Music Alban Berg
David Headlam
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0120


Alban Berg (b. 1885–d. 1935) was the youngest of three composers, along with his teacher Arnold Schoenberg and colleague Anton von Webern, known as the “Second Viennese School.” The three are most closely associated with the musical stylistic-compositional succession from late chromatic tonality to “atonal” (from 1908) through “serial” and “twelve-tone” music (from 1923). Living most of his life in Vienna, Berg was little known until the success of his first opera, Wozzeck (premiered in 1925). His fourteen major compositions fall into three periods: the first including the Piano Sonata, op. 1, and the first three of Four Songs, op. 2 (1904–1910); the second encompassing the atonal final song of Opus 2 through Wozzeck, op. 7 (1910–1925); and a final period of works without opus numbers (1925–1935) incorporating serial and twelve-tone techniques, from the Chamber Concerto through his second opera Lulu and his last work, the Violin Concerto. He adapted Schoenberg’s innovations to a language based on interval cycles and symmetry as described by George Perle in “Berg’s Master Array of the Interval Cycles” (1977), and his music combines autobiographical tendencies recalling those of Mahler and Schumann, including public and private references, a strong lyric and dramatic sensibility from the German Lieder and opera traditions, and a deep concern with symbols, numerology, cryptograms, and fatalistic elements. His student, the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno in his monograph, Alban Berg: Master of the Smallest Link, defined the paradox of Berg’s obsessive attention to the details of the “smallest” linking passages that continually dissolve yet function within expansive gestures and forms. A brilliant writer, polemicist, and analyst of his own and others’ music—particularly that of Schoenberg—as well as a profound humanist in his worldview, Berg participated fully in the burgeoning Viennese culture of his time. At once progressive and traditional, he is known for the integration of tonal elements into his musical language, which culminates, to cite one example, in the seamless interweaving of a Bach chorale harmonization, Es ist genug (BWV 60) into his twelve-tone Violin Concerto. Berg is a central figure in post-tonal music, as is evident in the reception of the premiere of the completed Lulu in 1979 in Paris, with a reconstruction by Friedrich Cerha of the unfinished third act from Berg’s detailed sketches, which was a major cultural event. Berg died tragically in 1935 from an infection, just after 23 December, in the final scene from the drama of his life and this self-described number of fate. Soon after his death Berg’s music suffered suppression by the Nazis but regained worldwide recognition after World War II.


Simms 2009 offers a comprehensive overview of Berg scholarship, and Grove’s Berg, Alban online entry by Jarman is a concise starting point for research.

  • Jarman, Douglas. “Berg, Alban.” In Grove Music Online.

    A concise précis of Berg’s life and music, with bibliography and worklist.

  • Simms, Bryan. Alban Berg: A Research and Information Guide: Composer Resource Manuals in the Garland Reference Library. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2009.

    The new edition, which covers up to 2007, contains about 1,300 citations on Berg. Not included are unpublished, popular, brief, and textbook references to Berg as well as writings in Asian languages.

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