Berg: Wozzeck, op. 7

performed by the Vienna Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado and all the people in this recording (Act 1 with subtitles below, Abbado and the Vienna State Opera)

Still, alles still, als wär’ die Welt tot
(Still, all is still, as if the world died)

Wozzeck (the character), Act I, Scene 2

There is the question in the world of art or philosophy of whether some work or other, be it theatre or music, literature, painting, was able to ‘prefigure’ the horrors of the First World War. Mahler’s ninth is an example, that there was somehow something in the air that told those privileged enough to have ears to listen, those whose muse whispered in their ear, that the world was soon to experience tragedy like it had never before seen.

For some, this idea is silly, that an artist, no matter how talented, no matter how inspired or insightful, could be prescient, prophetic enough to know the future. Stated that way, it does seem silly. There are other sources though, who claim that the tension in the (likely figurative) air in the time leading up to the outbreak of World War I was palpable, and that any living, thinking, sentient person could tell it was the proverbial calm before the storm.

No matter what you believe in this regard, we’re not really talking about that in today’s article, because regardless of what artists may have seen or felt or divined prior to the Great War, today’s work is a direct reflection of the impact it had on its composer, Alban Berg. Very briefly, Wikipedia explains it thusly:

The plot depicts the everyday life of soldiers and the townspeople of a rural German-speaking town. Prominent themes of militarism, callousness, social exploitation, and a casual sadism are brutally and uncompromisingly presented.

Like I said in the introduction for this month’s opera series, these aren’t ‘feel good’ works, and one wouldn’t expect it to be, as kind of a direct product of war.

I have to say that as far as this work is concerned, I’m not going to be slicing it open to dissect it and reveal its myriad secrets, but presenting a bit of its background, the things that you can expect to marvel at, be surprised (or shocked) by, fascinated with, and what you may only begin to appreciate about this work, rather than offering up all there is to know about this work. It’s a slippery slope.

The History

Berg began work on the opera as early as 1914, but composition was obviously delayed due to the war. Wikipedia says that “it was not until he was on leave from his regiment in 1917 and 1918 that he was able to devote time to finishing it.” I do wonder exactly when in 1914 he started work on it, because the war didn’t actually begin until the fall of that year. One might say the work would be very different had the composer not had the experiences that he did, but he used Georg Büchner’s incomplete stage play Woyzeckas his source material, so the overall story was likely already in mind, but it’s presentation could likely have been very different.

Wikipedia includes a quote from Berg to his wife, citing Glenn Watkins, describing his experience with the war thusly:

There is a little 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.

Watkins, in speaking of the music that follows the line that opened this article, (a funeral march that transforms into “the upbeat song of the military marching band in the next scene”) says that it is:

as vivid a projection of impending world doom as any to come out of the Great War …

Heavy stuff we’re dealing with here, and the bleakness, the palpable terror and inhumanity of existence, forms an acrid smoke that fills the viewer’s lungs with this work, something that’s admirable for being so powerful and effective, but at the same time, and for obvious reasons, off-putting.

Berg was apparently somewhat obsessed with completing the work, and was anxious when he had no time for it. As stated above, it seems he went long stretches without the time to work on it, but finished the first act in 1919, and the two remaining acts by the fall of 1921; after six months of orchestration, it was completed in the spring of 1922, but not premiered until December 14, 1925, at the Berlin State Opera under Erich Kleiber.

Despite a tenuously successful premiere, the piece enjoyed nearly a decade of performances throughout Europe, with the composer enjoying his royalties and traveling through the continent to see it performed, all this before Nazi Germany declared it “decadent art” as early as 1933.

The Music

It’s not serialist. Yet.

Specifically, Wiki tells us:

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) and Sprechgesang.

I didn’t remove that link to Sprechgesang. You can go look that up; it’s ‘talk-singing.’

While atonal (or even entirely serial) music can be soft and expressive and lyrical and fragrant, its use here is to underline the harshness and rawness of the music, the themes of “madness and alienation” that are key to the atmosphere of this work.

I should probably spend more time here to discuss the leitmotifs in the work than I will, but if you’re familiar with Wagner or Berlioz (or even like, the film scores to Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or Star Wars), you know what a leitmotif is. It’s a single idea, a lone musical concept, like a chord, a melodic fragment, an interval, something simple and with enormous potential in the right hands, that is associated with a certain character, scene, place, idea or object in the work. LOTR fans know the sounds of the shire, Frodo, the ring, orcs, Sauron, and on and on, because they’re used to great effect in Shore’s scoring for the films, and appear in those pivotal scenes.

That isn’t a new idea at all, and Berg has motifs associated with Wozzeck and Marie, obviously, as well as the Doctor and Drum Major. For a (slightly) more detailed discussion of these themes, you may want to read the Leitmotifs section of the Wikipedia article.

Again, like Debussy (and many others), Berg decides to forego the standard components of opera, like arias and trios, favoring instead more standard instrumental musical forms. There are lots of passages that revolve around variations, a prelude and triple fugue, and even a passacaglia built into the fabric of this work. It’s interesting to have such traditional ideas in an opera so distinctly nontraditional. The Classical Forms section of the Wiki has a chart of these, including a rhapsody, invention, scherzo, and even a sonata movement. Interestingly, toward its ever more tumultuous, chaotic, dark conclusion, the final act of the opera is made of six inventions, according to Fritz Mahler.

