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Operas by Alban Berg
Alban Berg Bueste Schiefling 01.jpg

Wozzeck (1925)
Lulu (1937)

Wozzeck 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.

Contents

History

Wozzeck 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 and that fame had come predominantly from the success of this opera.

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Versions

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

Other works

Wozzeck is also the title of an opera by German composer Manfred Gurlitt, also based on the Büchner play and first performed four months after Berg's composition. Gurlitt's work—which was made without knowledge of Berg's—has since remained in its shadow.

Musical style

Wozzeck 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 marvelously 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.

Leitmotifs

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.

Classic forms

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).

Roles

Premiere, December 14, 1925
(Erich Kleiber)
Wozzeck baritone Leo Schützendorf
Marie, his common-law wife soprano Sigrid Johanson
Marie's son treble
Captain buffo tenor Waldemar Henke
Doctor buffo bass Martin Abendroth
Drum Major heldentenor Fritz Soot
Andres, Wozzeck's friend lyric tenor Gerhard Witting
Margret, Marie's neighbor contralto Jessika Koettrik
First Apprentice deep bass
Second Apprentice high baritone
Madman high tenor
Soldiers, apprentices, women, children

Synopsis

Act I

Scene 1 (Suite): Wozzeck is shaving the Captain who taunts him for living an immoral life, in particular for having a child "without the blessing of the Church". 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. Marie shuts the window and proceeds to sing a lullaby to her son. 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. 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.

Act II

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.

Act III

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 is quoted in Luciano Berio's "Sinfonia" (1968–69).

Interlude (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.

Instrumentation

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:

Pit orchestra

Four flutes (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, contrabassoon, 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, xylophone, celesta, harp, and strings.

Onstage groups

Marching band: 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.)

Tavern band: 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)

Sources

  • 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

Further reading

  • Schmalfeldt, Janet (1983). Berg's Wozzeck: Harmonic Language and Dramatic Design. New Haven: Yale University Press ISBN 0-300-02710-9.

Simple English

Wozzeck is an opera by the Austrian composer Alban Berg (1885-1935). It was composed between 1914 and 1922 and first performed in 1925.

Berg wrote this opera before the period when he used serialism in his works. His teacher Schoenberg had not yet developed the twelve tone system. The music of Wozzeck has tonal music in the tradition of Mahler, but also some atonal music (music which is not based on any key) as well as melodies which are based on the whole tone scale. The music sounded very modern at the time it was written. Berg also writes for the voices in unusual ways: sometimes they have to half-speak, half-sing (this is called Sprechgesang).

The opera is based on a play called Woyzeck by the German playwright Georg Büchner. Woyzeck was an unusual drama because, instead of being a story about someone important such as a king or a god, it was about a poor man who is not very smart and is bullied and misused by other people. When Berg wrote the opera nearly a century later, it was still an unusual story for an opera. The heroes in operas were usually important people, while working people often had comic parts: they were often servants. But Wozzeck is a simple man who cannot help what is happening to him. In drama this is sometimes called an "anti-hero".

Contents

The story of the opera

Act I

Scene 1 (Suite): Wozzeck is working as a barber. While he is shaving the Captain, the Captain tells Wozzeck that he thinks Wozzeck leads a bad life because he has had a child with a woman (Marie) without being married to her. Wozzeck says that it is hard for him to be good because he is poor. He reminds the Captain that Jesus said "Let the little children come to me," (Mark 10:14). The Captain is confused by this remark.

Scene 2 (Rhapsody and Hunting Song): Wozzeck and his friend Andres are cutting sticks as the sun is setting. Wozzeck has scary visions: he sees the sinking sun covering the world in flames.

Scene 3 (March and Lullaby): Soldiers march by outside Marie's room. Her neighbour, Margret, tells Marie she is bad because she is flirting with the soldiers. Then Wozzeck comes and tells Marie of the terrible visions he has had.

Scene 4 (Passacaglia): The Doctor tells Wozzeck that he should not cough in the street (Büchner wrote: “piss in the street”). He says he is doing a medical experiment. Wozzeck is so simple that he believes him. The doctor is glad to hear about Wozzeck’s terrible visions.

Scene 5 (Rondo): Marie admires the Drum-major outside her room. He wants to love her. At first she turns away from him, but then she gives in and they rush out together.

