About this Recording
NBD0081V - BERG, A.: Wozzeck [Opera] (DNO, 2017) (Blu-ray, HD)

ALBAN BERG (1885–1935)

Opera in three acts (1914–22)
Libretto by Alban Berg after Woyzeck by Georg Büchner (1813–1837)

On 5 May 1914 the first performance in Vienna of Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck took place at the Residenzbühne theatre. One of those present, Paul Elbogen, many years later recalled his unique experience at this event: ‘They played the drama for three hours without the smallest interruption in complete darkness. Indescribably excited and enthusiastic I stood up amidst wild applause, and met Alban Berg 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, “Someone must set it to music”.’ This Berg himself did, creating one of the most original and powerful operas to be composed during the 20th century. The first performance of Berg’s opera took place at the Berlin State Opera on 14 December 1925, conducted by Erich Kleiber, who continued to champion the work throughout his career, despite its disappearance from the operatic stages of Germany and Austria during the Nazi era.

Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck was written in 1836, the last year of the playwright’s life. Based on a true incident that had taken place in Leipzig 15 years earlier in 1821, when an ex-soldier and barber had murdered his mistress for her infidelity to him, the play tells the story of the central character, Woyzeck, in a revolutionary dramatic style through a series of very short scenes rather than the traditional dramatic structure of several extended acts. These short scenes were later to mirror the basic form of the commercial cinema of the 20th century, with numerous short episodes strung together to create the dramatic whole. Berg took Büchner’s play, simplified it slightly and restructured it into three short acts, each of which was made up of five scenes. Berg sketched out several ideas for the opera, now renamed as Wozzeck, in 1914, but then put it aside following the outbreak of the First World War and his enrolment in military service, which lasted until 1918. By the middle of 1919 he had completed the first act, as well as a scene from Act II, and the complete opera was finished in short score by October 1921. Berg then showed his work to his highly influential teacher Arnold Schoenberg, who immediately recommended the opera enthusiastically to the music publisher Universal Edition. Berg completed the full score by April 1922 and then set about creating interest in his new work amongst possible performers. A key event in this process took place in August 1923 when Berg’s String Quartet, Op. 3 was performed at a contemporary music Festival in Salzburg. The conductor Hermann Scherchen, a great proponent of modern music, was in the audience and afterwards recommended to Berg that he create a concert suite out of the orchestral music of Wozzeck. The resulting suite of three fragments was first performed under Scherchen’s baton in Frankfurt in 1924, and was, as Berg wrote to his colleague and fellow composer Anton Webern ‘a great triumph with the public, the musicians, and the press.’ By now the conductor Erich Kleiber, who already greatly admired Büchner’s play, was expressing interest in Berg’s opera, having seen a piano score of it. In January 1924, while in Vienna, the complete work was played to him on the piano with the composer present. Kleiber made up his mind to present the opera at the Berlin State Opera, where he was chief conductor. Despite intense political conflict between the opera company’s manager, Max von Schillings, and the German Ministry of Culture which threatened the first performance, this finally took place as scheduled. The opera provoked enormous controversy, but its greatness was immediately recognised by some, with the distinguished critic H.H. Stuckenschmidt describing it as ‘a significant event in the history of music drama.’

Further productions followed quite swiftly, if not without controversy. In November 1926 it was presented in Prague with Otakar Ostrčil conducting. It was warmly received but the third and subsequent performances had to be abandoned because of protests by Czech nationalists that a German work was being performed by the Czech National Opera. This was followed by the Russian premiere, given in Leningrad in June 1927. But again, the opera ran into political trouble. Although the performance was extremely successful, the work was quickly banned by the Soviet authorities for being an example of ‘decadent bourgeois art’. Berg was by now worried for the future of his opera, but it was taken up by many of the smaller German opera houses after a trail-blazing production in Oldenburg of 1929 clearly demonstrated that it could be mounted with modest forces. The success of Wozzeck was confirmed by its production at the Vienna State Opera in 1930, at which Berg took 13 curtain calls. In 1931 Leopold Stokowski gave the American premiere in Philadelphia. However back in Europe the tide was turning against it with the rise of the Nazi party. A new staging in Berlin under Kleiber in November 1932 was to be the last production of it on a German stage for the next 16 years. The last performance which Berg himself heard was ironically a broadcast of the complete work given in concert by the BBC and conducted by Adrian Boult in March 1935. Wozzeck’s post-war rehabilitation was led by performances in Italy (1950) and Austria (1951) conducted by Karl Böhm, and by the remarkably successful British premiere, given at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden under the baton of Erich Kleiber in January 1952, after which the work firmly entered the repertoire of Europe and America’s opera houses.

Berg’s approach to the writing of opera was revolutionary. As the musicologist Douglas Jarman has pointed out, it is characterised by a number of key features. These include: carefully crafted symmetrical structures which result in arch-shaped designs, and even include palindromes (a text which can be read the same way backwards as forwards); an overall structure in which the individual parts are both self-contained and simultaneously part of the single whole; the use of traditional musical forms which often form part of these structures; a predilection for lyrical expansiveness and large-scale dramatic gestures, and the use of rhythmic patterns as independent motives. Berg’s preference for rigorously symmetrical and predetermined formal structures and for independent rhythmic motives may, at first glance, sound extraordinarily theoretical and dry. But the reality is that these seemingly abstract processes produce a work of overwhelming emotional intensity.

