, had a particular admiration for this music. Years after Berg's death, scholars confirmed that the composer had originally included a sung text in the last movement, a tribute to his "secret" lover, Hanna Fuchs-Robertin. The Suite is now sometimes performed with this restored text.

The last of Berg's works are among his most important. The Violin Concerto (1935) is dedicated "to the Memory of an Angel," a reference to the daughter of Alma Mahler (a close ally) and Walter Gropius, Manon, who had died at the age of 19. The work is particularly striking in its lyrical expressiveness and for the incorporation of tonal elements into its 12-tone idiom. At the time of his death from blood poisoning in 1935, Berg was in the middle of work on his opera Lulu, a sexual horror story, which he had begun in 1929. The opera's unfinished third act was completed by Friedrich Cerha in 1976, after 12 years of work. Read less
Berg: Lulu / Daniel, Hannigan, Henschel, Workman, Petrinsky
Release Date: 11/18/2014   Label: Bel Air Classiques  
Catalog: 109   Number of Discs: 2
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Zemlinsky: Lyric Symphony; Berg: Lyric Suite Pieces / Trekel, Robinson, Graf, Houston Symphony
Release Date: 05/26/2009   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8572048   Number of Discs: 1
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Beethoven, Berg: Violin Concertos / Isabelle Faust, Claudio Abbado
Release Date: 02/14/2012   Label: Harmonia Mundi  
Catalog: 902105   Number of Discs: 1
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Schoeberg, Berg, Webern: Piano Music / Peter Hill
Release Date: 08/31/1999   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8553870   Number of Discs: 1
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Berg: Wozzeck / Segerstam, Falkman, Dalayman, Qvale
Release Date: 04/23/2002   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8660076-77   Number of Discs: 2
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Work: Lulu Suite

 

About This Work
Alban Berg assembled his Lulu Suite for orchestra and soprano in 1934. This suite involves music from his opera Lulu, which was still incomplete when the composer died prematurely at the age of fifty in the following year. The opera's short score was Read more already finished, and the first two acts were completely orchestrated. It was from these first two movements that the music for the concert suite was drawn. It is in five movements and is slightly more than a half hour in duration. Earlier in his career, Berg had created a similar assemblage from his first opera, entitled Three Fragments from Wozzeck, but the Lulu Suite is better known and more frequently recorded. This is perhaps because the latter work is more diverse. The Wozzeck pieces concentrate exclusively on the music surrounding the protagonist's wife Marie. In the Lulu Suite, listeners hear music concerning a broad range of characters. The opening setting concerns Alwa, one of Lulu's many lovers. His father is Doctor Schoen, to whom the main character delivers her Lied der Lulu in Act II of the opera and in the third movement of the concert suite. In the fifth movement, the soprano also performs a brief excerpt from the role of Countess Geschwitz, another fatality to Lulu's charms. The orchestral interludes include music set in Paris and the East Side of London, where Jack the Ripper murders Lulu. The concert suite also features different musical forms, including a rondo and a set of variations. There is a lot to hear in this suite, making it something more than a contracted showcase intended to get an audience to the actual opera. It is an outstanding work in its own right.

The text is by Wedekind, an elder peer of the composer who originally conceived of the opera as a play in which he also sometimes performed. In fact, when Berg was a young man, still a teen in 1903, he saw a play production of Lulu featuring Wedekind as Jack the Ripper. The playwright's wife recorded in her diary seeing the young and handsome composer in the audience. The play had an enormous effect on Berg, as his enthusiastic praises of the work in his letters demonstrate. Though he had a stately bearing matched with an outward, bourgeois respectability, the Austrian was no angel. Unlike Webern, his friend and fellow student of Schoenberg at the time, Berg did not shy away from the seamier side of life. He regarded sensuality as an enormous energy deserving of the same respect as other human traits. This may have been used as an excuse for his extramarital affairs, though it was not a part of his life that he shared with his more pious friends. Berg did not go to shocking excesses in order to live out his worldview, but he did attempt to woo married women and did similar sorts of unlovely things. To the benefit of music, his overt sensuality carried over into his art perfectly. His depictions of the darker side of human nature are often more mysterious and ambiguous than a one-dimensional evocation of evil. Though Lulu killed people and Jack the Ripper did the same, the opera unfolds with a musical setting that depicts a raw and unknowable element in the human psyche that civilization grasps blindly at in order to tame it. This setting is transferred from the opera to the Lulu Suite with uncanny perfection, revealing a talented genius that regarded some weaknesses and a misunderstood power. Read less

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