The Second Viennese School of Composers

At the beginning of the 20th century, Vienna, the city that had seen the birth of the classical symphony, was to become the center of the transformation of classical tonality.  The author of that transformation was

Arnold Schoenberg.

His music is steeped in: He is credited with the idea of the twelve-tone system of composition.

Schoenberg was the only one of the major composers of the early part of the century to have had pupils, and two of these,Alban Berg and Anton Webern, have played a major role in the development of modern creative ideas.  These three composers were so closely associated, both musically and personally, they came to be referred to as "The Second Viennese School".  Even after their formal training ceased, both students still considered Schoenberg their mentor and advisor.

(See An Overview of Schoenberg's Music)

Despite their common musical attitudes and links with Schoenberg, both Berg and Webern developed unique musical styles in separate directions.

Although the tendency toward more concise compositions was evident in the school,  Schoenberg and Berg only briefly maintained this approach while Webern seems to have had a life-long obsession with this concept.


responded to the radical portion of Schoenberg's doctrine.  Building on his mentor's doctrine of perpetual variation, Webern: Webern was the one who cut himself off most completely from the tonal past.  He never accepted even the limited coexistence of tonal and atonal elements which is to be found in the works of Schoenberg and Berg.  The interval became the basic structural element in his music, ultimately taking the place of the theme.  Major sevenths and ninths, major and minor thirds and their derivatives are the most important intervals in his music.

His Music

Like Berg, he developed rapidly under Schönberg's guidance, achieving a fusion of Brahms, Reger and tonal Schönberg in his orchestral Passacaglia, already highly characteristic in its modest dynamic level and its brevity.

His songs of 1910-25 show a reintroduction of traditional formal patterns before the arrival of serialism.  His adoption of the 12-note method can be seen in the Three Traditional Rhymes (1925).

Webern soon recognized that the 12-note principle sanctioned a severity and virtuosity of polyphony that he could compare with that of the Renaissance masters he had studied. Unlike Schönberg, he never again sought to compose in any other way.  Rather, the highly controlled, pure style of his Symphony appears to have represented an ideal which later works could only repeat, showing different facets. His use of the series as a source of similar motifs, especially in instrumental works, merely emphasizes the almost geometrical perfection of this music.

Unlike Webern,


Berg's unique achievement was to humanize the abstract procedures of the Schoenberg technique and to make them more accessible to listeners.

His Music

He wrote songs as a youth but had no serious musical education before his lessons with Schoenberg, which began in 1904.

Berg's Piano Sonata op.1 (1908) is still tonal, but the Four Songs op.2 (1910) move away from tonality and the op.3 String Quartet (1910) is wholly atonal; it is also remarkable in sustaining, through motivic development, a larger span when the instrumental works of Schönberg and Webern were comparatively momentary.

Then came the Five Songs for Soprano op.4 (1912).  This was Berg's first orchestral score, and though it shows an awareness of Schoenberg, Mahler and Debussy, it is brilliantly conceived and points towards "Wozzeck" - and towards 12-note serialism, notably in its final passacaglia.

Berg produced another set of compact statements, the Four Pieces for clarinet and piano op.5 (1913), then returned to large form with the Three Orchestral Pieces op.6 (1915), a thematically linked sequence of prelude, dance movement and funeral march.

In May 1914 Berg saw the Vienna premiere of Büchner's "Woyzeck" and formed the plan of setting it. He started the opera in 1917, while he was in the Austrian army (1915-18), and finished it in 1922. He made his own selection from the play's fragmentary scenes to furnish a three-act libretto for formal musical setting:

The close musical structuring, extending to small details of timing, may be seen as an analogue for the mechanical alienness of the universe around Büchner's central characters, though Berg's music crosses all boundaries, Wozzeck had its premiere in Berlin in 1925 and thereafter was widely produced, bringing Berg financial security.

His next work, the Chamber Concerto for violin, piano and 13 winds (1925), moves decisively towards a more classical style: its three formally complex movements are still more clearly shaped than those of the op.6 set and the scoring suggests a response to Stravinskian objectivity.

Then came the Lyric Suite for string quartet (1926), with its long, secret program.  It was Berg's first completely 12-tone work.  He changed notes in the row from movement to movement which demonstrates that he was not as strict in his use of the row as Schoenberg or Webern.  The row actually seems quite diatonic.

The development of "Lulu" was twice interrupted by commissioned works, the concert aria Der Wein on poems by Baudelaire (1929) and the Violin Concerto (1935), and it remained unfinished at Berg's death.  Dramatically and musically "Lulu" is a huge palindrome, showing Lulu's rise through society in her successive relationships and then her descent into prostitution and eventual death at the hands of Jack the Ripper.  Again the score is filled with elaborate formal schemes, around a lyricism unloosed by Berg's individual understanding of 12-note serialism.