The Result

I read through the score a few times, trying to keep up with either the German text, the English translation, or the music itself, as volatile and richly intense as it is. Before work, or during lunch, after a quick meal, I’m at a desk with a (measly) computer, full score, iPhone, headphones, pencil and notepad, trying to turn pages and make notes at the same time, pausing here and there. It’s not my score, so no marks in the book itself, but I have notes that say things like:

Basically crazy people
First few pages of score already so emotional – already existential – fear… wind!
“Poor folk like us, in this world…”

I”m sure those make sense in context, but I made notes for page numbers in the different scenes where things like “a mental aberration” or “Ah, Marie!” are stated. There’s so much, even in the first scene of the first act, that is raw and intense and unsettling, telling us this won’t be an easy ride.

No matter where you look, either in what the individual characters are saying to each other, or the relationships between them, or the backdrop of their circumstances, often pitiful or critical, or the music, the motivations, it’s all desperate and bleak.

I’d be curious to have a look at the original Woyzeck, to see how much of this existential crisis and hopeless pessimism comes through in the original work, or if this was largely from Berg’s pen. I can’t answer that. What I can say is that, staging and story aside, the music, which is from Berg’s hand, is astounding. From true violence and terror to chamber-like delicacy, outstandingly Mahlerian-sounding passages (even mention of Ländlers in the score in scene 4) in the end of the second act, as if they were taken right from his seventh symphony, it’s all almost overwhelmingly intense. The third act especially (and obviously) takes the greatest responsibility for this, even after the chaotic trio between Wozzeck, Hauptmann, and the Doctor, scenes with Marie, the mention of science, and how the world is bad, on and on… Act III finishes this up, and how?

I have, as my only remarks on scenes 2 and 3 of Act III, a very large, all-caps WOW!, and nothing else.

Flip to the last page of the hefty score, though, as my concertgoing friend did when I plopped the score in his lap a few weeks ago, and how does the work end? Almost uneventfully. I’m not one to be able to look at a score and hear it in my head, but before having listened to the piece in its entirety, score in hand, I couldn’t call to mind its closing. Just my memory, or unfamiliarity, but when you get there through the rest of the piece, its silence and unadorned quietness is perhaps more powerful than the most cataclysmic loud thing you could write. Add to that the boy’s chirps at the end, the calls from classmates, and we may be left asking what really matters, or who the real main character is, that after all of this terror and injustice and ‘aberration’, the one person in whom it continues living, continues to affect, is the only symbol of innocence in this entire work, the boy. But we’re not here for literary interpretations.


This is one of those scores, for me, that I loved carrying around, along with Mahler 8, Beethoven or Mozart quartets (and sonatas), Bach’s cello suites, and a handful of others, because I feel like even though I’ve looked through them, read them with the music, multiple times, that there’s substance to them I’ve barely begun to discover, a hefty, exhilarating, somehow comforting heft, as if it’s a promise there will always be something else to enjoy from it.

I have to say though, honestly, to me, this work is a horror film of opera. People go insane, their vices get the best of them, they are crippled by paranoia and overwhelmed by existence. Society, as represented by this small microcosm of only a few humans, decays, and by means of this sort of synecdoche, through Wozzeck and Maria and the baby, et al., we see society itself crumbling.

It’s overpowering, wild, genuinely insane, but at the same time the work itself is calculated, masterfully crafted to present these sudden eruptions of fear or manic merriment, sorrow or emptiness. It’s works like this that really make you stop and think that someone sat down and thought of this, that each single decision in the massive score I lugged back and forth to work for a week or two, every note and marking, was the product of a person’s mind.

It’s the same reaction that you might have if you read a book, science fiction or otherwise, when you are at once engaged but also surprised by the sheer, almost absurd, creativity of the work: “How could someone have thought of this?” And yet they did.

Granted, the story itself was not Berg’s, the original stage play, but also… it was his story. Again, what would this work be like if it’d been written by the same composer 20 years earlier, or half a century earlier by a different composer? It could certainly be an interesting work, a good one, but this piece reflects something important about that time in history, and that kind of brings me back to the question that opened this article. Granted, the First World War was done by this time, but there was a second to come just a decade or so later, as unbelievable as it seemed at the time.

Again, at the risk of repeating myself, and with the caveat that my ideas about this masterpiece may change in the future… This work underlines so strongly, almost disturbingly, certain terrifying things about human existence, like being terrified by the thought that the earth rotates once in a day. It seems such a silly statement, but in the context of this work, with the weight of simply being resting heavily on our characters’ shoulders, and the frenetic music that (at times) accompanies it, we cannot help but be drawn into an unsettling but very moving world, but what point does it make?

Maybe none. Just like that, with chirps and calls from children, almost (inexplicably, incomprehensibly) carefree in nature, the work simply….. ends. Such is life.

Phew. I’m glad that’s over. We have only a few more operas left to discuss, and one of them, for reasons you may soon see, could be in two parts, but I’m not sure yet. This month’s series is a big undertaking for me, so I’m a bit relieved that we’ve made it this far, and there are only a few more left, so please do stay tuned and thank you so much for reading.


One thought on “Berg: Wozzeck, op. 7

  1. Perhaps it would be interesting for you to read Georg Büchner’s play “Woyzeck” written in the second half of the 19th century. It forms the base of Berg’s opera if I am not mistaken. Büchner was an eye-witness to German militarism and its imperial dreams after Napoleon’s defeat. A catalytic war like the one WW I was to become was many people’s dream in Prussia already in the 19th century. Add German industrial power and the blossoming of German Arts (music, literature) that was to set an example for the rest of the world and you don’t need to be prescient to forecast a war. Germany wanted it, France wanted it and the UK and Russia hoped to reap the benefits. Berg merely expressed ideas and fears that had been in the air for decades.

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