is the first opera
by the Austrian composer Alban Berg
. It was composed between 1914 and 1922 and first performed in 1925. Since then it has established a solid place for itself in the mainstream operatic tradition, and modern productions are consistently sold out. Though its musical style is challenging, the quality of Berg's work (in particular, the characterization of the situation through clearly defined musical techniques) amply repays repeated listenings. Although a typical performance takes only slightly over an hour and a half, it is nevertheless an intense experience. The subject matter – the inevitability of hardship and exploitation for the poor – is brutal and uncompromisingly presented. Though Berg's musical style is not as violent as some other composers might have written for this story, the style suits the subject matter.
is based on the drama Woyzeck
left incomplete by the German playwright Georg Büchner
at his death. Berg attended the first production in Vienna of Büchner's play (on 5 May 1914
), and knew at once that he wanted to base an opera on it. From the fragments of unordered scenes left by Büchner, Berg selected fifteen to form a compact structure of three acts with five scenes each. He adapted the libretto himself.
Though Berg began work on the opera in 1914, it was not until he was on leave from his regiment towards the end of World War I that he was able to devote his full attention to it, completing the opera in April 1922. Erich Kleiber conducted the world premiere at the Berlin State Opera on December 14, 1925. It quickly became so well-established in the repertoire of the major European opera houses that Berg found himself able to live a comfortable life off the royalties. He spent a good deal of his time through the 1920s and 30s travelling to attend performances and to give talks about the opera. At Berg's death, his fellow pupil Anton Webern noted in a letter to their teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, how tragic it was that the most renowned of their trio was the first to die. That fame had come predominantly from the success of this opera.
There are several different versions of Wozzeck
in the opera repertoire, apart from Berg's own. One of the most successful is an arrangement for twenty-two singers and twenty-one instrumental parts, realized and arranged by the Montreal
composer John Rea
. It is published by Universal Edition
of Vienna. UE Berg page
is also the title of an opera by German composer Manfred Gurlitt
, also based on the Büchner 's play and performed four months after Berg's composition. Gurlitt's work – which was made, supposedly, without the knowledge of the independent work by Berg – has since remained in its shadow.
is generally regarded as the first opera produced in the 20th century "avant garde" style and is also one of the most famous examples of employing atonality
(music that avoids establishing a key
). Berg was following in the footsteps of his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg
, by using free atonality to express emotions and even the thought processes of the characters on the stage. Not only was the expression of madness and alienation possible with atonal music, the greater themes of love and humanity and the striving of ordinary people for dignity in the face of abuse and brutality are marvellously portrayed in Berg's music. Such is Berg's skillful observation of real life that he is able to convey pictures of the ordinary (the scenes in a tavern - inside and outside Marie's room) or the mundane (the snoring soldiers in their barracks). For these sections he drew on the style of popular folksong, using its rhythmic and melodic patterns in combination with his own harmonic and structural innovations.
Though the music is atonal in the sense that it does not follow the techniques of the major/minor tonality system dominant in the West during the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods, the piece is written with other methods for controlling pitch to direct the harmonic flow. The tritonal pair B natural and F natural, for example, represents Wozzeck and Marie, permanently in a struggle with one another. The combination of B flat and D flat (a minor third) represents the link between Marie and the child. In this way the opera continually returns to certain pitches to mark out key moments in the plot. This is not the same as a key center, but over time the repetition of these pitches establishes continuity and structure.
Berg uses a variety of musical techniques to create unity and coherence in the opera. The first is the use of leitmotifs
. As with most composers who have used this method, each leitmotif is used in a much more subtle manner than being directly attached to a character or object. Even so, motifs for the Captain, the Doctor and the Drum Major are very prominent. Wozzeck is clearly associated with two motifs, one often heard as he rushes on or off stage, the other more languidly expressing his misery and helplessness in the face of the pressures he experiences. Marie is accompanied by motifs that express her sensuality, as when she accepts a pair of earrings from the Drum major (an act that indicates that her submission to the 'rape' at the end of Act I was not so reluctant). A motif that is not explicitly linked with a physical object would be the pair of chords that are used to close each of the three acts, used in an oscillating repetition until they almost blur into one another.
