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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

The decisive step toward Alban Berg’s eventual career arrived in the autumn of 1904, when he and Anton Webern signed up for composition lessons with Arnold Schoenberg, who had placed a newspaper advertisement in the hope of attracting pupils. Schoenberg accordingly stressed the instrumental side of composition, and in 1907–08 we find Berg (1885–1935) working on no fewer than five piano sonatas. He completed none of them, but they all helped propel him towards his Opus 1 Sonata, which he composed on his own, not as an exercise for Schoenberg, even if his teacher did keep a watchful eye on its finer points. He finished it in the summer of 1908 and published it, at his own expense, in 1910. It stood as a sort of graduation piece at the end of his studies with Schoenberg.

The Piano Sonata is cast in a single movement and demonstrates Berg’s mastery of Schoenberg’s principle of “developing variation” (a nod to both Brahms and Wagner). We find Berg richly versed in last-gasp post-Wagnerian tonality, though still within the essentially classical framework of a recognizable sonata form. And yet, the musical material is constantly evolving. For all its technical accomplishment, the most impressive achievement of Berg’s Piano Sonata is its emotional impact. It’s a fundamentally tragic piece, troubling in tone, a reflection of the anxiety, uncertainties, and alienation that fed into the Austrian Expressionism that would come to dominate all the arts at this time in Vienna.—From notes by JAMES M. KELLER, SCOTT FOGLESONG, MICHAEL STEINBERG, and STEVEN ZIEGLER