ALBAN BERG – String Quartet Op. 3

Austrian Early Modern composer Alban Maria Johannes Berg [1885-1935] wrote just one string quartet, and another piece, Lyric Suite for string quartet which I have previous discussed. Berg was a member of the Second Viennese School, together with Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. Led by Schoenberg, the trio developed from writing in a tonal style on to atonal and serial music.

The work commences with a descending phrase from the first violin, immediately accompanied by some probing motifs. Now other instruments take up the first phrase and a thoughtful mood ensues. Building in intensity the four instruments engage in a brief free for all. This mood doesn’t last and another thoughtful passage is heard. The tonality is quite ambivalent, as the instruments form a mass of different musical ideas – quite delightful really. The music ebbs and flows with rarely any reference to earlier material. Another, tempestuous section is quite striking. I must say, everything heard so far is rather abstract, and I can’t discern a lot of structure. A particularly frantic section is filled with soft musical phrases and oblique interjections from the ensemble. This leads to a period of stasis with wandering melodic lines and no harmony apparent. The end is rather perfunctory.

The second movement again features a descending violin line, this time played a lot more aggressively and we are soon back into more chaos. The music moves forward with instruments criss-crossing. A relief comes with a sound similar to elements of the first movement, with instruments communicating in a most atonal manner. Sweeping phrases are gentle but move into a period of sustained violin tones and scurrying ensemble sounds. This music is very foreign to me as there is nothing to hang onto. Every passage is different, mostly with a high level of abstraction. In many ways it is unintelligible, while still being listenable and musical. A cello line comes to the fore, only to recede into the soundscape. Quivering of bows leads to a striking moment, with cello interjections leading to a sharp conclusion.

So I ask myself, how does one sum up this piece? It has none of the elements of melody, harmony and rhythm that make up most music, and is more a succession of musical ideas but without the above elements. If your interest is piqued, I recommend that you have a listen. It doesn’t seem to match what I am used to discussing.

My review copy was by the La Salle Quartet, but there are many versions available on Amazon.

The work can be sampled on Spotify, earsense and YouTube. There is a also terrific article by Kai Christiansen on earsense.

Listenability: Difficult for some.


2 thoughts on “ALBAN BERG – String Quartet Op. 3”

  1. Thanks for your comments, Steve.

    I’m not sure I had qualms but did find it a difficult work to describe. I too, found it very satisfying as I do all of the Second Viennese School’s chamber output.


  2. It will come as no surprise to hear that I love Berg and think this is a hypnotizing work. The Second Viennese School delivered some stunning manifestos in the string quartet medium and this is a notable example.

    I think the Lyric Suite is justifiably considered superior, but I’ve always appreciated the charms of Berg’s dramatic Cubist precursor. I may be at an advantage in having listened to it a million times, but though I understand your qualms I really feel this work is one of the high water marks of musical Modernism.

    Hope all’s well,


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