The most significant motif is first heard sung by Wozzeck himself (in the first scene with the Captain), to the words 'Wir arme Leut' (poor folk like us). Tracing out a minor chord with added major seventh, it is frequently heard as the signal of the inability of the opera's characters to transcend their situation.
Beyond this, Berg also reuses motifs from set pieces heard earlier in the opera to give us an insight into the character's thoughts. The reappearance of military band music, as in the last scene of Act I, for example, informs the audience that Marie is musing on the Drum major's physical desirability.
Berg decided against the use of the classic operatic forms such as aria or trio for this opera. Instead, each scene is given its own inner coherence by the use of forms more normally associated with abstract instrumental music. The second scene of Act II (during which the Doctor and Captain taunt Wozzeck about Marie’s infidelity), for instance, consists of a prelude and triple fugue
. The fourth scene of Act I, focusing on Wozzeck and the Doctor, is a set of passacaglia
variations. The various scenes of the third act move beyond these structures and adopt novel strategies. Each scene is a set of variations, but where the term ‘variation’ normally indicates that there is a melody undergoing variation, Berg identifies different musical elements for ‘variation’. Thus scene two is a variation on a single note (B natural, heard continuously in the scene, and the only note heard in the powerful orchestral crescendos at the end of act two, scene two); scene three is a variation on a rhythmic pattern, with every major thematic element constructed around this pattern; scene four is a variation on a chord, used exclusively for the whole scene; the orchestral interlude is a freely composed passage that is firmly grounded in the key of d minor; the final scene is a moto perpetuum
, a 'variation on a single rhythm' (the quaver).
Scene 1 (Suite): Wozzeck is shaving the Captain who lectures him for living an immoral life. Wozzeck protests that it is difficult to be virtuous when he is poor, but entreats the Captain to remember the lesson from the gospel, ""Laßet die Kleinen zu mir kommen!"" ("Suffer the little children to come unto me," Mark 10:14). The Captain greets this admonition with pointed dismay.
Scene 2 (Rhapsody and Hunting Song): Wozzeck and Andres are cutting sticks as the sun is setting. Wozzeck has frightening visions and Andres tries unsuccessfully to calm him.
Scene 3 (March and Lullaby): A military parade passes by outside Marie's room. Margret taunts Marie for flirting with the soldiers. Then Wozzeck comes by and tells Marie of the terrible visions he has had.
Scene 4 (Passacaglia): The Doctor scolds Wozzeck for not following his instructions regarding diet and behavior (which Wozzeck has been submitting to make extra money for Marie). However, when the Doctor hears of Wozzeck's mental aberrations, he is delighted and congratulates himself on the success of his experiment.
Scene 5 (Rondo): Marie admires the Drum-major outside her room. He makes an advance on her, to which she first rejects but then gives in.
Scene 1 (Sonata-Allegro): Marie is telling her child to go to sleep while admiring earrings which the Drum-major gave her. She is startled when Wozzeck arrives and when he asks where she got the earrings, she says she found them. Though not convinced, Wozzeck gives her some money and leaves. Marie chastises herself for her behavior.
Scene 2 (Fantasia and Fugue on 3 Themes): The Doctor rushes by the Captain in the street, who urges him to slow down. The Doctor then proceeds to scare the Captain by speculating what afflictions may strike him. When Wozzeck comes by, they insinuate that Marie is being unfaithful to him.
Scene 3 (Largo): Wozzeck confronts Marie, who does not deny his suspicions. Enraged, Wozzeck is about to hit her, when she stops him, saying even her father never dared lay a hand on her. Her statement "better a knife in my belly than your hands on me" plants in Wozzeck's mind the idea for his subsequent revenge.
