Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: To the memory of an Angel

Alban Berg circa 1930
Alban Berg (1885-1935), circa 1930

We mark the posthumous premiere on April 19, 1936 – 85 years ago today – of Alban Berg’s breathtaking Violin Concerto. Its score bears a double dedication: “To Louis Krasner” (1903-1995; Krasner was the violinist who commissioned and premiered the concerto) and “To the Memory of an Angel” (the significance of which will be explained in due time).

Albano Maria Johannes Berg was born in Vienna on February 9, 1885. He died there 50 years later, on December 24, 1935.

Berg was born into a highly cultured family that travelled in the highest circle of Vienna’s cultural elite, at a time when Vienna was home to a staggering amount of talent. Berg numbered among his friends Gustav and Alma Mahler, the writers Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) and Karl Kraus (1874-1936); the architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933); and the artists Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980).

Among others.

That’s quite a crew.

Berg in 1906
Berg in 1906, at the time he was studying with Arnold Schoenberg

A tall (he grew to be 6’5” in height), gangly, shy child, the young Berg was more interested in literature than music. A few elementary piano lessons aside, Berg had no formal musical training whatsoever until 1904, when he was 19. That was when he began composition lessons with the great Viennese modernist Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951). It was a musical “apprenticeship” unlike any other – before or since – in the history of Western music. In 1949, 45 years after they met and 14 years after Berg’s death, Schoenberg recalled their first meeting:

“When he came to me in 1904, he was a very tall youngster and extremely timid. But when I saw the compositions he showed me – songs in a style between Hugo Wolf and Brahms – I recognized at once that he had real talent.”

The 30-year-old Schoenberg accepted Berg as a student because he saw something in him that not even Berg knew existed. In a mere seven years, Alban Berg went from knowing next to nothing about the technical workings of music to being one of the most technically polished and brilliantly original composers of all time. Just seven years!

In 1906, at the age of 21, Berg received an inheritance from an aunt, an inheritance that made the lucky young man financially independent and capable of pursuing, full time, his compositional ambition. A meticulous, notorious slow worker, Berg completed what he considered his first “mature” work, his piano Sonata Opus 1, in 1908. A string quartet followed in 1910; his Five Songs for Orchestra on post-card texts by Peter Altenberg followed in 1912; and his Three Pieces for Orchestra was completed in 1913.…

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