Alban Berg

By: Sarah Weinman
February 9, 2010

The 1925 premiere of Wozzeck, the first opera by the Austrian composer ALBAN BERG (1885-1935), was the moment at which twelve-tone musical composition was transformed into accessible art. Arnold Schoenberg pioneered the twelve-tone technique, which daringly freed music from the shackles of classical cadence resolution and strict conformity to an anchoring key; but Berg, his student, relaxed the technique’s formal restrictions and added formidable emotional power by fusing its strict adherence to repetitive, atonal structure with folk song fragments and 19th-century, Romantic-style phrasings. For Wozzeck, Berg employed leitmotifs heavy on tritones to illustrate the tension between the titular protagonist and his lover, Marie, and to the tension between Marie and her child. In doing so, he gave the tragic story a sense of urgency that would influence Modernist composers to come. Wozzeck also set the tone for Berg’s even weirder and more audacious project, Lulu — which wasn’t completed until decades after his untimely death from blood poisoning.

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What do you think?

  1. This is a great little piece about Berg! I have one little quibble – Wozzeck wasn’t a twelve-tone opa, it was atonal.

    Although this may seem like splitting hairs, it’s not, as twelve-ton music involves very different compositional procedures and was Schoenberg’s way of systematizing the atonality.

    In fact, I think you could probably argue that the atonal period, between 1910-1925, was all pretty hilobrow. Schoeberg’s early work was certainly more in this direction than his later music, but I would agree that Wozzeck was the piece that showed the world the dramatic possibilities of the atonal system.

  2. Thanks, Andrew – I should have been clearer on stressing the atonality of Berg vs. outright twelve-tone theory, which was why he was viewed as being both backward and forward-thinking at the same time!

    Wozzeck cured me of a lot of personal snobbery about atonality and twelve tone, in large part influenced by Milton Babbitt’s “Who Cares if you Listen?” essay from the late ’40s.

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