Berg was born in Vienna, the third of four children of Johanna and Conrad Berg. His family lived comfortably until the death of his father in 1900.
He was more interested in literature than music as a child and did not begin to compose until he was fifteen, when he started to teach himself music. In late February or early March 1902 he fathered a child with Marie Scheuchl, a servant girl in the Berg family household. His daughter, Albine, was born on December 4, 1902.
Berg had little formal music education before he became a student of Arnold Schoenberg in October 1904. With Schoenberg he studied counterpoint, music theory, and harmony. By 1906, he was studying music full-time; by 1907, he began composition lessons. His student compositions included five drafts for piano sonatas. He also wrote songs, including his Seven Early Songs (Sieben Frьhe Lieder), three of which were Berg's first publicly performed work in a concert that featured the music of Schoenberg's pupils in Vienna that year. The early sonata sketches eventually culminated in Berg's Piano Sonata (Op. 1) (1907–1908); it is one of the most formidable "first" works ever written.
Berg studied with Schoenberg for six years until 1911. Berg admired him as a composer and mentor, and they remained close lifelong friends. Berg may have seen the older composer as a father figure, as Berg's father had died when he was only 15.
Among Schoenberg's teaching was the idea that the unity of a musical composition depends upon all its aspects being derived from a single basic idea; this idea was later known asdeveloping variation. Berg passed this on to his students, one of whom, Theodor Adorno, stated: "The main principle he conveyed was that of variation: everything was supposed to develop out of something else and yet be intrinsically different". The Piano Sonata is an example—the whole composition is derived from the work's opening quartal gesture and its opening phrase.
Berg was a part of Vienna's cultural elite during the heady fin de siиcle period. His circle included the musicians Alexander von Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker, the painter Gustav Klimt, the writer and satirist Karl Kraus, the architect Adolf Loos, and the poet Peter Altenberg. In 1906, Berg met the singer Helene Nahowski, daughter of a wealthy family (said by some to be in fact the illegitimate daughter of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria from his liaison with Anna Nahowski); despite the outward hostility of her family, the two were married on May 3, 1911.
In 1913, two of Berg's Five Songs on Picture Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg (1912) were premiиred in Vienna, conducted by Schoenberg. Settings of aphoristic utterances, the songs are accompanied by a very large orchestra. The performance caused a riot, and had to be halted; the work was not performed in full until 1952 (and its full score remained unpublished until 1966).
From 1915 to 1918, Berg served in the Austrian Army and during a period of leave in 1917 he began work on his first opera, Wozzeck. After the end of World War I, he settled again in Vienna where he taught private pupils. He also helped Schoenberg run his Society for Private Musical Performances, which sought to create the ideal environment for the exploration and appreciation of unfamiliar new music by means of open rehearsals, repeat performances, and the exclusion of professional critics.
Three excerpts from Wozzeck were performed in 1924, and this brought Berg his first public success. The opera, which Berg completed in 1922, was not performed in its entirety until December 14, 1925, when Erich Kleiber directed a performance in Berlin. Today Wozzeck is seen as one of Berg's most important works. Berg completed only the first two acts of his later opera, the critically acclaimed Lulu, before he died.
Berg's best-known piece is his elegiac Violin Concerto. Like much of his mature work, it employs a personal adaptation of Schoenberg's twelve tone technique that enables the composer to combine frank atonality with passages that use more traditional tonal harmonies; additionally, Berg incorporates quotations from historical tonal music, including a Bach chorale and aCarinthian folk song. The Violin Concerto was dedicated to Manon, the deceased daughter of architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler.
Other well known Berg compositions include the Lyric Suite (seemingly a significant influence on the String Quartet No. 3 of Bйla Bartуk), Three Pieces for Orchestra and theChamber Concerto for violin, piano and 13 wind instruments.
Berg died in Vienna, on Christmas Eve 1935, apparently from blood poisoning caused by an insect bite. He was 50 years old.
Douglas Jarman writes in the New Grove: "As the 20th century closed, the 'backward-looking' Berg suddenly came as Perle remarked, to look like its most forward-looking composer."