On the day before Christmas in 1935, the Austrian composer Alban Berg was pronounced dead in a Viennese hospital for indigents. The cause of death was blood poisoning from abscesses, together with an immune system weakened by powerful medications for asthma and other ailments that he had taken for years. Berg’s opera Wozzeck (1925) had brought him fame throughout Europe, but his much-anticipated Lulu, based on Frank Wedekind’s scandalous Lulu plays, lay incomplete. After six years of labor, he had managed to finish a short score of the entire opera and to revise and orchestrate acts 1 and 2. But he had stopped at bar 268 of act 3, leaving a thousand measures or so to be scored.

Berg’s publisher, Universal Edition, had invested 14,000 schillings in Lulu and was eager to see it completed. In anticipation of a premiere in Zurich—Berg’s music had been labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis, and Lulu could not be performed in Berlin as planned—the firm approached his teacher and lifelong mentor, Arnold Schoenberg, to finish act 3. Schoenberg initially agreed but changed his mind once he saw the score. Universal then reached out to two other composers in Berg’s circle, Anton Webern and Alexander Zemlinsky, but they, too, declined. Disappointed but not deterred, Universal moved forward with the premiere, and on June 2, 1937, it unveiled Lulu in truncated form at the Zurich Opera, with acts 1 and 2 followed by two orchestral excerpts from act 3 that Berg had arranged before his death as part of a symphonic preview.

After hearing the performance, Berg’s formerly reserved but suddenly empowered wife, Helene, forcefully declared the opera complete and proceeded to dedicate what turned out to be an extended widowhood—forty-one years—to making certain that the unfinished act 3 remained unfinished. And in this decision she had the strongest support possible: Berg himself, with whom she claimed to be in continual contact through anthroposophical conversations. Helene henceforth listed her profession as Komponistenwitwe (composer’s widow) and insisted that the room in which Berg had composed Lulu remain, like the opera itself, untouched.

Thus began the Lulu Wars. After skirmishing with Helene on and off for almost thirty years, the pro-completion camp, led by the Austrian émigré conductor and musicologist Hans Redlich, finally established the International Alban Berg Society in New York in 1966, with the covert goal of finishing the opera. It boasted a distinguished board that included the composers Benjamin Britten, Darius Milhaud, and Luigi Dallapiccola, with Igor Stravinsky serving as president. Helene responded by launching the Alban Berg Foundation, a Vienna-based organization committed to preserving Lulu in its abridged form. She reserved the right to preside at all its meetings, select its board members, and veto their decisions.

Meanwhile, Universal secretly engaged the Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha to finish act 3, a task he completed in 1974. Yet the opera could not yet be performed in its entirety, since Helene, by then eighty-nine and still insisting that she was constantly in touch with her husband, stood in the way. It was not until 1976 that she joined him in death, at last making possible a performance of the full Lulu. It was finally presented with Cerha’s third act at the Paris Opéra in 1979, under the baton of Pierre Boulez, forty-four years after Berg’s passing. Cerha’s scoring was deemed a success, and the completed version of Lulu has become the standard in modern performances.

This and many other twists and turns in the life and afterlife of Alban Berg are covered in exacting detail in a new biography by Bryan Simms, professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Southern California, and Charlotte Erwin, former head of Archives and Special Collections at the California Institute of Technology, published as part of Oxford University Press’s Master Musicians Series. As they stress at the start, Berg lived through a period of extraordinary social change. He began his career in fin-de-siècle Vienna at a moment of great optimism. But he served in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I and experienced its disillusioning outcome firsthand, and he lived to see the debasement of the arts in Germany under the Nazi regime. How he coped with these developments by creating an inner world of fantasy and escape is one of the main themes of Simms and Erwin’s book.

Berg was born into an affluent Viennese family in 1885. He showed few signs of musical talent as a youth aside from informal piano lessons, reading through the scores of songs and operas, and playing four-hand arrangements of orchestral and chamber works with his sister, Smaragda. When he was seventeen, he fathered a daughter with Marie Scheuchl, a domestic servant almost twice his age. Berg sent her a remorseful letter but then took no further responsibility for the child. Helene, whom he married in 1911, learned of her existence only on the day of Berg’s funeral, when the thirty-three-year-old Albine Scheuchl Wittula knocked on the door of the Berg household and introduced herself.


