Wozzeck – Berg’s Atonal Explosion

Interview with Michael Schønwandt — By Marion Mirande

Since his first visit to the Palais Garnier in 1985 for Alceste, Michael Schønwandt has been regularly invited to conduct the Paris Opera Orchestra, with whom, as he himself admits, he has “a very strong bond”. After Janáček, Strauss and, in 2011, Berg’s Lulu, the current musical director of the National Opera–Orchestra of Montpellier is back at the Opéra Bastille for a revival of Christoph Marthaler’s now classic production of Wozzeck: an opportunity for him to tell us about this fascinating and essential work, one that he considers to be, not merely “a concert in fancy dress” but “true and profound theatre”.

Wozzeck is a work that leaves no one indifferent. Do you remember the first time you heard it?

Michael Schønwandt: I started going to the opera in Copenhagen at the age of six. Very quickly, my parents realised that something was going on between the little boy that I was then and music. At eight, I had a season ticket that allowed me to see performances three times a week; and naturally, two years later, I knew the major part of the repertoire by heart. When I discovered Wozzeck, at the age of twelve or thirteen, I didn’t understand everything, of course, but I was immediately fascinated by its musical substance, - as concentrated as an atomic bomb. It was a sound world hitherto unknown to me. Looking back, to a large extent, I impute the shock I felt to the adult problems that were exposed by the drama.

It is always tempting to qualify Wozzeck as revolutionary. Berg, however, maintained that his work did not represent a rupture with musical history but rather a certain continuity.

M.S.: Berg was profoundly rooted in Austrian Mitteleuropa culture, and Wozzeck is indeed part of an artistic continuum, as is Salome. Strauss who, in that score, pushed the frontiers of tonality to their limits, could have chosen the path of atonality. Instead he backtracked, as is demonstrated in Der Rosenkavalier and the mythological subjects he then set to music. With Wozzeck, Berg goes farther by being frankly atonal and using dodecaphony, without however losing sight of classical culture. He thus uses conventional musical forms – fugue, passacaglia etc. and tonalities rich in significance for our civilisation, like the funereal D minor that sounds at the end of the opera. The score also contains several references to the first movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and the on-stage orchestra in Act II cites the chamber orchestra that plays on stage at the end of the first act of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.   

How does one explain the lasting popularity of a work that is profoundly of its own time and often considered to be the last opera of the 20th century?

M.S.: Whilst Strauss immersed himself in a fantasy world, Berg turned to a profoundly realistic form of theatre, with simple, human characters. “Poor people, like us” says Wozzeck… One can’t help being touched by the tangled relationships depicted by the libretto. It is a profoundly expressionist work that marks Berg’s farewell to the culture and values of the 19th century, to which, nevertheless, he remained attached. For its first performance in 1925, the conductor Erich Kleiber was allowed a hundred and twenty-five rehearsals, whereas we are preparing this production in three weeks! What I mean by that is that the work is now part of the repertoire. Perhaps that’s why it might be seen as the last opera of the 20th century. It is the last to have entered the pantheon of the great opera houses, with the possible exception of the operas of Britten and Le Grand Macabre by Ligeti, the musical forms of which are in any case close to those of Wozzeck. The latter would not exist without the heritage of Berg.

Michael Schønwandt
Michael Schønwandt © DR

Has your knowledge of the contemporary repertoire allowed you to understand and conduct Wozzeck differently?

M.S.: I don’t know if I conduct the work differently today… But, in effect, one does perhaps understand Berg otherwise having worked on the music that came after him. Although a knowledge of more recent musical forms is in no way a prerequisite to apprehending Wozzeck. The score is in itself extremely modern and could have been written in our own time. Berg was, and still is, extremely influential, like Stravinsky who inspired whole generations. Conducting Wozzeck surely gains from being approached from both perspectives: keeping in mind the works that followed and from the viewpoint of the tradition that influenced Berg. It’s an extremely virtuoso score, as much for the orchestra as for the chorus and the soloists.   

What about the vocal writing in Wozzeck?

M.S.: Berg alternates three types of vocal writing, which allow him to realise his dramaturgical aims. Thus there are spoken passages with fixed rhythms, sung passages and sprechgesang, which he borrowed from Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. This is something between singing and speaking in which the right tone is particularly difficult to find. It is strongly linked to the text, to which it confers a particular importance. This is essential for a libretto like this one. In my eyes, Wozzeck is one of the greatest theatrical texts ever written.   

How do the music and the text fit together?

M.S.: The orchestra pit and the stage maintain a very tight relationship that is sometimes conflictual. The orchestra may anticipate the action on stage or introduce it with a phrase or a dramaturgical counterpoint that contradicts what is being expressed by the singers. In Wozzeck, by the way, the orchestra is three-fold: there is the one in the pit, one off stage and another on stage. Berg enjoys superposing different kinds of music, which then become dramatic elements. The genius of this work resides in its skilful musical construction combined with a highly developed sense of theatre.   

A theatrical sense that Christoph Marthaler’s production conveys particularly well … Are you familiar with the production?

M.S.: No, I have never seen it. On the other hand, I know Christoph Marthaler very well and have invited him and his company several times to Copenhagen. I really appreciate his work. I find him extremely visionary, very musical and funny too. He often introduces unexpected situations and a spark of craziness all his own … But then, I suppose we are all a little bit crazy, aren’t we? (He laughs.)   

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