Alban Berg has often been associated with the artistic movement of Expressionism. Originating in the visual arts in early–20th-century Germany and Austria, Expressionism sought to convey the turbulence of modern life in a new representational style that employed simplification and distortion to reflect the changing times. In a reaction to the soft-edged naturalism of the Impressionists, Expressionist painters strove to invigorate their art with a new visceral sensibility.

In music, the Expressionist movement inspired the atonal and emotionally charged style then developing around Arnold Schoenberg and his circle in Vienna. An accomplished amateur painter himself, Schoenberg had been strongly influenced by Expressionism in the visual arts and produced several paintings in that manner. Much of his music before 1920 likewise embraced an Expressionist approach in its portrayal of violent emotional states.

But musical Expressionism was short-lived. While some composers continued to draw on it for inspiration, it was already falling out of favor by the 1920s. Berg’s Lulu, written between 1928 and 1934, displays an Expressionist perspective but at the same time contains other features—such as a tightly organized formal structure and a distinctive melodic quality—that were less typical of the movement.