As a young man, Berg had few professional ambitions. He was working indifferently in a training program for accountants in 1904 when his siblings suggested that he respond to an ad offering composition lessons by Schoenberg. Thus began a complicated teacher–student relationship that ended only with Berg’s death. He studied formally with Schoenberg for seven years, following a rigorous course of instruction that started with traditional harmony and counterpoint and then moved on to the composition of small forms: songs, piano pieces, and chamber music. His “graduation pieces”—the Piano Sonata, Op. 1; Four Songs, Op. 2; and String Quartet, Op. 3, completed between 1908 and 1910—were cast in a late-Romantic mold, despite their extended tonal language, with its sharply clashing chords and unorthodox scales.

In the meantime, Schoenberg’s own musical idiom evolved, moving more and more toward atonality. His increasingly abstract, dissonant writing was picked up by Berg and his fellow student Webern, and it strongly influenced Berg’s Altenberg Songs, Op. 4, five orchestral settings of nihilistic postcard aphorisms by Peter Altenberg. When they were performed along with new works by Schoenberg and Webern in Vienna in March 1913, a riot broke out and the police had to be called in to stop the concert. (Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring encountered a similar response in Paris two months later.) The so-called Scandal Concert marked the start of the Second Viennese School, with Schoenberg and his two disciples as its leading representatives.

Berg still lacked widespread recognition, however, and his three-year stint in the army from 1915 to 1918—one year in active duty, two years at a desk job in Vienna because of a severe respiratory condition—did little to change his prospects. Sensing that he had no future as a composer, he took up freelance writing, which laid the foundation for his subsequent lectures and commentaries on his own music.

Berg’s fortunes changed drastically in 1922 with the completion of Wozzeck, based on Georg Büchner’s play about Johann Christian Woyzeck, an impoverished former soldier who stabbed his lover to death in a jealous rage. Berg’s musical setting of the play, the first atonal opera, harnessed the full expressive power of atonality to portray Wozzeck’s degradation and mental decline. Audiences were both stunned and awed by the scenes of Marie’s murder and Wozzeck’s drowning in the lake. The reviews of the 1925 Berlin premiere were mixed, but even the attacks, such as this one cited in Nicolas Slonimsky’s marvelous Lexicon of Musical Invective, made for lively reading:

As I left the State Opera last night I had a sensation not of coming out of a public institution, but out of an insane asylum. On the stage, in the orchestra, in the hall, plain madmen. Among them, in defiant squads, the shock troops of atonalists, the dervishes of Arnold Schoenberg. Wozzeck by Alban Berg was the battle slogan…. In Berg’s music there is not a trace of melody. There are only scraps, shreds, spasms, and burps…. I regard Alban Berg as a musical swindler and a musician dangerous to the community. One should go even further. Unprecedented events demand new methods. We must seriously pose the question as to what extent musical profession can be criminal. We deal here, in the realm of music, with a capital offense.

Wozzeck quickly became an international sensation, with productions in Prague, Leningrad, Oldenburg, Vienna, and other cities. So great was the interest in the first US performance, presented by the Philadelphia Grand Opera, led by Leopold Stokowski, in 1931, that a special train was chartered from New York for the city’s music cognoscenti (including George Gershwin). During the last ten years of his life Berg was known as the celebrated creator of Wozzeck.

As Simms and Erwin point out, Berg reacted strangely to success. Although he enjoyed attending premieres of his opera, he began to retreat into a private world of secret programs and platonic affairs. In music, neoclassicism and other new styles were taking hold. Audiences were looking beyond the atonality of the Second Viennese School, and Berg felt that he had to free himself from Schoenberg’s influence and go his own way. And Helene’s ongoing health problems, real and imaginary, required lengthy absences for spa treatments, leaving him feeling alone and dejected.

