Alban Berg and Wozzeck

An extraordinary amount of cultural and scientific development occurred during Alban Berg’s (1885-1935) youth in Vienna. By the time he was in his late teens at the turn of the century, names like Klimt, Wittgenstein, Mahler and Freud were among the artists and thinkers who were beginning to shape a new Viennese sensibility. The deceptive façade of the glittering, old-world Hapsburg Empire symbolized by the operettas of Lehár and Strauss was beginning to crumble. It was soon to be replaced by cultural premonitions of a great world conflict. Berg was intimately involved in the Viennese cultural scene. He counted artists like Klimt and Kokoschka as friends, along with the poet and dramatist Stefan Zweig. These were relationships that he kept and nurtured throughout his entire life. In turn, this artistic circle found him to be a deeply sensitive, eloquent companion, a humble man who always deferred to the needs of his friends.

Berg was attracted to rich literary sources for inspiration, something that set him apart from his colleagues Schoenberg and Webern. His earliest songs were composed when he was only a teenager, and they were settings of poems by writers such as Goethe, Nikolaus Lenau and Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s not surprising then that he turned to Georg Büchner and Frank Wedekind when he set about the task of writing opera.

At the suggestion of his brother in 1904 he applied to study composition with Arnold Schoenberg who had just opened a studio in Vienna. Even though Berg was completely self-taught, Schoenberg accepted him as a pupil and put him through a rigorous course of study. Berg’s early works are products of their time, Romantic pieces full of lyrical expression. It wasn’t until he began studying composition with Schoenberg that he began to explore his true compositional voice.  Berg had a complicated relationship with Schoenberg. The older composer was at once a father, brother, teacher and friend to the young Berg. Both he and fellow pupil Anton Webern were among Schoenberg’s first students of composition and they studied with him at a time of radical change in his own musical style. Berg and Webern closely followed his attempts to break down the traditional understanding of tonality. As a result the three composers successfully created a kind of ‘trinity of atonality’ by supporting, challenging and encouraging each other’s work.

Berg saw a production of Büchner’s play Woyzeck in May, 1914 at a theatre in Vienna. It so moved him that he decided then and there to set it as an opera. But work on the opera was interrupted by his military service during the First World War. It wasn’t until 1917 that he was able to take up composition of the score in earnest. Around this time Berg wrote to his wife: “There is a bit of me in his character, since I have been spending these war years just as dependent on people I hate, have been in chains, sick, captive, resigned, in fact, humiliated. Without this military service I should be as healthy as before…Still, perhaps but for this, the musical expression (for Wozzeck) would not have occurred to me.”  In the same letter, he called the conflict a “filthy war. Sometimes I wonder despairingly: what has all that got to do with me?  And then I wonder why the world doesn’t wonder the same thing!  Three years stolen from the best years of my life, totally, irretrievably lost, and every moment of freedom dearly paid for.”

When Berg chose to set Wozzeck as an opera, Schoenberg was taken aback. Reflecting on it a few years later he said, “I was greatly surprised when this soft-hearted, timid young man had the courage to engage in a venture which seemed to invite misfortune: to compose Wozzeck,a drama of such extraordinary tragedy that seemed forbidding to music.  And even more: it contained scenes of everyday life which were contrary to the concept of opera which still lives on stylized costumes and conventionalized characters.” It was after the First World War that Berg entered the most intense period of the composition of Wozzeck. During this time he kept himself alive as a music copyist, by managing some of his family’s properties, and by arranging rehearsals and performances of Schoenberg’s “Society for Private Musical Performances”. In working for his teacher in this capacity he was intimately involved in the premieres of some of the most important works to come out of the Second Viennese School.

Berg finished Wozzeck in 1921, and he put great effort into trying to get it performed. The conductor Hermann Scherchen requested a suite of excerpts fora concert in Frankfurt in 1924. This performance stimulated interest in the opera from a growing audience of enthusiasts for music by Berg, his mentor Arnold Schönberg and fellow pupil Anton Webern. The interest intensified after the piano/vocal score was published -- thanks to a donation by Alma Mahler, widow of the composer Gustav Mahler.

