Operapedia: Alban Berg
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Operapedia: Alban Berg

Henry Stewart reconciles the dissonances in the career of opera’s greatest atonal composer.

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© AKG-Images/Imagno
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© AKG-Images/Imagno



1885  Alban Maria Johannes Berg is born in Vienna on February 9. His father, Conrad, is a salesman in exports; his mother, Johanna, is the daughter of Franz Braun, a Viennese jeweler with a gifted ear for music that his grandson inherits. 

1907  The 22-year-old Berg—having studied for the past three years in Vienna under Arnold Schoenberg, one of the greatest influences on twentieth-century music—presents his first pieces in public performance—three of the “Sieben Frühe Lieder” and a double-fugue for string quartet and piano. 

1914  Berg sees the late Georg Büchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck in Vienna in May and commits to adapting it—though it takes him more than a decade to get his opera Wozzeck to the stage. In the meantime, the frail composer is conscripted to serve during World War I—in the War Ministry. 

1935  Berg dies before finishing his second and final opera, Lulu, adapted from a pair of plays by German playwright Frank Wedekind. He leaves behind “a relatively small oeuvre of mature pieces,” The New York Times later reports—“including the two greatest operas of the twentieth century.” 

The Basics

The Austrian composer finished one and two-thirds operas before World War II, becoming a monumental influence on the next eighty years of vocal music.

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More Like "Whoa"-zzeck 

Büchner died in 1837, leaving only fragments of Woyzeck. About a jealous soldier who kills his unfaithful lover and drowns trying to cover it up, the play is anachronistically modern, setting romantic passion and murder among the working class. The opera had its debut in Berlin in December 1925; the New York premiere, in 1931, featured future film star Nelson Eddy as the Drum Major. Berg didn’t just “creat[e] an atmosphere for Büchner’s dramatic fragments,” OPERA NEWS reported in 1959. “All the forces in Wozzeck … hurl [the listener] headlong into the tragedy.”

  WTF!  ▶︎

New York rock icon Lou Reed’s last studio album was a collaboration with the heavy-metal band Metallica.  Lulu was released in 2011, supposedly inspired by the Wedekind plays, and mostly features Reed speaking over thrashing Metallica instrumentals. They “barely sound like they’re … in the same room,” the website Pitchfork reported. “The album works neither as powerful rock music nor as an impressionistic soundtrack to a spoken narrative.” The Internet declared it the worst album of all time, and it’s been filed on YouTube as “Comedy.” 

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The Performance We Wish We'd Seen

When Berg died, Lulu was almost done. But his widow said her husband’s spirit told her he didn’t want it finished, so for decades, the opera remained clumsily incomplete. When she died, in 1976, Lulu could finally be made whole; Friedrich Cerha had been discreetly orchestrating the remaining 936 bars since 1962. The premiere in Paris, in February 1979, was “the most important and glamorous operatic premiere since the end of World War II,” The New York Times reported—on A1! Teresa Stratas sang Lulu, a role she defined for a generation; she sang it again at the Met debut of the Cerha completion, in 1980.

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Time and Place

Berg was born in 1885, the year luscious works of Romanticism such as Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and Dvořák’s Seventh were being created. But Berg would push music to the next stage of its evolution. He studied with Schoenberg, who taught Berg in the ways of atonal composition—even though Berg couldn’t pay him. Schoenberg eventually developed his twelve-tone technique, which abandoned traditional keys. “For those who view Schoenberg as the start of everything wrong in modern music,” The New York Times once reported, “Berg is guilty by association.”

Little Lulu, We Love You!

In 1926, Berg began sketching an adaptation of a Gerhart Hauptmann fairy-tale play but couldn’t cut a deal with the author’s publisher. So he moved on to the Lulu plays from the turn of the twentieth century, about a promiscuous woman’s lives with different lovers and husbands, including Jack the Ripper, who  murders her. Schoenberg disapproved of the subject, as he had with Wozzeck , but Berg pressed on, almost finishing all three acts before he died of septicemia in December 1935. It “comes across as the most dramatically incisive and pungently lyrical music imaginable,” critic Anthony Tommasini has written.

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Something Completely Different

My wife and I went into Christoph Marthaler’s Paris Opera production of Wozzeck unfamiliar with the plot and left knowing less! The production is set in “a tacky fast-food restaurant, a suburban joint with a mishmash of chairs and tables,” The New York Times reported. When Wozzeck killed Marie, a scene the libretto sets by a pond in the woods, he shoved her body through a garish clown’s mouth into a children’s play area—fulfilling that Chekhovian rule of drama that if you introduce a clown’s mouth in Act I, you’d better stuff a corpse through it in Act III.   

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◀︎  At the Movies

Before Lulu became a monumental opera, the story was adapted several times for film, most notably by G. W. Pabst, best remembered for his silent movies, though he continued working into the 1950s, after having collaborated on films with the Nazis. His Pandora’s Box, from 1929, featured Louise Brooks in a star-making performance as Lulu. (Marlene Dietrich had wanted the role. “Imagine Pabst choosing Louise Brooks for Lulu when he could have had me!” she said.) “The film is as powerful as the Berg opera,” Ken Wlaschin writes in Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen. “Brooks … gives one of the great screen performances, unsurpassed even by operatic Lulus.”

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Where Berg Is This Season


This month, Wozzeck finishes runs in Frankfurt and Helsinki; in July it’ll be heard at Des Moines Metro Opera, and the recent Salzburg Festival production comes to the Met in 2019–20, directed by William Kentridge, whose Lulu there in 2015 was a critical success. 

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