About this Recording
8.660390-91 - BERG, A.: Wozzeck [Opera] (Trekel, Schwanewilms, Molomot, N. Berg, Houston Symphony, Graf)
English  German 

Alban Berg (1885–1935)


“You have to love humanity to get to the heart of each person’s unique way of being; no one can be too insignificant for you, no one too ugly— only then is it possible to understand them …” Georg Büchner

Alban Berg was born in a baroque palace in the centre of Vienna in 1885. Before becoming one of Arnold Schoenberg’s composition pupils in 1904 and proving his creative genius by composing songs, a piano sonata and a string quartet, he showed inclinations towards architecture, creative writing and fine art. In 1912 he wrote five orchestral song settings based on postcards by Peter Altenberg. The scandal they caused when they were premièred on 31st March 1913 at a concert in the Großer Musikvereinssaal in Vienna was only surpassed by that surrounding the first performance of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps in Paris two months later. From then on, the cultured and aristocratic Berg was considered a dangerous rebel.

In May 1914, Albert Steinrück played the title rôle in the first performance of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck at the Residenztheater (which later became the Kammerspiele) in Vienna. Berg, who had already been on the lookout for a subject for an opera for some time, was thrilled by the play and immediately resolved to set it to music. Then the First World War broke out, Berg was called up and, as a clerk in the War Ministry, could not really think about serious creative work for the time being. But those years did help him to identify with Woyzeck/Wozzeck the soldier. “There is a part of me in that character, since I have been as dependent on people I hated, as tied, sickly, lacking in freedom, resigned and humiliated as he was in the course of these years of war”, he wrote to his wife Helene, the illegitimate daughter of Emperor Franz Joseph.

But who is the main character, and where is he to be placed historically? There were three Woyzeck/Wozzecks. Johann Christian Woyzeck was a real person born in Leipzig in 1780. He epitomises the fate of someone at the bottom of the heap socially, materially and psychologically. A modern parallel for his situation might be that of a foreign labourer with almost no rights and who is also alienated from himself. Woyzeck joined a Dutch regiment and returned from the war destitute. Tormented by jealousy, he murdered his lover, whom he suspected of amusing herself with other soldiers. The only historical sources to document his existence are two medical reports. Their condescending tone is unsettling. Both doctor and judge mercilessly demonstrate their social and academic superiority in the expert reports. By today’s standards, Woyzeck’s execution also looks like murder.

Georg Büchner (1813–1837) seized the story with his full vehemence. He changed the first name and created, in Franz Woyzeck, a literary character and (anti-)hero. Woyzeck’s life passes swiftly before the audience or reader. Büchner’s text remained a fragment, and unfortunately the source material is in poor condition. Nevertheless, his Woyzeck is read, studied and, as time goes on, venerated.

Finally, Alban Berg turned the material into a complete work of art. Taking over a printing error in the edition he used, he created, with Franz Wozzeck, a central character in the history of opera. By 1917 he had made a few compositional sketches and had finished adapting the text of Büchner’s fragment. After he was demobilised in November 1918 the work progressed. He was more and more gripped by Büchner’s text, which was almost unknown in Austria at that time, writing to his friend Anton von Webern: “I can’t even tell you whether I’m happy with it. When I’m writing, I feel a constant warmth, and it’s going more easily than I would have expected after such a long break … It’s not just the fate of this poor man whom everyone exploits and torments that touches me so, it’s also the incredible atmosphere of the individual scenes.”

The War had turned Berg the aesthete into a man with a social conscience. An opera with social outsiders like Wozzeck and his Marie, who has borne him a child “without the blessing of the church”, and a text whose criticism of the Captain, the Doctor and the handsome Drum-major as representatives of power is unmistakable, went a lot further than La Dame aux camélias or Manon Lescaut. Berg’s music expresses a high degree of personal conviction.

Arnold Schoenberg expressed reservations: music should be about angels, not batmen. He was seldom so wrong. When Berg showed him the finished manuscript in 1921, he immediately changed his mind and became the opera’s first champion, recognising that Berg had reflected the collapse of the nineteenth-century political order by consigning opera’s high romantic ideals to the flames of musical history. “Now that’s what I call an opera! That’s true dramatic music!” Schoenberg wrote to Berg’s publisher Emil Hertzka, who was still holding back. It was not possible to print a vocal score until Alma Mahler made a contribution towards the costs. Anyone who could read music realised that after Wozzeck, opera would never be the same again.

