Alban Berg's String Quartet, Op. 3 (1910) was the last work the composer produced under the tutelage of Arnold Schoenberg. First perfomed in 1911 and published nine years later, the two-movement String Quartet was not well received at its premiere and received no further performances for more than a decade. Schoenberg, however, admired the piece, and the work may rightly be regarded as an appropriate valedictory for Berg's transition from apprenticeship to musical maturity.
According to Berg's wife Helene, the inspiration for the Quartet was born of the frustration both she and Berg experienced when Helene's father forbade the two lovers from seeing one another. In this work, Berg takes a great step beyond the compositional idiom of his Piano Sonata, Op. 1 (1907 - 08) and the Four Songs, Op. 2 (1909 - 10). The Quartet's thematic craftsmanship bears a relationship to that of the earlier Piano Sonata, but the Quartet is far more complex. Whereas tonality had restricted Berg's language in the earlier work, the free atonal idiom of the Quartet allowed the composer to develop his material with unprecedented freedom and variety.
In the first movement Berg establishes a web of motivic relationships within a sonata-form outline. The opening theme bears a striking resemblance to a theme from Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht (1899) and is built on a slightly modified whole-tone scale that would reappear in the opera Wozzeck (1917- 22). A transformation of this theme becomes a fundamental figure in the second movement, which again contains material similar to that in the work of another composer: the love duet from Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (1857 - 59). Scholars disagree on the formal design of this movement but tend to describe it as a type of rondo or sonata-rondo.
Berg's use of motives and passages derived from cycles of intervals, his attention to detail and every detail's relationship to the whole, and his expert, idiomatic writing for the string quartet all point to the work of a composer assured in technique and possessed of a distinctive musical personality.