Berg Josef

  • Berg Jos
Year of Birth - Death :
1927 - 1971 †
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After finishing his grammar school, between 1946 and 1950 Josef Berg studied composition at the Conservatoire in a class led by Professor Vilem Petrzelka. At the same time he attended lectures in musicology at the Faculty of Philosophy given by Jan Racek and Bohumir Stedron. On graduating from the Conservatoire, Berg worked in the Czechoslovak Radio in Brno (1950-1953), before devoting himself exclusively to creative work. He continued his cooperation with the Radio, especially with the newly established Brno Radio Folk Instruments Orchestra. In the late 1950s Berg's greatest preoccupation was the theatre as he found a highly stimulating artistic background in Brno's State Mahen Theatre Company. He identified his creative endeavours with the rise of epic drama.
In addition to music for the stage, Berg pursued the task of developing a new type of chamber opera. In actual fact, his entire musical production is inextricably linked with the spoken word, with his own texts of those he himself selected, adapted or modified and set to music. To all intents and purposes, Josef Berg was a genuine musicus poeticus of his time.
In the late 1940s the focus as well as the vantage point of Berg's compositional technique lay in the musical heritage of Leos Janacek, to whose method of montage Berg added various stimuli derived from the avantgarde trends prevalent in 20th century European music and on which he modelled his own well-thought out artistic positions. Berg demonstrated his attitude to Janacek already at the end of the 1940s in an insightful study which traced Janacek's compositional thinking.
As a composer, Josef Berg was largely influenced by epic drama, having adopted a Brechtesque vision of the world, creatively elaborating it and projecting it into the Czech milieu. Even though his music for the stage stood at the cradle of such creative efforts, their culmination came in Berg's chamber operas, such as The Return of Ulysses, European Tourism, Euphrides in Front of the Gates of Tymenas, the scene "Breakfast at Schlankenwald Castle" and the chamber as well as "grand" version of the opera Johanes Doctor Faustus. Proceeding from a Brechtesque dialectics and applying the principle of the constant variability of the world, Berg followed the ultimate objective of destroying established myths. In deed, his admiration for antiquity eventually gave rise to a series of demythicising works whose principal aim was to erode the surviving respect for those mythological heroes who came to prominence by using violence in or der to attain their goals. A completely novel trait that emerged in Berg's work in the latter half of the 1960s was his preoccupation with the realm of folk naivety and banality, as epitomised by the amateur theatre, a sphere also intimately known to the composer. This affection for the naive language of folk puppet shows coupled with the discovery of the poetic nature of 18th and early l9th century folk drama deserves much of the credit for Berg's indisputable masterpiece, his opera Johanes Doctor Faustus, composed to his own text which was based on Matej Kopecky' s puppet play.
In the late 1960s the composer committed himself to publicising novel composition techniques in music even though he was known to take exceptions to some of them. He especially rejected elitism, snobbery and the blind trust in the omnipotence of any single method. Working in close conjunction with his friends, Berg founded the first creative group in Czechoslovakia aimed at promoting new musical trends, an association known as "Group A". Furthermore, he participated in the activities of a special team, set up in connection with the group by Berg\'s friend, composer Alois Pinos. In addition to his musical career, Josef Berg was a prolific writer, too, a systematic and tireless commentator of his times who left behind a truly impresive corpus of literary works which - besides various journalistic genres - comprise plays, aforisms, short stories and contemplative essays straddling the boundary between music and literature, all of them still awaiting an expert evaluation. In the last years of his life Berg went out of his way to stress the timbre-related and sonic aspects of his music, even opting for the microtonal pattern in his remarkable composition, entitled "Dreaming". Some of the highlights of his cham ber works include the Nonet for Plucking and Percussion Instruments, Sonata in modo classico for harpsichord and piano, the Sextet for Harp, Piano and String Quartet. Viewed in the context of the Czech music of the 1960s, Josef Berg certainly stands out as one of the most origi nal minds who succeeded in transcending the dividing line between music, drama and literature. His profoundly philosophical and musically ingenious works have managed to add to modern Czech music a Brechtesque quality of perception, enriched by the composer's specific properties which were thoroughly grounded in the domestic tradition.