Everything about this music seemed new, but formally and emotionally justified. The vocal and orchestral writing was faithfully and naturalistically matched to the stage action. Recitative, arioso and Sprechgesang in the spirit of Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire found their logical place in the dramatic structure. Berg had selected 15 of Büchner’s scenes and divided them into three acts of five scenes each. Each act was through-composed and was made up of traditional forms. Berg’s tonal language combines tonality, polyatonality and atonality. His epoch-making innovations thus built on the solid ground of tradition.

In his Wozzeck essay of 1928, Berg himself described this as follows: “Apart from my desire to make good music, to do complete justice musically to the spiritual content of Büchner’s immortal drama and to translate his literary language into a musical one, I had nothing in mind when I decided to write an opera—and that includes nothing with regard to compositional technique—except rendering to the theatre what was the theatre’s. That meant shaping the music in such a way that it remained constantly mindful of its duty to serve the drama.”

“What was the theatre’s” was still very much a matter for debate when Erich Kleiber conducted the première at the Berlin State Opera Unter den Linden in 1925. A number of the press foamed with rage, noting the absence of melodies. But the work was quickly taken up by other theatres, with productions in Prague in 1926, Leningrad in 1927, Vienna in 1930 and another in Berlin in 1932. When, in 1934, London’s Covent Garden was planning a performance and wanted to borrow sets from Berlin, the theatre had already subjected its stock to National Socialist “cleansing”.

Berg did not live to see the second and definitive post-war triumph of his Wozzeck; he died in 1935. Today, almost 100 years after the première, we can state unequivocally that Berg’s deeply humane opera speaks to people and shakes them to the core. The opera Wozzeck, which is, in a sense, also a Passion, has long since found its place in the repertoire as a 20th-century masterpiece.

Wolfgang Schaufler
Translation: Susan Baxter


CD 1

Act I

[1] Wozzeck, a soldier, shaves the Captain, who is espousing his righteous philosophy. He accuses Wozzeck of immoral ways by living with his mistress and child without the benefit of marriage. Wozzeck states that he could live virtuously if only he were rich.

[2] Later, as Wozzeck gathers wood with his friend Andres, he has frightening visions.

[3] At their home, Marie, Wozzeck’s mistress, quarrels with a neighbour, Margret, who chides Marie for dallying with the Drum-major. Wozzeck sticks his head in the window to tell Marie of his visions, but then runs off.

[4] He visits the Doctor and agrees to participate in experiments in order to earn much-needed money. Wozzeck tells the Doctor of his hallucinations, much to the Doctor’s delight.

[5] Back at home, Marie succumbs to the Drum-major and sleeps with him.

CD 2

Act II

[1] Upon returning home, Wozzeck discovers a pair of earrings Marie was given by the Drum-major. Despite his suspicions, Wozzeck gives his pay cheque to Marie, then departs.

[2] Elsewhere, the Captain and Doctor engage in a meaningless chat while strolling. They cross paths with Wozzeck and taunt him with news of Marie’s indiscretion.

[3] Confronting Marie, Wozzeck grabs her and they struggle. Marie frees herself, telling Wozzeck she would rather have a knife in her heart than Wozzeck’s hands on her.

[4] At the local tavern, inebriated patrons dance, including Marie waltzing with the Drum-major. This sight torments Wozzeck and Andres tries to cheer him up with a song, but to no avail.

[5] Later, at the barracks, Wozzeck cannot sleep, babbling to Andres about voices in his head and hallucinations about knives. The Drum-major enters the barracks, drunk, and mocks Wozzeck. They fight, but Wozzeck is beaten and lies bloodied on the floor.


[6] Full of remorse for her actions, Marie reads to her child stories from the Bible about Mary Magdalene and adulterous women.

[7] Later, as Wozzeck and Marie walk by a pond, he has kind words and kisses for her, but at moonrise, he is enraged. Accusing Marie of infidelity, he slits her throat.

[8] At the tavern, Wozzeck gets drunk and attempts to dance with Margret. In horror, she discovers blood on his clothing.

[9] Returning to the pond to find the knife, Wozzeck comes upon Marie’s body. He hurls the knife into the pond, but then wades in to make sure it has truly sunk to the bottom. Completely delusional, Wozzeck imagines the water is blood and he drowns. Strolling by, the Doctor and the Captain hear unsettling noises and scurry away.

[10] Following an orchestral interlude [11] Marie and Wozzeck’s child plays ring a ring o’ roses with other children. Another child rushes up to report to the boy that his mother is dead. The children run off to see for themselves. Alone and afraid, the boy rocks to and fro on his hobby-horse.

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