Alban Berg (1885-1935)

Analysis of Piano Sonata, Op. 1 (1907-8)

by Andrew Kuster

Alban Berg's Piano Sonata, Op. 1 is a fascinating work which employs, within a tonal framework, many of the techniques Berg would use in his mature style. The Sonata is a one-movement work in the traditional sonata form, including an exposition (which repeats), a development, and a varied recapitulation with coda. Each main theme (first, second, and closing themes) is stated in the Exposition in a different tempo. These themes, which are motivically linked, are all developed from the opening theme. The work's tonal center and key signature is b-minor, and the key areas utilized in the course of the movement are historically logical, but its complex chromaticism has led Carner to call Berg's Sonata "a study in the use of chromatically 'altered' suspensions and passing-note chords." (Carner: 1975, 101) Typical to his style, Berg uses many cyclic tonal patterns in the Sonata. Especially prominent are chromatic (1-cycle) progressions and "wedges", whole-tone (2-cycle) chords and progressions, augmented progressions (4-cycle), and quartal chords and progressions (5-cycle).

Berg's Sonata, (1907-8), was first performed at a recital of compositions by students of Schoenberg on 24 April 1911. Berg composed the Sonata during the first year of his apprenticeship "for himself," not to be examined by Schoenberg. (Leibowitz: 1949, 140) Nevertheless, the work was composed in reaction to Berg's teacher's ideas, and is influenced by another work employing sonata form and using 5-cycle progressions, Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony, Op. 9. Samson claims that "to the extent that the work approaches total thematicism as a unifying method which might replace tonality, it reflects the influence of Schoenberg..." (Samson: 1977, 121) Many analysts comment on the Tristanesque quality of the Sonata, but I sense a connection (perhaps because of the form or the medium) with the sonata movements of Scriabin and their chromaticism, and cyclic progressions and chords.






The Sonata opens with two motives which are used and developed throughout the entire composition. (a Grundgestalt, Hedlam: 1996, 23) The first motive begins immediately in the right hand: G-C-F#, [0,1,6]. The second motive, heard in the second and third measures in the upper voice, is a descending 4-cycle followed by chromatic falling motion G-Eb-B-D-C#, which makes up a whole-tone group with one added note [0,1,2,4,8]. (Samson divides motive 2 into two motives: motive (b) is B-Eb-B, motive (c) is D-C#) The opening phrase of the Sonata lands solidly on the b-minor tonic chord, approached by a 5-cycle bass note progression, C#-F#-B, and can be analyzed traditionally as ii/-V-i, but the harmonic progression is not by traditional voice leading. Rather, "the harmony is 'filled in' with characteristic passages in major thirds moving chromatically or by whole-tone steps to create whole-tone harmonic areas." (Samson: 1977, 118) Played simultaneously with the second motive are two descending chromatic lines (1-cycles), one in the right hand B-Bb-A-etc., the other in the bass C#-C-B-etc. which continue (inverted) into the fifth measure. The conjunction of the 1- and 4-cycles in the first measure creates harmonies based on the 3-cycle (beat 1: C#-G <6>, beat 2: C-Eb <3>, and beat 3 B-B <0>). Berg uses patterns of this sort in the course of the Sonata, and more extensively in his later works.

The first theme area in the exposition (ms. 1-28) is tripartite, the third part being a varied repeat of the first part and the transition to the second theme area at the same time. Within the first part of the first theme, the motives first heard in the opening measures are developed in measures 3-7. Motive 1 is played in the bass part of measure 3 and motive 2 is sounded in the right hand wedging out to a whole-tone (2-cycle) based measure (ms. 7) and a repeat of motive 2 in measure 8. The second part of the first theme area begins in measure 11. This second part, which implies D-major, the relative major of b-minor, uses motive 1 and upward moving chromatics (1-cycles). Motive 1 combines with itself (in measures 11-12) to form whole-tone collections with one added note (similar to the collection formed in motive 2). A 5-cycle bass progression (ms. 13 E, ms. 14 A, ms. 16 D) leads back to the return of the first part of the first theme area in measure 16. Instead of the resolution to tonic as in measure 3, now there is a deceptive progression in measure 19 leading to a sequence of motive 2 to measure 23.

The material in measures 23-28 leads to the second theme area. This new material, played in the right hand is motive 3 which is used in transitional passages elsewhere in the Sonata. Motive 1 is heard in inverted form in the left hand of measure 25. Measure 26 contains chromatically descending 5-cycle chords in the left hand. A 5-cycle bass progression (B in ms. 25, E in ms. 27, A in ms. 29) delivers us to the second theme.

