Berg had almost no formal music education before he started music lessons with Arnold Schoenberg in October of 1904. Studying at first music theory, harmony, and counterpoint, by 1907 he gradually began composition lessons. Some of Berg’s first compositions included songs as well as drafts for piano sonatas, probably under the influence of his studies of sonata form with Schoenberg. It is believed that some of these sonata sketches culminated in his first significant work – the Piano Sonata, Op. 1, completed in 1908 and premiered in Vienna in April, 1911.
Berg enthusiastically embraced Schoenberg’s teaching about “developing variation” – a compositional technique that involves the development and variation of music material derived from a simple musical motive or idea, thus preserving the unity of the musical composition. His Piano Sonata is a perfect example of this process, as the whole composition can be traced back to its opening phrase. It is a single movement work, which although utilizing the idea of developing variation, still bears the structure of a traditional sonata form with exposition, development, and recapitulation.
The Sonata opens with two ascending intervals – a perfect fourth and an augmented fourth – followed by a descending passage ending in an authentic cadence in B minor. After this cadence in the home key, we never really hear the tonic triad again until the closing coda. The tonal instability of the piece is emphasized by Berg’s extensive use of chromaticism, whole-tone scales, and diminished and extended harmonies, which give the Sonata a certain uneasiness, tension, and restlessness. This is further reinforced by dramatic changes in dynamics, with huge climaxes of virtuosic octaves played in fortissimo followed by quiet, dark, and quite gloomy sections. Berg navigates his way through the thick harmonies of the Sonata with the confidence of a mature and extremely skilled composer, never letting us feel relief from the grip of drama and tension. Only after he has completely exhausted all possible ways of development does this restless music finds resolution and peace. The peace of a B-minor chord – the same chord we heard in the very beginning.
Notes by Milen Kirov