Alban Berg published his first and only piano sonata (Opus 1)  in 1910.  He was twenty-five years of age and finishing up a lengthy period of study with Arnold Schoenberg.

I often think of Berg’s sonata as one good entry point to the thick terrain of 20th century classical music.  It rethinks the sonata as traditionally conceived, over the course of a single movement.  If there’s a steady feeling that the centre might not hold, the music never slips out of orbit.

Debussy once suggested that, after Beethoven, the sonata was no longer a valid form of composition.  Whether he meant it absolutely or rhetorically is a matter of some question; but I take his point.  In Berg’s sonata we find still another considered position.  For it stands at a threshold, at the threshold of atonality.  While it may not represent a “schooled” breaking with the music of the past, you never get the sense that its young composer is anything but open to the possible shape of music to come.  In the liner notes to his Carnegie Hall Concert (Teldec Classics, 2002) pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard calls it an “odd” work that “suggests a reflection on what the sonata has been and might become.”

You can watch Canadian pianist, Marc-Andre Hamelin perform Berg’s sonata live here.

It was Berg’s teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, who painted a well-known portrait of the young composer.  It dates from 1910, the same year as the publication of the piano sonata.  Here, as above, it would appear that Berg was fond of leaning his chin on his clenched right hand.

Schoenberg's portrait of Alban Berg (1910).

In the bigger picture, Schoenberg’s portrait of Berg stands as a snapshot of pre-World War I Vienna – a lost world that Berg’s friend, author Stefan Zweig, thoughtfully described as “the age of security.”  It is, as the title of Zweig’s great autobiography has it, The World of Yesterday.

I sometimes think about the young Berg in that time and place, at the threshold of tomorrow, before the monumental mess of 20th century European history.  For it’s in that historical context that his piano sonata – like Schoenberg’s painting of the same year – provides us with an important portrait of the artist as a young man.

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A special note on Yvonne Loriod (1924 – 2010):

I’ve only recently discovered Yvonne Loriod’s sizzling version of the Berg sonata.  Loriod, most often remembered as interpreter and wife of Olivier Messiaen, died in May of last year.  It’s in memory of her that I link to her special interpretation of Berg’s Opus 1 here.

Recommended Recordings of the Berg Sonata:

  • Glenn Gould – Berg, Krenek, Berg, Debussy & Ravel (Columbia, 1958; Sony, 1995).
  • Maurizio Pollini – Debussy: 12 Etudes – Berg: Sonata. Op. 1 (DG, 1994).
  • Mitsuko Uchida – Schoenberg: Piano Concerto – Berg: Sonata, Op. 1, etc. (Philips, 2001).
  • Pierre-Laurent Aimard – At Carnegie Hall – Berg: Sonata, Op. 1 – Beethoven: Appassionata, etc. (Teldec Classics, 2002).
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