Act II

Scene 1 (Sonata-Allegro): Marie is telling her child to go to sleep while admiring earrings which the Drum-major gave her. Wozzeck arrives. He asks her where she got the earrings. She says she found them. Wozzeck does not know whether to believe her, but gives her some money and leaves. Marie knows her behaviour is wrong.

Scene 2 (Fantasia and Fugue on 3 Themes): The Doctor rushes by the Captain in the street, who tells him to slow down. The Doctor makes the Captain frightened by thinking of nasty illnesses that he might get. When Wozzeck comes, they tease him by saying that Marie loves someone else.

Scene 3 (Largo): Wozzeck talks about it to Marie. She admits that she has a boyfriend. Wozzeck is furious. He is about to hit her when she stops him, saying even her father never dared to hit her. She says: "better a knife in my belly than your hands on me". This gives Wozzeck an idea for revenge.

Scene 4 (Scherzo): Wozzeck sees Marie dancing with the Drum-major in a crowd. Andres asks Wozzeck why he is sitting by himself. A drunkard gives a sermon, then an idiot goes up to Wozzeck and says he can smell blood.

Scene 5 (Rondo): In the barracks at night, Wozzeck cannot sleep. He is keeping Andres awake. The Drum-major comes in. He is drunk. He gets Wozzeck out of bed to fight with him.

Act III

Scene 1 (Invention on a Theme): In her room at night, Marie reads to herself from the Bible. She wants to be forgiven.

Scene 2 (Invention on a Single Note (B)): Wozzeck and Marie are walking in the woods by a pond. Marie wants to leave, but Wozzeck stops her. The moon is shining bright red. Wozzeck becomes determined that if he can not have Marie, no one else can, and he stabs her.

Scene 3 (Invention on a Rhythm): People are dancing in a pub. Wozzeck enters, and when he sees Margret, he 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 to shout at him, and Wozzeck rushes out.

Scene 4 (Invention on a 6-Note Chord): Wozzeck goes back to the place where he killed Marie. Wozzeck thinks that the knife he killed Marie with will prove that he is the murderer. He throws the knife into the pond. When the blood-red moon appears again, he walks into the pond to try to wash the blood of his body, but he drowns. The Captain and the Doctor, passing by, hear Wozzeck moaning and rush off in fright.

Intermezzo (Invention on a Key (D minor)): This interlude leads to the finale.

Scene 5 (Invention on an Eighth-Note moto perpetuo, quasi toccata): The next morning a group of children are playing in the sunshine. People are telling one another that Marie's body has been found. The children all run off to see. Marie and Wozzeck’s little boy has been playing on a toy horse. He stops and runs after the other children to the pond.

History of the opera

Berg saw Büchner's play Woyzeck in 1914. It was the first time it had been performed in Vienna. The play had been advertised as Wozzeck because people could not read Büchner’s handwriting. This is why Berg uses this spelling for his opera.

Berg knew at once that he wanted to make the play into an opera. Büchner, who had died in 1837 at the age of 23, had left the play unfinished. Berg took fifteen scenes from the play and made them into an opera with three acts. He composed music with a particular form for each scene so that the music develops in a very organised way. He made changes to the libretto himself.

Though Berg began work on the opera in 1914, he was serving in the army during World War I, so he did not have time to continue working on it until 1917. He finished the opera in April 1922. Erich Kleiber conducted the first performance at the Berlin State Opera on 14 December 14 1925. It quickly became famous and was performed in all of the big opera houses in Europe. It was so successful that Berg was able to live off of the money he earned from it.

Musical style

Wozzeck was the first major opera written in a modern 20th century style. A lot of the music is atonal (not in any key) so Berg was able to use this to express the madness of Wozzeck. Sometimes the music becomes more tonal, especially when the story is telling about love and humanity. He also bases some of the music about the soldiers on folksong which he treats in his own special way.

Another musical technique he uses is the leitmotif, in which particular characters or things are linked to particular themes or musical ideas. This technique can be very useful to suggest certain things. For example, there is a leitmotif for the earrings which the Drum major has given to Marie. When the major makes love to Marie we hear this leitmotif. The music makes us realize that he is not forcing her to love him but that she is willing. In another place, the military music tells us that Marie is thinking of the Drum major.

Another leitmotif is the chord we hear when Wozzeck, near the beginning of the opera, talks about “poor folk like us”. The chord we hear is used in other parts of the opera when characters are not strong enough to change their situation in life.


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