The Three Pieces mark a turning point in Berg’s work; after composing Lieder in particular until then, he began to think of writing “something large” after completing his studies. This idea was preceded by a contention with his teacher Arnold Schönberg, who was dissatisfied with his pupil’s artistic development in the Altenberg lieder and the clarinet pieces and wanted “character pieces” from him instead. Berg initially thought of a suite or a symphony but eventually decided on a purely orchestral piece in the summer of 1914. He began working on it in Trahütten, Styria on his parents-in-law’s country estate and completed the full score on 23 August 1914.
Berg dedicated it “to my teacher and friend Arnold Schönberg with immeasurable gratitude and love,” as the score states. He mailed it to Schönberg in Berlin as a 40th birthday gift, enclosing a letter: “I have truly striven to give my best, to follow all your incentives and suggestions, whereby the unforgettable, yea revolutionising experiences of the Amsterdam rehearsals and thorough study of your orchestra pieces [Op. 16] served me boundlessly and sharpened my self-criticism more and more.”
The first two of the three pieces were premiered on 5 June 1923 during an “Austrian Music Week” in Berlin, conducted by Anton Webern. The first performance of the complete work (which requires enormous orchestral forces) was not given until 14 April 1930, after Berg had reworked it, in Oldenburg; his friend and pupil Johannes Schüler was the conductor.