In October 1904, one hundred years ago this month, a young music student in Vienna answered a newspaper advertisement, placed by a relatively unknown 30-year-old composer looking for pupils. Alban Berg (and another student named Anton Webern) started their composition lessons with Arnold Schoenberg at around the same time, and they followed their teacher's progress from Verklärte Nacht (completed in 1899 but not premiered until 1904), through his first string quartet (1905), through expressionism and, with their collaboration, into the development of the twelve-tone system. Some years later, Schoenberg recalled it this way:
When Alban Berg, in 1904, came to me he was a very tall youngster and extremely timid. But when I saw the compositions he showed me—songs in a style between Hugo Wolf and Brahms—I recognized at once that he was a real talent. Consequently I accepted him as a pupil, though at this time he was unable to pay my fee. Later his mother inherited a great fortune and told Alban, as they now had money, he could enter the conservatory. I was told that Alban was so upset by this assumption that he started weeping and could not stop weeping until his mother had allowed him to continue with me. He was always faithful to me and has remained so during all of his short life.That was quoted by Hans F. Redlich, in Alban Berg: The Man and His Music, pp. 245–246 (London: Calder, 1957).
Why did I tell you this story? Because I was greatly surprised when this soft-hearted, timid young man had the courage to engage in a venture which seemed to invite misfortune: namely to compose Wozzeck, a drama of such extraordinary tragedy that it seemed forbidding to music. And even more: it contained scenes of everyday life which were contrary to the concept of the opera which still lived on stylized costumes and conventionalized characters. He succeeded. Wozzeck was one of the greatest successes of opera. And why? Because Berg, this timid man, was a strong character who was faithful to his ideas, just as he was faithful to me when he was almost forced to discontinue studying with me. He succeeded with his opera like he had succeeded in his insistence on studying with me. Making the belief in ideas one's own destiny is the substance of are made the great man.