Wozzeck - Alban Berg's Masterful Operatic by John Rea
/ May 1, 2000
In the first scene of Berg's masterpiece, the Captain fearfully
admonishes his barber: Langsam, Wozzeck, l a n g s a m ...!
He has a right to be apprehensive and annoyed. For, unlike that
other famous tonsorial artist, the vocally agile Figaro, Wozzeck
is not singing very much. In fact, he is grunting.
Why is the barber so fidgety? Is he threatening? And what might
he do, or not do, next? These are but a few of the "clinical"
questions answered in Wozzeck, a powerful music psychodrama
that, as Douglas Jarman suggests, "depicted mental instability
in such a way that the audience shared this instability, rather
than simply observing its outward effects." In present-day
clinical language, Wozzeck suffers persecutory paranoia with traces
of schizophrenia. No other opera had ever attempted anything like
this before, and perhaps, none has since.
When Johnnie comes marching home
Alban Berg's encounter with Georg Büchner's troublesome
soldier play, at its Vienna premiere in the spring of 1914, was
a life-transforming event. "They played the drama for three
hours without the smallest interruption in complete darkness,"
recalled his friend, Paul Elbogen. "Indescribably excited
and enthusiastic I stood up amidst wild applause, met Alban Berg
a few steps behind me. He was deathly pale and perspiring profusely.
'What do you say?' he gasped, beside himself. 'Isn't it fantastic,
incredible?' Then, already taking his leave, he said, 'Someone
must set it to music!'"
Similar to Debussy's discovery of Maeterlinck's Pelléas
et Mélisande in the early 1890s, Berg was prepared
for poetic revelation during that fateful spring of 1914. His
creative style, like Debussy's before him, was in place by that
time. Nonetheless, as with Pelléas, the task of
rendering theatrical words into opera would take about ten years
Berg's musical style was the outcome of study with his domineering
composition teacher, Arnold Schoenberg. At the dawn of the Great
War, Berg had been preparing a fortieth-birthday present for his
teacher - a symphony inspired by Mahler's Ninth. Instead
of completing it, he returned to a project Schoenberg had imperiously
"ordered" from him some months earlier, composing a
very macabre March that would later join two other pieces to form
Op. 6, the Three Pieces for Orchestra. In particular, the
March contains music much like the lugubrious drowning scene in
Act III of Wozzeck. Berg's previous accomplishments, such
as the Altenberglieder, for soprano and orchestra, Op.
4 (1912), would also prepare him to give flight to Büchner's
words--to make them float nell'aria- but he would ground
them in an oppressive atmosphere, paradoxically devoid of oxygen.
Aberatio mentalis partialis
In Berg's adaptation, the expression in the vocal lines
moves away from arias, sinking down towards unaccompanied recitative,
towards musical declamation (sprechgesang and sprechstimme),
and towards heightened speech inflections, often akin to screaming.
The role of Marie is the only one that consistently calls for
"normal" singing. For everyone else, something is caught
in the throat - including the biting, jabbing, and slashing that
the double-z sound of the antihero's name coerces from the singers'
repressed incantations - and the virtuosity required to do these
roles is now legendary.
Both the singing and the orchestral music used to accompany
it leave the impression that everyone in Wozzeck is in
a state of taut expectation. Perhaps Berg was influenced by Schoenberg's
opus Erwartung, a frightening melodrama described by Theodor
Adorno as 'the seismographic recording of traumatic shocks!"
Erwartung's libretto had been written by a medical student,
Marie Pappenheim, inspired by her cousin's psychoanalysis (as
Anna O) with Freud. Georg Büchner had also studied medicine,
and drew upon medical journals for inspiration, so perhaps the
nervous anticipation in the voices of Wozzeck's characters
comes directly from the playwright's clinical observations.
Then again, the distortions exhibited in the singing of Wozzeck
may have had more to do with the lifestyles of the rich and famous
in Berg's hometown, described without pity by the social critic
Karl Kraus. "Vienna," he said, "was a padded cell
where everyone was screaming to get out."
Exhibit B: the Waltz
Like Mahler's symphonies, all of which were known to him,
Berg used his opera diagnostically to examine various triple-time
rhythmic forms such as the waltz and the ländler - sometimes
to the extent of dismembering them, in order to get to their very
core. The Tavern Garden scene in Act II, where Wozzeck sees Marie
dancing with the Drum Major, is one such typical moment. A nightmarish
feeling results from such procedures because, for most of the
past century, the waltz had been transfigured into the sonic embodiment
of "uplifting" bourgeois values in Hapsburg Austria.
Like the very values themselves, the "diseased" musical
forms would soon come tumbling down. Thus, Berg's pathological
dances predicted the future.
The diabolical, eerie night music found in the Scherzo of Mahler's
Seventh Symphony (1908), Schattenhaft (shadowy,
spectral), with its weird waltz in D major/minor, foreshadows
the troubled context of many passages in Berg's opera. Wozzeck's
"funeral music" (also in D minor/major), which is heard
in the interlude before the final scene, draws upon sketches that
a youthful Berg, perhaps then at his most Mahlerian, once intended
for a symphony. It is not farcical to suggest that, for reasons
such as these, Wozzeck was the best opera that Gustav Mahler
Given the opera's subsequent array of denunciations - by German
nationalists (as "not German enough"), Czech patriots
(as "too German"), the anti-Bourgeois Russians and the
anti-Kulturbolschewismus Nazis-it is all the more surprising to
review how its artistic achievements have found their way, as
"recycled" material, into the fabric of so many later
musical-theatre projects, especially German-language operas, particularly
after Büchner's play became fully understood.
One has only to think of Dantons Tod by Gottfried von
Einem (after Büchner) or Die Soldaten by B. A. Zimmermann
(after Jakob Lenz). Other operas, cut from the same mane, include:
Jakob Lenz by Wolfgang Rihm (after Büchner); Lear
by Aribert Reimann; Reigen by Philippe Boesmans (after
Arthur Schnitzler, a medical doctor); and even the Eight Songs
for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies.
"Berg's operatic vision is superb," says George Steiner.
[Neverthless,] "it distorts Büchner's principal device:
the music makes Woyzeck [the spelling of the real-life Wozzeck's
name] eloquent, a cunning orchestration gives speech to his soul....
It is as if a man had composed a great opera on the theme of deafness."
John Rea is a composer. He also teaches theory, composition
and music history at McGill University. His reorchestration of
Wozzeck was produced in 1995 by the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne and
the Banff Centre for the Arts.
On the reorchestration (1992-95) of Wozzeck
Following a request by conductor Lorraine Vaillancourt to imagine
a version of Wozzeck for the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, and
after a study of Berg's orchestral score, I concluded that no
fewer than 21 musicians were required to render the music vital
and irresistible. At the center of the project, however, was a
surprising paradox: the notion of reduction meant stretching out--in
fact, it demanded genuine enlargement! How so? By demanding a
very intense type of work from every member of the chamber orchestra,
asking them to play more frequently than in the original score
and to interpret musical parts that often do not "belong"
Though I was not afflicted by any enchanting "idée
fixe," or aberatio mentalis partialis, zweite Spezies,
as the Doctor says to Wozzeck, nevertheless, transforming Berg's
multicolored score was painful. I must admit that, occasionally,
I was even subject to dizzy spells.