Perspectives

Wozzeck the rough diamond

Alban Berg’s great masterpiece — By Elise Petit and Pauline Andrieu (Illustration)

Bridging the gap between Cavalleria rusticana, Rosenkavalier and Sancta Susanna, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck is certainly one of the beacons of the entire operatic repertoire. As the Paris Opera revives Christoph Marthaler’s universally acclaimed production, we return to this rough diamond both dramatic and musical.


“Every man is an abyss, one feels dizzy when one looks within.” These words from Woyzeck by Georg Büchner (1813-1837) could equally well describe the feeling that takes hold of us when we examine Alban Berg’s spellbinding work. A three-act opera composed over a ten-year period and first performed in Berlin in 1925, Wozzeck was inspired by Büchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck which was based on a true story: in 1821 in Leipzig, a former soldier, Johann Christian Woyzeck, assassinated his mistress, Johanna Christiane Woost, the widow of a surgeon. The psychiatrist’s testimony, which declared Woyzeck to be of sound mind, led to his being condemned to death by decapitation. From the fragments left by the revolutionary writer and doctor upon his death from typhus at the age of twenty-four, Berg produced a narrative comprising fifteen scenes divided into three acts. The result was a masterpiece lasting nearly an hour and a half that, drawing on tradition and the modernist experiments of the preceding years, offers a stunning synthesis of musical language.

Of Büchner’s Woyzeck the plot, cold and cruel, remains: the soldier Woyzeck, a “poor bastard”, victim of his captain’s taunts and of the experiments of an unscrupulous doctor, has as his only fortune his love for Marie and the child he has had with her. However, Marie’s infidelity is brought to light; a blood-coloured moon foreshadows Woyzeck’s desperate act as he plunges into madness and his death. Berg discovered the play in 1914 and reworked the text, carrying out, to use his terms, “a judicious sifting of Büchner’s twenty-three often fragmentary and only very loosely linked scenes” in order to give the work the dramatic coherence that it lacked. After 137 rehearsals, the premier of the opera was received to unprecedented acclaim, and has continued to enjoy the same success ever since. Some critics even proclaimed it to be the “last opera of the 20th century”, Lulu having never been completed. If such a work is still admired by audiences today, it is because it constitutes a veritable tour de force, combining as it does an uncompromising modernity with a profoundly dark plot, whilst belonging to a tradition of dramatic universality that carries a timeless emotional charge.

© Pauline Andrieu

Wozzeck is first and foremost the child of late Romanticism - the forerunner of Expressionism: inevitably, in this raw and tragic story of jealousy involving characters from the working classes, one recognises the preoccupations that characterised Verismo, like those expressed in Cavelleria rusticana by Mascagni in the previous century. One cannot fail to see the connection between the theme of disappointed love leading to madness and the themes of the grand romantic operas, particularly Carmen, which was first performed in 1875. With regard to Berg’s tutelary figures, the permanent abolition of the distinction between aria and recitative as well as the use of Leitmotif clearly belongs to the Wagnerian tradition. Besides certain motifs associated with the characters, the quasi-obsessive use of the note B from the end of Act II onwards conveys Wozzeck’s mental state and announces the murder that is to be committed. The sense of orchestral dramaturgy, which creates at certain moments a film music quality in advance of its time, was inherited from Gustav Mahler, a figure that Berg had met several times and adulated. An opera, then, in the tradition of Sturm und drang. The operative word here, however, is exacerbation: pain screams out, the instruments howl madly and Sprechgesang replaces bel canto.

However, Wozzeck is also first and foremost a work of its time, as protean as it is kaleidoscopic. From Richard Strauss, whose Salome he saw eight times between 1905 and 1906, Berg retained the modernist approach, notably in the elimination of the orchestral overture: after only a few chords, the audience is directly plunged into Wozzeck’s daily life as he shaves his captain’s beard amid the latter’s pseudo-philosophical taunts. Equally essential is the figure of the moon, which changes colour to prefigure, as in Salome, the dramatic upheavals that ensue. The post-romantic aesthetic of Rosenkavalier is to be heard in the strident use of folk dances in the tavern scene; those familiar with Rosenkavalier will recognise the allusion to the waltz “Ohne mich” that Ochs intones in the second act. Berg permits himself a number of other incursions into the field of folk music: Andres’s hunting song (Act I, scene ii), the lullaby that Marie sings to her child (Act I, scene iii), the military band music accompanying the appearances of the Trumpet Major and the songs of the drunkards and the men in the tavern (Act II, Scene iv). Like Strauss, Berg gave new aesthetic value to this music whilst preserving certain easily identifiable elements like the use of the accordion or an out of tune “honky-tonk” piano.

From the Expressionist movement, which developed from around 1910 onwards in various art forms, we find a taste for the unexpected and a thin-skinned sensitivity, the direct expression of the violence of social relationships and an interest in psychiatric problems; elements that resonate with Sancta Susanna by Hindemith, written only a few years before Wozzeck… As for the dehumanisation of the military system, it is an expression of Berg’s own experience: he had had a brief taste of life in an army barracks in 1915 before being posted to the war office. On this subject, he was to write: “There is a part of myself in the character of Wozzeck, in as much as during the war years I was totally dependent on people that I hated: [I was] captive, ill and resigned, humiliated in fact.” As well as the profoundly disappointing experience of the young soldier who had enlisted with enthusiasm in 1915, we find an incredibly accomplished and thoroughly impressionistic evocation of the atmosphere that pervaded the mess room in the men’s chorus hummed off-stage in Act II scene V.

There is a part of myself in the character of Wozzeck. Alban Berg

Finally, from his friend and teacher, Arnold Schönberg, Berg took the Sprechgesang technique of Pierrot Lunaire and, more importantly, his atonal musical language: dissonance dominates the entire work. The hallucinations Wozzeck suffers from are reminiscent of those of the protagonist of Ewartung, composed in 1909 and first performed in 1924. The chamber orchestra present on stage to accompany the rupture between Wozzeck and Marie (Act II) is a direct homage to the master, the instrumental make-up being precisely that of Schönberg’s Chamber Symphony opus 9.

The atonal writing gives Berg total harmonic freedom and the listener struggles to identify familiar landmarks. But in spite of this musical profusion, the work is extremely structured, and in terms of conventional forms of instrumental music: dance suites and pieces of character in Act I; symphonic movements in Act II; theme and variations in Act III… all restrictive compositional procedures that Berg was to explain in the introductory lectures that he gave from 1929 onwards, but which needed to remain almost undetectable so as not to distract the spectator from the drama and its expression. A stimulating constraint according to Boulez who, in his Jalons pour une décennie wrote: “The genius of Berg is the flexibility, at every instant, of his approach to discipline, turning it into a superior tool, preserving the unexpectedness of encounters and circumstances without risking incoherence or dislocation.”

In every aspect, Wozzeck is part of an artistic tradition of composition that goes back to Bach. The highly rich scoring, which requires at various times, amongst other things, three on-stage ensembles, is that of the romantic orchestra, and includes harp, bass clarinet, contrabassoon and celesta. Throughout the music, it is Berg’s interest in different combinations of timbres that predominates, and any search for exhilarating monumentality will be in vain. Berg’s success resides in his perfect assimilation of tradition for the sake of a completely personal and innovative style. From the abrupt opening to the elliptical ending constructed on a perpetuum mobile, this veritable masterpiece affords the listener no respite and leaves nobody indifferent.

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