The second theme area (ms. 29-48) is in two parts. The first part of the second theme is in D-major (over an A pedal), the relative major of b-minor, although no solid cadence to D is heard. The second theme uses the dotted rhythm and pitches of motive 1 with an added half-step forming a [0,1,6,7]. Motive 2 is played in measure 30, beat 3 right hand. A cadence to E is reached in measure 33, followed by a sequential pattern using [0,1,6,7] until the second part of the second theme area beginning in measure 38. Here, motive 1 alternates with scales based on whole-tones with added notes. A sequence which repeats for three measures begins in measure 40. Motive 3 returns in measure 43 forming a link to the closing theme area at measure 49.

The short closing theme area (ms. 49-55) which begins with a prominent F# in the bass (the dominant of b) uses chromatically descending whole-tone based chords in the left hand over which is a melody based on motive 1 from measures 45-47. Both the closing theme and the second parts of the first (without F) and second theme areas have the pitches E-F-F#-A-C in common. A sequence in measures 52-53 proceeds without a solid cadence to the exact repeat of the exposition.



The development section (ms. 56-110) is highly sequential and homophonic, simpler than the exposition which is highly developed in itself. It is divided in three parts, each of which develops a different part of the exposition. The first part of the development (ms. 56-70) develops motive 1 and uses overall descending chromatic progressions. Motive 1 is used in 3-cycle, in measure 56 (on Ab), in 58 (on D), in 61 (on Bb), and in 63 (on E). A 4-cycle progression (or [0,1,4,8]) in measures 66-67 leads to a whole-tone measure (ms. 69) and the second, and longest, part of the development section (ms. 70-99). The second part of the development uses motive 1 and motive 2. Beginning in measure 73 both motives are tossed back and forth between hands. Motive 3 is developed from 81 to the climax halfway through the development in 84. Beginning in 84 a 5-cycle bass progression (G in 84, C in 88, and F in 89) moves to a chromatic descent starting at the loudest part of the work in measure 91. The development calms before the third section (ms. 100-110) which is based on the second theme. Motive 2 is heard in measure 109, like the false entrance of the horn just before the recapitulation in Eroica.

The recapitulation sneaks back in measure 111 at the same pitch level as the Sonata's opening material. Berg's recapitulation is varied and developed, not simply the exposition material repeated in new keys. While composing the recapitulation, Berg must have taken the message of Schoenberg to heart: "Never do what a copyist can do." (Carner: 1975, 102) The initial phrase of the recapitulation does not offer a solid cadence as in the exposition, but instead leads to an extensive development of motives 1 and 2. A whole-tone area (ms. 127) moves to the second part of the first theme area beginning in measure 131. The second part of the first theme begins solidly on F# (V/V in E or the dominant of B). A colorful "white" arrival in measure 134 moves to the second theme area. The return of the first part of the first theme area (the transition of the exposition) is truncated from the recapitulation. The first theme area ends with an important harmonic move to V at the end of measure 164.

When the second theme area returns (ms. 137), the subdominant E is reached (as opposed to B as in traditional sonata form). The second theme sounds over a pedal B, now serving as the dominant of E. In measure 153 to 160 motive 3 is expanded upon sequentially, landing on E (subdominant) in measure 163.

The ending coda (ms. 167-179) is based on the closing theme (using descending whole-tone based chords). As with the closing theme in the exposition, it begins prominently on F# (dominant) in the bass. The closing theme melody is played again in the left hand of measures 169-170, and then is inverted and used in sequence for the next four measures. A half-step motion from C-B in the top voice reinforces the tonic B (like a bII) at the same time as whole-tone collections on F# (the dominant of B) are played. A solid V-i cadence on B occurs in measure 175 and is repeated three times, the last of which is delayed during which motive 1 is sounded.

The Sonata is formally complete in itself. The work is roughly symmetrical. Its exposition is 55 bars long (110 including the repeat), its development is 55 bars long, and its recapitulation is 69 bars long. At one time Berg had intended to compose additional movements for the Sonata, but he later changed his mind. After Berg told his teacher that he could not think of musical ideas for other movements, Schoenberg replied that, for this Sonata at least, "he had said all there was to say." (Carner: 1975, 99)

Many of the techniques that Berg would come to use in his later works are explored in this early Piano Sonata. A thorough analysis of the work offers insight to the logic and coherence of Berg's compositional method, and at the same time causes awareness of the intense emotion and passion which are the core of his musical language. Certainly Op. 1 is an important stepping stone in the understanding of early 20th Century extended tonality.


Carner, Mosco. Alban Berg: the Man and His Work. London: Duckworth, 1975. 99-102.

Gable, David and Robert Morgan. Alban Berg: Historical and Analytical Perspectives. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991. 64-69.

Hedlam, David. The Music of Alban Berg. New Haven & Yale: Yale University Press, 1996. 22-33.

Jarman, Douglas. The Music of Alban Berg. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979. 30-33.

Leibowitz, René. Schoenberg and His School. Translated by Dika Newlin. New York: Da Capo, 1949. 140-144.

Samson, Jim. Music in Transition. New York: Norton, 1977. 116-121.

(C) Copyright 2004 Andrew Kuster. All Rights Reserved.