Webern vs. Berg: 20th-Century Composer War, Battle 1

Written by Stephen J. Trygar
Cover photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

Anton Webern’s days as a schoolboy was brimming with animosity. Fellow schoolmates shunned him, and his teachers neglected him in consequence to his poor spelling and mathematics skills; his cello and piano lessons consoled him. Although his aristocratic father expected him to study agriculture and oversee the family estates, he reluctantly allowed young Anton to study musicology at the University of Vienna. Webern became an advocate for the music of Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt, Schubert, Wolf, and Wagner, and he wholly appreciated Berlioz, Bizet, Mahler, and Strauss. Not too far into his coursework, Arnold Schoenberg took Webern under his wing, transforming him from (what he believed) a mediocre composer to an inspirational artist. Despite their student-teacher relationship ending in 1908, Webern’s loyalty and affection towards Schoenberg remained with him for the bulk of his adult life, but his attachment became neurotic and unhealthy. Eventually Webern would land a reliable job as a choral and orchestral conductor, and his obsession with Schoenberg would wear off. Webern’s final years were teeming with tragedy. First his publisher died in 1932, and shortly after Schoenberg fled from the Nazis. His fellow Schoenbergian peer Alban Berg died in 1935, and soon enough, the Nazi embargo on modernist music ended his career. Subsequent to his son’s death in 1945, Webern would be shot and killed by an American soldier while smoking a cigar on his own veranda.

The development of Webern’s compositional style mirrors that of Schoenberg’s. His early works, such as his Passacaglia, Op. 1, are richly harmonized, brilliantly orchestrated, and are reminiscent of Mahler’s late works and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Gurre-Lieder. Together with his fellow pupil Berg and their teacher Schoenberg, they would begin experimenting with atonality long before the twelve-tone method would be realized. Webern composed his Five Songs in 1907, a work of nearly complete atonality that precedes Schoenberg’s first atonal work by a year. Webern would begin using the twelve-tone method in 1922 before it was officially unveiled to the world in 1923. Although the method is ultimately attributed to Schoenberg, Webern followed its rules more rigorously than his teacher. On occasion, the roles would reverse and Webern’s work would influence his former teacher; Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5 echos in Schoenberg’s ensuing Drei Klavierstücke, Op. 11; Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 ; and Erwartung, Op. 17. Before his untimely demise, Webern would publish more than 70 works. However, if played without any breaks, Webern’s entire repertoire could be performed in three hours. While his output may not seem as full as his contemporaries, Webern’s desires to break the shackles of tonality has earned him a place in history books.

Unlike his forthcoming peer and colleague Anton Webern, Alban Berg’s dilemmas as a schoolboy were self-inflicted. He was distracted by his love of literature, the piano, and girls. His poor academic record inhibited his chances of receiving a university education, but he would work as an unpaid civil service trainee in the meantime. Having already shown promise as a composer, he began his studies in music theory with Arnold Schoenberg after his sister replied on his behalf to Schoenberg’s newspaper advertisement. Schoenberg insisted on three years of music theory before beginning formal composition lessons. In 1911, the year Berg finished his studies with Schoenberg, his family fortunes had reduced drastically. He turned to editorial work, teaching, answering Schoenberg’s frequent and overbearing demands for help, and running the family property for extra money. His time devoted to composition began to dwindle, and to make matters worse, a concert of his music in March of 1913 was ended early after a public brawl broke out. This would change when, after his conscription, he would complete his opera Wozzeck. His compositional output would only continue to grow from there, but on Christmas Eve 1935, Berg would die of blood poisoning from a furuncle, induced by a insect sting. This left his next masterpiece, the opera Lulu, unfinished.

While Webern was on the stricter side of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method, Berg would be, as he often was, lax with the rules. He was guided by his ear over the method’s rigid guidelines, and his music is often considered to have a lyrical and free characteristic. Much like his peer and teacher, Berg tinkered with atonality before implementing the twelve-tone method into his practice. His Sieben frühe Lieder, composed while studying with Schoenberg, presents an awareness of Schoenbergian atonality, but doesn’t completely accept it. Berg quickly transformed his musical language from tonal ambiguity, as heard in the Piano Sonata, Op. 1, to a free form of atonality, expertly crafted in his String Quartet, Op. 3. Despite the dismal failure of the excerpts from Five Songs on Picture Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg at the fatal concert on March 31st, 1913 mentioned previously, its first complete performance in 1953 would reveal a dazzling masterpiece of ingenious and innovative orchestration. Notwithstanding his distaste for following the rules, Berg often hid traditional forms and coded messages in his music. His opera Wozzeck, although chaotic to the ear, is rooted in traditional formal structures, leitmotifs, and occasional tonal passages. In a great many of his later works, such as the Lyrische Suite, Berg reveals his uncouth behavior through coded messages. In the Suite, he exposes one of his adulterous affairs by using letter names or numerological symbolism. Berg understood that he did not abide by the strict rules of his teacher’s method, and it often offended other disciples of the Schoenbergian method. Nonetheless, if Berg had done what many of his contemporaries did, he would not have earned the rightful place he deserves in our musical canon.


Anton Webern
Alban Berg



Berg is the winner! He has made it to the second round!

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Published by Stephen J. Trygar

I am a musicologist and music historian currently residing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My primary focus is on theatrical music (opera, ballet, and incidental music) and symphonic music.

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