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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 8

Wozzeck - Alban Berg's Masterful Operatic

by John Rea / May 1, 2000

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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 to complete.

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 never wrote!

Sound clips
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" to them.
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.
John Rea

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