Scene 4 (Scherzo): Among a crowd, Wozzeck sees Marie dancing with the Drum-major. After a brief hunter's chorus, Andres asks Wozzeck why he is sitting by himself. An Apprentice delivers a drunken sermon, then an Idiot approaches Wozzeck and cries out that the scene is ""Lustig, lustig...aber es riecht …Ich riech, ich riech Blut!"" ("joyful, joyful, but it reeks...I smell, I smell blood").
Scene 5 (Rondo): In the barracks at night, Wozzeck, unable to sleep, is keeping Andres awake. The Drum-major comes in, intoxicated, and rouses Wozzeck out of bed to fight with him.
Scene 1 (Invention on a Theme): In her room at night, Marie reads to herself from the Bible. She cries out that she wants forgiveness.
Scene 2 (Invention on a Single Note (B)): Wozzeck and Marie are walking in the woods by a pond. Marie is anxious to leave, but Wozzeck restrains her. As a blood-red moon rises, Wozzeck becomes determined that if he can't have Marie, no one else can, and he stabs her.
Scene 3 (Invention on a Rhythm): People are dancing in a tavern. Wozzeck enters, and upon seeing Margret, dances with her and pulls her onto his lap. He insults her, and then asks her to sing him a song. She sings, but then notices blood on his hand and elbow; everyone begins shouting at him, and Wozzeck, now agitated and obsessed with his blood, rushes out of the tavern.
Scene 4 (Invention on a 6-Note Chord): Having returned to the murder scene, Wozzeck becomes obsessed with the thought that the knife he killed Marie with will incriminate him, and throws it into the pond. When the blood-red moon appears again, he wades into the pond and drowns. The Captain and the Doctor, passing by, hear Wozzeck moaning and rush off in fright. The orchestra rise during the drowning happens to be quoted in Luciano Berio's postmodern 1968 piece "Sinfonia".
Intermezzo (Invention on a Key (D minor)): This interlude leads to the finale.
Scene 5 (Invention on an Eighth-Note moto perpetuo, quasi toccata): Next morning, children are playing in the sunshine. The news spreads that Marie's body has been found, and they all run off to see, except for Marie's little boy, who after an oblivious moment, follows after the others.
Berg scores for a fairly large orchestra in Wozzeck, and has two onstage ensembles in addition to the large orchestra (a marching band in Act I, Scene 3, a tavern band in Act II, Scene 4 and upright piano for Act III, Scene 3). The instrumentation of the work is as follows:
(all flutes double piccolo
), four oboes
(fourth oboe doubles cor anglais
), four clarinets
in B-flat (first clarinet doubles clarinet in A, third and fourth clarinets double clarinet in E-flat), bass clarinet
, three bassoons
, four horns
, four trumpets
in F, four trombones
(1 alto, 2 tenors, and 1 bass), tuba
, four timpani
, an assortment of cymbals
(one pair, one suspended, and one attached to the bass drum), bass drum
(with switch), snare drum
, two tamtams
(one smaller than the other), triangle
, and strings
one piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in E-flat, two bassoons, two french horns, two trumpets in F, three trombones, tuba, bass drum with cymbals, snare drum, triangle (Berg in his instructions in the instrumentation says that the players in the marching band may be taken from the main orchestra, and even goes so far as to indicate exactly where the players can leave with a footnote near the end of Act I, Scene 2.)
two fiddles (violins with retuned strings), Clarinet in C, Guitar, Bombardon in F (or tuba, if it can be muted), accordion
Upright piano (for Act III, Scene 3)
- Jarman, Douglas. 1979. The Music of Alban Berg. London and Boston: Faber & Faber ISBN 057110956X ; Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520034856
- Jarman, Douglas. 1989. Alban Berg, Wozzeck. Cambridge Opera Handbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521241510 (cloth) ISBN 0521284813 (pbk)
- Perle, George. 1980. The Operas of Alban Berg: Wozzeck, vol. 1: "Wozzeck". Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520034406