What, you thought I was actually going to stick with some sort of coherent theme? Don’t worry – I’m sure some more theological psycho-drama will resurface sooner or later. Besides, it’s been a while since I’ve written anything music related.
Alban Berg (1885-1935) was an Austrian composer and disciple of the eternally controversial Arnold Schoenberg, adopting the latter’s atonal expressionism and 12-tone technique. The 12-tone (or dodecaphonic) system that Schoenberg pioneered has a reputation for being un-listenable and only of interest to music theorists. For the most part, that reputation is deserved: most of the compositions made with it have been absolute, navel-gazing crap. Berg was one of the few exceptions, in part because he was really a romantic/expressionist who used atonality and the dodecaphonic system for his own unique purposes.
Berg’s music is not often easy or comforting to listen to, but it is powerful, haunting and beautiful in a very eerie fashion. A good example of this is the Andante Amoroso from his Lyric Suite, a string quartet (and probably my favourite work of his). Liberated from tonal gravity, what would be a pleasant reverie is mutated into a surrealistic kaleidoscope of emotion:
But what Berg is most well-known for is his opera Wozzeck, which tells a grim story about an oppressed and tormented soldier who murders his girlfriend. While the fin de siecle nihilism on display is tough to swallow and often comes close to the sort of emotional bullying that I intensely dislike in art, it’s intense stuff. He also wrote another, incomplete opera called Lulu, about the rise and fall of a rather manipulative/sociopathic woman. It’s even more cynical than Wozzeck, and I can’t tell if it is a satire of opera’s misogynistic tendencies, or if it really is that misogynistic.
Berg broke off his work on Lulu to write his Violin Concerto, commemorating the untimely death of one of Alma Mahler’s daughters. It’s probably his most accessible piece, although, as you might expect, it is very elegiac and funereal. There’s a really amazing recording of it out there with Berg’s fellow composer Anton Webern as the conductor. Berg met his own tragic end shortly thereafter when he contracted blood poisoning.
(also: Woo! 100th post!)