It was German conductor Erich Kleiber who introduced the opera Wozzeck to the public at the Berlin Opera in December of 1925. At the time of the premiere he said, “Wozzeck is written with a man’s whole heart and soul. Music like that has just got to be performed.” Kleiber was so convinced that the opera was a masterpiece he decided he’d dedicate all of his company’s resources to perform it, even if it cost him his job. It very nearly did. Fifteen rehearsals were required for that first production, an extraordinary commitment for any opera company. That first production of Wozzeck had seven performances which were well received by the Berlin audience. The critical reaction, however, was quite negative. The critic of the Deutsche Zeitung had this to say: “As I was leaving the State Opera, I had the sensation of having been not in a public theater but in an insane asylum. On the stage, in the orchestra, in the stalls—plain madmen…For all these mass attacks and instrumental assaults have nothing to do with European music and musical evolution.

Following the successful Berlin premiere, the opera was produced in Prague, Leningrad and numerous smaller houses in Germany. It was finally produced at the Vienna State Opera in 1930 and first heard in the United States in 1931 in Philadelphia under the baton of Leopold Stokowski.

The Libretto and Source of Berg's Wozzeck

Berg’s opera is based on Georg Büchner’s 1836 play, Woyzeck [VOY-tzek].­ The play is a dramatic re-telling of an actual event. Johann Christian Woyzeck was a soldier who was put to death in 1824 for the murder of his mistress. What captured Büchner’s imagination was a psychological study that was commissioned by the court to determine whether Woyzeckwas insane at the time of the murder. The legal concept of diminished capacity was something quite new at the time. Although Woyzeck was eventually convicted and executed, the case was crucial in establishing the insanity defense in German law.

The playwright’s father possessed a copy of the psychological history of the real Woyzeck. Büchner most likely read it and it inspired the writing of the play. But Büchner believed that no outside authority could make judgments about what goes on inside someone’s mind. And in his play he sought to expose that interior world while at the same time showing the effects of a harsh, insensitive society on the actions of a mentally unstable individual.

Many people wonder about the one-letter difference in spelling between Büchner’s Woyzeck and Berg’s Wozzeck. The playwright’s handwriting was the culprit. The late nineteenth century editor of his works misread Büchner’s ‘y’ for a ‘z’, resulting in the double ‘z’ that appeared in the publication of the first edition. Berg was halfway through the composition of the opera by the time he became aware of the mistake. He decided that changing the name back to Woyzeck would adversely affect those two powerful syllables that he had already set to music.

One of Berg’s models for the structure of his opera was Debussy’s opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. Debussy’s use of short scenes joined together by suggestive orchestral interludes seemed a perfect form upon which to hang the compact scenes of Büchner’s play. Berg selected fifteen of Büchner’s original twenty-eight scenes, setting them nearly word for word in order to preserve its dramatic impact.  It is rare in the history of opera that a composer sets a work almost entirely on the original text upon which his opera is based. This season, San Diego Opera is presenting two such operas: Wozzeck and Boris Godunov, which Mussorgsky based on Pushkin’s verse play of the same name. Both composers looked to the original language of these respective plays and did their own ‘editing’ in order to come up with a libretto. They were both incredibly successful in ‘cobbling’ together their own libretti from the original sources and their appearance in our 2007 season will give audiences a wonderful opportunity to see composers at work who had a serious literary side to their activities.

The Music of Berg's Wozzeck

Wozzeck is a complicated score held together by a tight relationship between traditional musical forms and crucial events that propel the drama. But even Berg with his analytical mind felt that any knowledge of this on the part of the audience was completely unnecessary. In a lecture that he often gave prior to performances of the work in the 1920s, he said, “…from the moment when the curtain goes up until it falls for the last time, there should be nobody in the audience who is aware of any of these various fugues and inventions, suites and sonata movements, variations and passacaglias: nobody filled with anything but the idea of this opera, which transcends the individual fate of Wozzeck. And I believe that in this I have been successful.”  [So here’s a warning: following Berg’s own wishes, if you don’t want to know any of the details of his compositional techniques in writing Wozzeck, then read no further!  Simply let the drama of the opera and its music sweep you away when you see it. If you are curious about the details, read on!].