Berg responded by beginning a passionate but apparently unconsummated affair with Hanna Fuchs, the wife of the Prague industrialist Herbert Fuchs-Robettin and sister of the novelist Franz Werfel. His next major work, the Lyric Suite for string quartet (1926), incorporated not only a newly worked-out twelve-tone system markedly different from Schoenberg’s but also hidden symbols that referred to his liaison with Fuchs. Over time, Berg’s love fantasies extended to two other women, Anny Askenase and Edith Edwards, even as he continued to profess his commitment to Helene and his love for Hanna. The letters exchanged with all four reveal the bleakness Berg felt about his personal life and the growing unrest in Europe.


After the Lyric Suite, Berg turned to the composition of Lulu. He had considered writing a second opera soon after completing Wozzeck but struggled to find an appropriate subject. At one point he made notes for an opera on Vincent van Gogh. Then he considered setting Gerhart Hauptmann’s Und Pippa tanzt! (And Pippa Dances!), a popular German fairy-tale play in which the heroine dances herself to death (not unlike the young girl in The Rite of Spring).

Berg finally settled on Wedekind’s two Lulu plays, Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box), combining them into one three-act libretto. Widely condemned for its risqué subject matter, Wedekind’s “Monster Tragedy,” as the plays were subtitled, traced the lascivious adventures of the waif-temptress Lulu as she escapes the streets, becomes a manipulated and manipulative mistress, takes various lovers (male and female), commits murder, and eventually dies at the hand of Jack the Ripper. Berg portrayed Lulu’s destructive path with a wild array of musical styles, from traditional numbers with coloratura singing to passages in Sprechstimme (pitchless speechlike singing) to the use of twelve-tone and palindromic techniques.

As work on the opera stretched into the 1930s, he experienced financial difficulties when performances of his works in Germany dropped sharply, not only because the music’s style was objectionable to the Nazis but also because of his association with Schoenberg, a German of Jewish descent. Berg repeatedly assured the authorities of his Aryan roots, but to no avail.

To pay the bills he accepted a commission in the summer of 1935 to compose a concerto for the American violinist Louis Krasner. He initially planned an outgoing, upbeat piece designed for American audiences, but when Manon Gropius, the eighteen-year-old daughter of his friend and financial supporter Alma Mahler and her husband, the architect Walter Gropius, died suddenly, he turned the concerto into a four-movement elegy “in memory of an angel.” Containing a twelve-tone row as well as variations on the Bach chorale “Es ist genug” (I am content), the Violin Concerto was his ultimate reconciliation of atonal and tonal elements in an instrumental work. He then returned to Lulu in the fall but was unable to finish the last act.

In many ways Berg was the odd man out in the Second Viennese School. Schoenberg began as a tonal composer in the late-Romantic German tradition (he dedicated his textbook on music theory, Harmonielehre, to Gustav Mahler), but after 1900 he moved toward a twelve-tone system in which every pitch in the scale carried equal weight. Schoenberg claimed that this liberated music from the traditional pull of tonal chords and emancipated dissonance from its expected resolution in consonance. For Schoenberg, dissonance was the new consonance.

This method took shape around 1907 in works such as the Second String Quartet and reached full form in the Suite for Piano of 1923, in which interest is created through the manipulation of a tone row rather than harmonic resolution. By this point, however, atonality—or “pantonality,” as Schoenberg called it—was falling from favor. Simms and Erwin quote the conductor Bruno Walter, who said that pure twelve-tone music “may be clever or bold, but it can never be felt musically.”

There may be some truth in this. Daniel Levitin, in This Is Your Brain on Music (2006), makes the case that for a musical work to be successful, the composer must provide “road signs” for the listener—audible markers that serve to guide and reward. Neuroscientists, using MRIs, EEGs, and other tests, have shown recently that such signs are often analyzed in the brain by the hippocampus and the amygdala, which assign them emotional meaning that allows them to be memorized. If the markers are directionless—that is, not pointing in some way to a memorable harmonic or melodic goal—there’s less of a chance that information will be retained. This may be why purely atonal music has failed to win a wide following.

