Among Berg's works are some enriching pieces to get to grips with and in most of them, behind the atonality, are glimpses of the more conventional worlds of Mahler and Richard Strauss.
Berg is the most expressive and accessible of the group of composers who wrote using the discipline of 12-tone (serial) composition. Along with Schoenberg and Webern, he was the best-known of the so-called Second Viennese School. Very little of his music is known to the general public though his most important works were composed 60 and more years ago. Conductors and concert programme planners have doggedly included them in concerts, productions of his operatic masterpiece Wozzeck come and go but for the broad spectrum of music lovers Berg’s music remains ‘difficult’. However, there are some enriching pieces to get to grips with and in most of them, behind the atonality, are glimpses of the more conventional worlds of Mahler and Richard Strauss.
Berg came from a musical family and had written a group of songs by the age of 15 without any formal training. He worked first as a clerk in the government and then, in 1904, met Arnold Schoenberg, which proved to be the turning-point of his life. Over the next six years, the relationship between them developed from master and pupil into one of friendship and colleagues. Berg’s drift from conventional harmony to the new school of thought was gradual but his music attracted fierce hostility. The first performance of his Altenberg-Lieder in 1913 provoked a riot and the premiere of Wozzeck – for which the conductor Erich Kleiber needed no less than 137 rehearsals – produced a storm of violent criticism. ‘I had the sensation of having been not in a public theatre but in an insane asylum. On the stage, in the orchestra, in the stalls – plain madmen,’ thundered the Deutsche Zeitung. Undeterred, Berg followed Wozzeck with the Chamber Concerto (dedicated to Schoenberg on his 50th birthday) and a second opera Lulu (left incomplete). With the Nazis’ rise to power Berg’s music was labelled ‘degenerate’, and as performances of his work diminished, so did his income. Work on Lulu was interrupted by the composition of his Violin Concerto in the spring of 1935. In September he was bitten by an insect which caused an abscess on his back. Though this was treated, three months later the abscess burst internally and he died, despite two operations, from blood poisoning at the age of 50.
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