Wozzeck is often categorized as a so-called twelve-tone or atonal opera. This is not entirely true. But for purposes of understanding the opera, let’s define our terms. The twelve-tone technique of composition was devised by Arnold Schoenberg, Berg’s teacher, between 1920 and 1923 in various works that he was composing at the time. It was a way of breaking from the long held tradition of ‘tonality’ in Western music, characterized by a system of tension and release (think the ‘Amen’ cadences at the end of a hymn, or the final chords of a standard symphonic movement by Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven). Composers like Schoenberg came to feel that the tonal system was, in effect, a tyranny that needed to be ‘overthrown’ in order to explore new ways of communicating musically. In twelve-tone music all the tones of the chromatic scale are considered ‘free’ and ‘equal’. The result is music that is ‘atonal’ and it can sound quite dissonant to ears that aren’t used to it.

Being a student of Schoenberg, Berg was interested in exploring these new techniques in his music, but it must be remembered that Berg was writing the opera Wozzeck at the same time that Schoenberg was devising his new musical language. Much of the score of the opera predates the final codification of what we now call twelve-tone or ‘atonal’ music. So although Berg does make use of some of these techniques in the opera, there are also stretches of the opera in which we can definitely hear, if not tonality, certainly a tonal center.

Berg used an ingenious method to structure the opera musically: three acts divided into five scenes each. Each act has an overall structure and each scene has as its basis certain traditional musical forms.

Act I, for instance, is a collection of ‘Five Character Pieces’:
            Scene 1: Suite with prelude, pavane, cadenza, gigue, gavotte and aria
            Scene 2: Rhapsody and hunting song
            Scene 3: Military march and lullaby
            Scene 4: Passacaglia: a twelve-tone theme and 21 variations
            Scene 5: Andante affettuoso (quasi rondo)
Act II is a ‘Symphony in Five Movements’:
            Scene 1: Sonata form movement (exposition, development and recapitulation)
            Scene 2: Invention and fugue on three themes
            Scene 3: Largo or slow movement
            Scene 4: Scherzo (ländler/trio/waltz/trio)
            Scene 5: Rondo marziale con Introduzione
Act III is a series of ‘Six Inventions’:
            Scene 1: Invention on a theme
            Scene 2: Invention on a single note
            Scene 3: Invention on a rhythmic pattern
            Scene 4: Invention on a six-note chord
            Scene 5: Invention on a rhythm (perptuum mobile)

Within these structures Berg uses all of the compositional techniques demanded by these structures, sometimes using twelve-tone language, sometimes using more tonal language.   Some of these structures can easily be heard by the layman’s ear. The hunting song of Andres in Act I, scene 2 is obvious because the character is singing a hunting song!  It is much the same with the military march in Act I, sc. 3, Marie’s lullaby in the same scene, the ländlers and waltzes in Act II, sc. 4 (the characters are dancing at a beer garden, after all!) and the invention on a single note heard in Act III, scene 2 (with that note, B-natural, being present in ever bar of the scene and finally pounded out by the timpani at the end of the scene, which features the murder of Marie). Other structures (the different movements of the suite in Act I, scene 1 for instance, or the movements of a symphony in Act II) are more challenging to hear.

If you want to get to know Wozzeck well, however, there is no substitute for repeated listening. Purchase a good recording of the work and spend time with it or rent a DVD of a staged performance and get to know it that way. Wozzeck is an extremely powerful work dramatically and emotionally. Its impact on an audience can be overwhelming and as effective as Madama Butterfly or Porgy and Bess. Why? Simply because it is about universal themes dealing with what it means to be human. The musical language of Berg is perfect in facing the themes of human isolation, poverty, subjugation to the will of others and what it means to be a faceless member of a societal ‘machine’. These are dissonant themes and they need music to match. If you are willing to allow Berg (and Büchner’s play) enter your heart, this opera will carry you away.

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