Webern carried Schoenberg’s method to the next level, introducing techniques that systematized additional aspects of composition—not just pitch but also rhythm, instrumental color, and dynamics. The result was serialism, a mechanistic approach that evaporated the last drops of subjective warmth.

Berg went in a different direction. Initially he seems to have adopted atonality in part to appease his overbearing teacher. The Three Orchestral Pieces, written in 1914–1915 for Schoenberg’s fortieth birthday, represents the high point of Berg’s rigid use of complex textures, counterpoint, and twelve-tone chords and lines. The British musicologist Mosco Carner termed the brutally dissonant third movement “organized chaos,” and even Berg’s loyal student Theodor Adorno later conceded that it was “terra incognita.”

But from that point onward, Berg began to evolve his own distinctive style, one that combined aspects of tonality and atonality. He continued to use twelve-tone technique, but he organized the rows in ways that maximized their tonal potential. The tone row in the Violin Concerto, for example, can be used to derive five traditionally tonal chords: two major triads, two minor triads, and a whole-tone tetrachord. Berg seems to have initiated this process with the concert aria Der Wein of 1929, in which a carefully constructed tone row contains tonal potential and is accompanied by chords moving in recognizable circle-of-fifth progressions.

Berg experimented with using highly dissonant chords in a tonal way: the three acts of Wozzeck conclude on nearly the same whole-tone harmony to create a Levitin-type road sign. And as he further distanced himself from Schoenberg, he increasingly softened the atonal aspects of his writing with elements borrowed from tonal music: the use of memorable lyrical melodies (“Lulu’s Lied” in Lulu), musical cross-references (the return of the Drum Major’s music in Wozzeck), traditional forms (the five character pieces, symphony in five movements, and five inventions of Wozzeck), recognizable conventions (the sextet in Lulu), plush orchestration (the exotic scoring of Der Wein), and symmetrical structures (the palindromic film as the centerpiece of Lulu). In Wozzeck he stipulated small choreographic details to strengthen the dramatic whole: the precise timing for lowering the curtain or that Marie must be stabbed only once. In Lulu he superimposed double casting on Wedekind’s play, to allow parallels to be drawn between characters in acts 1 and 3. All this led to music that is complex yet coherent, dissonant yet appealing, calculated yet seemingly spontaneous.

Berg also used codes in his music to embed secrets from his private life. This is especially evident in the Lyric Suite. Although ostensibly a modernist work based on a twentieth-century tone row, its six movements have titles characteristic of nineteenth-century Romantic music: Allegretto gioviale, Andante amoroso, Allegro misterioso/Trio estatico, Adagio appassionato, Presto delirando, and Largo desolato. Berg publicly dedicated the work to Zemlinsky, but in an annotated score given to Hanna Fuchs he revealed that he had written the piece for her, and that he had celebrated their relationship through a signature theme made from their initials, HF and AB (in German the note B-natural is H, and B-flat is B) as well as references to their personal numbers (10 for Hanna, the number of letters in her name; 23 for himself, derived from various sources). Hanna’s daughter Dorothea, nicknamed Dodo, was also represented, in the form of a motif based on the notes CC (do do in the solfège system). In the last movement he even quotes the opening chord of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the ultimate musical love poem. Berg’s secret symbols and the true meaning of his expressive tempo markings were revealed only in 1976, when the composer George Perle, acting on information provided years earlier by Hans Redlich, discovered Fuchs’s personal copy of the score among the belongings inherited by her daughter.

Berg’s life and works have been the subject of numerous studies. Simms and Erwin’s biography stands out for its thoroughness, its copious use of newly published correspondence, and its focus on Berg’s relationships with Schoenberg and Helene.

Berg’s father died in 1900, when he was just fifteen, and Simms and Erwin speculate that Schoenberg later stepped in to become his substitute father. Schoenberg provided Berg with composition lessons for seven years and counseled him on musical issues long after that. But he also treated his pupil as a personal servant, asking him to handle financial matters and raise funds, make piano-vocal arrangements, and carry out many menial and time-consuming chores. In Simms and Erwin’s account, Schoenberg comes across as an almost abusive figure, declaring Berg’s Altenberg Songs and Clarinet Pieces “worthless” and insisting that Berg write a chamber piece rather than a symphony for him as a fortieth-birthday tribute. Berg acquiesced to such demands and praised Schoenberg in godlike terms in a volume edited on his behalf. As late as 1925, Berg, at age forty, declared to Helene his absolute fidelity to three people: her, himself, and Schoenberg—all while trying to free himself from Schoenberg’s grasp.

