Can composing truly be taught? The story of one of Arnold Schoenberg’s most gifted pupils indicates that, in some respects, it can. Alban Berg was born in Vienna in 1885 into a prosperous family, which from early on had decided to propel him into a respectable bourgeois career. Young Alban had quite other ideas, however, immersing himself in the more radical areas of the city’s burgeoning artistic and musical scene. He was also composing voice-and-piano songs which, while showing no great individuality as yet, were accomplished for a self-taught young composer. Then in 1904, the hard-up Schoenberg advertised his services as a freelance composition teacher at a local school, and was impressed enough by Berg’s early Lieder to take him on as a pupil.
Schoenberg’s string sextet Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), performed to much controversy (with anti-Semitic undertones) in Vienna in 1902, had made his name as a gifted post-Wagnerian composer. Schoenberg set a tough standard for his pupils, insisting that they each set about discovering their creative individuality as he himself had – by learning how, in the work of the great composers, musical and technical values were different aspects of the same thing. Schoenberg was also an exceptionally strong and combative personality, demanding total loyalty and support for his own cause. From the start he regarded Berg as an ultra-willing acolyte, and his pupil responded with the devotion of one who, aged 15, had lost his own father. In their early correspondence, Berg’s self-abasing contributions gush along at several times the length of Schoenberg’s brisk replies.
Meanwhile his pupil’s musical progress, though gradual, was impressive. The single-movement Piano Sonata Op. 1 of 1908 was already a much stronger and more intense creation than Berg’s early songs had suggested. Then came his ‘graduation piece’, the String Quartet Op. 3 of 1910. The two-movement design of this, breaking free from Schoenberg’s preferred single-movement example, was the crucible for the unmistakable emergence of Berg’s mature voice. But the Quartet’s first performance in 1911 wasn’t a success – and its composer wasn’t at all sure, in his own mind, that he had ‘arrived’.
In 1912 he completed his first orchestral work: the five Altenberg-Lieder Op. 4, based on the short, cryptic poems that the Viennese writer Peter Altenberg liked to scribble onto postcards. The first and last of these settings find Berg magnificently lengthening his musical stride: the cycle’s finale, ‘Hier ist Friede’ (Here is peace), is a statement of astonishing strength by a composer who not yet heard a note of his own orchestral music. Yet when Schoenberg conducted a concert of his own and his former pupils’ new works in Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal in March 1913, he programmed only the second and third songs of Berg’s cycle. Given Schoenberg’s usual and admirable insistence on absolute fidelity to a composer’s intentions (not least his own), it seems extraordinary that he short-changed Berg’s work in this way, even allowing for the rehearsal-consuming demands of the first and fifth songs. The concert itself then turned into a legendary disaster. Baleful audience whistling had been going on throughout the Six Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6 by Anton von Webern. Then, after only one of Berg’s songs, the audience’s facetious derision erupted into a substantial riot that needed the police to restore order. The concert was abandoned, and Berg never allowed his Altenberg-Lieder to be performed again during his lifetime.
It took Schoenberg’s pugnacious brand of tough love to get Berg beyond his post-concert trauma. Summoning his charming, diffident ex-pupil to a private meeting in Berlin, where he was now teaching, Schoenberg appears to have harangued Berg along the lines that the (mostly) terse forms of the Altenberg-Lieder, or of his ex-pupil’s newly written Clarinet Pieces, Op. 5, were a wrong direction: while it was fine for Webern and, currently, Schoenberg himself to be exploring such aphoristic musical thinking, Berg’s true future lay in tackling large forms. (Had Schoenberg belatedly taken on board the evidence of the unperformed ‘Hier ist Friede’?) Retiring hurt to Vienna, Berg first attempted and abandoned a symphony, and then set about composing the Three Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6, fulsomely dedicating them to his former teacher. Their complexity, virtuosity, and firepower amounted to another startling advance on Berg’s earlier music – particularly the formidable ‘March’, which takes the example of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony (described by Berg as ‘the only Sixth, despite the Pastoral’) and sends it hurtling into the darkest heart of 20th-century chromaticism. In 1915, with World War I preventing any chance of the Three Pieces’ premiere, Berg wrote a vast, self-justifying letter about the work to Schoenberg, to which the Master apparently did not reply for some time. Perhaps this was his way of conveying that Berg now had to stand on his own two feet.
Just before the war Berg had seen the Viennese premiere of Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck, and had instantly written to Webern that he wanted to set it to music. During his wartime army service (which he hated) he brooded on the idea, beginning serious work on it while on leave in 1917. After the war, working as a civil servant and only able to compose in his spare time, he completed his opera in 1922. Following its premiere in Berlin three years later, Wozzeck became a success that earned Berg substantial German royalties (until the Nazis banned it in 1933). Everything in his armoury of skills here came together – the sovereign technical command of a complex idiom; the brilliantly devised deployment of an abstract formal outline (five-movement suite, five-movement symphony, five inventions) to cross-brace the structure of each of the three Acts and their crisply intercut scenes; and the encompassing of expressionist extremes of drama, satire, horror, and compassion.
Schoenberg now had to come to terms with the fact that Berg had achieved a level of conspicuous success that he had not managed. Despite their new sense of colleagueship, the Master soon revealed a competitive response. Berg, having completed a Chamber Concerto (1923-25) and the Lyric Suite for string quartet (1925-26), had embarked on a second opera. Assembling his own libretto from two avant-garde plays by Frank Wedekind, one of which he had seen as early as 1904, he worked on Lulu for six years before finishing the unorchestrated score in 1934. By then Schoenberg had composed the first two Acts of an opera of his own. Although the final act of Moses and Aaron was never written, and the unfinished torso was not performed until after Schoenberg’s death in 1951, the work stands as his greatest single achievement. But he must have known that an opera about a biblical prophet’s inability to communicate the essence of God to his followers was not likely to be as successful as an opera about sex, death, murder and mayhem – Berg’s time-honoured recipe in both Wozzeck and Lulu (although, in its ‘Dance round the Golden Calf’ episode, Moses and Aaron has its share of those qualities).
The full score of Lulu was unfinished when Berg died in December 1935. His moving Violin Concerto, completed just a few months earlier, caused an international stir at its posthumous premiere in Barcelona in 1936. And within less than a year Schoenberg, now a US refugee from Nazi Germany, had planned and completed a Violin Concerto of his own. Again, given the complex relationship between the two composers, it is impossible to believe that this was coincidence. Without Schoenberg’s overbearing, perceptive understanding of the young Berg’s potential, we probably wouldn’t have Wozzeck. And without the inner resilience and self-knowledge which enabled Berg to survive both his Altenberg-Lieder experience and Schoenberg’s domineering response, eventually to create Wozzeck and Lulu, we probably wouldn’t have Moses and Aaron either. Genius will out.