Helene, too, appears as a complicated figure. Her mother, Anna Nahowski, was a mistress of Emperor Franz Joseph, and Helene may have been his illegitimate daughter. When she was courted by Berg she was also wooed by his sister, Smaragda, who made no effort to hide her attraction. During Berg’s lifetime, Helene’s ongoing illnesses and the turmoil within the Nahowski family were great burdens. After his death, however, she managed his estate with an iron hand, not only determining the fate of Lulu but shaping his image for posterity. She controlled access to his correspondence, for instance, and insisted on dictating the text of the letters to a secretary for publication, sanitizing them in the process. Simms and Erwin devote large portions of their book to Helene’s life, covering such details as her pre-Berg relationship with the biologist Paul Kammerer, her painful menstrual cycles, her troubling spa visits (she was abused by one of the doctors), and her deathbed scene. So much space is dedicated to Helene, including the entire last chapter, that one wonders if the book should have been called The Bergs.

That said, Berg also features excellent German translations and detailed analyses of each of the composer’s mature works. Wozzeck and Lulu receive a chapter each, and even the Chamber Concerto is given thirteen pages of discussion. Simms and Erwin also engage in Freudian speculation about Berg’s motives for numerous compositional decisions, which seems appropriate given the atmosphere in Vienna at the time. (The Bergs knew Freud but did not undergo analysis with him.)

On the other hand, the compartmentalization of chapters—some are devoted to works, some to biographical events—leads to backtracking and redundancy. On page 338 Berg dies after writing Lulu, but on page 367 he springs back to life to compose the Violin Concerto. In addition, the intense focus on Berg and the attempt to penetrate his inner world sometimes leads to a myopic narrative that ignores much that was going on elsewhere. There is little discussion of the Great Depression or the wildly fluctuating value of currencies during the Weimar Republic. Nevertheless, this is the most three-dimensional portrait of Berg to date. It even includes his autopsy report in an appendix.

Simms and Erwin conclude with an epilogue titled “Berg the Outsider.” Its premise is that Berg’s music can’t be comfortably classified as modernist. Although it contains twelve-tone rows and intense dissonance—characteristics of the Second Viennese School—it is too lyrical and contains too many traditional tonal devices to be considered atonal. The moving melodies (both newly composed and cited from earlier works), the lush orchestration, and the unambiguous tonal references point rather to late Romanticism. Simms and Erwin suggest that Berg might best be placed at the end of the procession of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century German symphonic composers that stretches from Wagner to Mahler (Berg’s hero) to Richard Strauss.

But Berg’s music can also be seen as a harbinger of postmodernism, with its return to tonal composition and its commitment to stirring listeners once again. The exactingly structured, highly emotional scores of Wozzeck and Lulu foreshadow postmodern masterpieces such as Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Three Movements for Orchestra, Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral, and Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de loin (to cite works of three distinguished women composers not included in the Master Musicians series, which astonishingly remains limited to men).

Berg has traditionally been viewed as the least strict member of the Second Viennese School. While Schoenberg and Webern never wavered in their systematic pursuit of atonal compositions, Berg combined tonal and atonal techniques to create a more attractive, seemingly freer idiom. But as Simms and Erwin convincingly demonstrate, his meticulous control of every aspect of his music and his reliance on subliminal organizational elements and hidden codes may make him the most calculating composer of the three. Most importantly, he viewed dissonance as the means to an end rather than the product of abstract manipulations. As he once said to Alma Mahler, dissonances “give music and love, friendship and nature their true worth, and really everything that has any life—even sensuality itself.” This may best explain the enduring appeal of Berg’s complex works and our ongoing fascination with their equally complex composer.

An earlier version of this article misstated the Bach chorale Berg quoted in his Violin Concerto.