The first scene of Act I is set in the room of the Captain. It is early morning. Wozzeck is shaving the Captain, who urges Wozzeck to take his time. Wozzeck acknowledges the Captain non-committedly. The Captain starts to taunt Wozzeck who eventually reacts when the Captain mentions Wozzeck’s illegitimate child: Wozzeck proclaims that poverty is not the enemy of virtue. Alarmed by Wozzeck’s outburst, the Captain seeks to calm him and the scene ends as it began. After an orchestral interlude the scene changes to an open field in the afternoon, with a town in the distance. Wozzeck and his fellow soldier Andres are cutting wood for kindling. Wozzeck is unsettled by the presence of nature around him. Andres, unaffected, sings a folk song. As the sun sets, Wozzeck envisages the world engulfed in flames. Another orchestral interlude follows: a military band can be heard approaching. The third scene is set in the house of Marie, the mother of Wozzeck’s child. Marie watches the band march past, and her neighbour Margret comments on Marie’s admiration for the Drum Major. Marie slams the window shut and tends to her child. Her dreaming is interrupted by Wozzeck’s arrival on his way back to the barracks. He describes his feelings in the field and then rushes away, followed by Marie. An interlude leads to scene four, set in the study of the Doctor, for whom Wozzeck is a guinea-pig for the Doctor’s dietary experiments. At first the Doctor is angry at Wozzeck for not keeping to his diet. Wozzeck describes to him the feelings he experienced in the field. The Doctor pounces on this as an example of a new pathology: researching it may lead to fame for him. At the peak of his excitement, the Doctor abruptly calms and returns to his examination of Wozzeck. After another interlude the scene changes to the street in front of Marie’s house. Marie is admiring the Drum Major who attempts to embrace her. At first she resists, but then succumbs. The Act ends with the two entering Marie’s house.

The first scene of Act II takes place in Marie’s room during the morning. She is sitting with her child in her lap, admiring a pair of earrings which the Drum Major has given to her. Marie sings a lullaby to her child, about being abducted by gypsies unless he sleeps. The child takes fright and hides in Marie’s clothes. Marie returns to her earrings and now sings of the sandman. Wozzeck enters: Marie tries to hide the earrings and tells him that she found them in the street. He comments that he has never found anything like them himself, and gives Marie his wages from the Captain and the Doctor. He leaves, and Marie reflects that she and everything in the world is flawed. Following an orchestral interlude, the second scene is set in a street in daytime. The Doctor hurriedly runs into the Captain, who becomes breathless trying to keep up with the Doctor. The Doctor diagnoses a possible illness in the Captain that might benefit from research. Wozzeck enters, and the Doctor and Captain start to taunt him, hinting at Marie’s infidelity with the Drum Major. Wozzeck gradually understands what they are implying and departs swiftly. A slow orchestral interlude leads to the third scene, set in front of Marie’s house. She is standing outside when Wozzeck arrives and accuses her of infidelity. Marie pretends not to understand. Wozzeck moves to hit her but Marie repulses him, saying that she would rather be knifed than struck by him. Wozzeck, frightened, departs. An orchestral interlude introduces the fourth scene, the garden of an inn, in the late evening. Soldiers, apprentices and girls as well as Marie and the Drum Major are dancing to an onstage band. Two apprentices collapse drunk after which the dancing resumes. Wozzeck enters and watches. The dancing is interrupted by a hunting chorus, then by Andres singing, and finally once again by one of the drunken apprentices. A Madman enters, and suggests that despite the apparent happiness, there is the stench of blood present. Wozzeck fixes on the idea of blood and suddenly everything seems to him to be bathed in a mist the colour of blood. The dance music becomes more frantic, before the descending curtain cuts it off to be replaced by a male chorus singing the nature music from the second scene Act I. As the curtain rises on the fifth scene, set in the barracks, the singing is heard to be the sound of the sleeping soldiers. Wozzeck awakes, preoccupied by the events at the inn the previous evening. He hears voices coming out of the wall and sees a knife. As he tries to pray, the Drum Major. bursts in, boasting of his amatory successes. He and Wozzeck fight: Wozzeck falls down and the act ends.

Act III opens in Marie’s room at night. She is reading the Bible: the story of the woman taken in adultery. Her child seeks her attention and she tells him a fairy story before returning to the Bible, and reading about Mary Magdalene. After an orchestral interlude, the second scene takes place in the forest, and specifically a path with a pool nearby. Marie and Wozzeck are walking together: Marie tries to hurry on but Wozzeck restrains her. After a stilted conversation he draws a knife and cuts her throat, killing her. A short violent, orchestral interlude leads into scene three: it is night in a poorly lit inn, where Wozzeck is drinking. He shouts at a pianist playing a polka and starts to sing a folk song. Aware of Marie he cannot carry on and asks Margret to sing but then, reminded of the past, stops her. Margret notices the blood on his hand and draws the attention of those present to it. Wozzeck leaves hurriedly. After an orchestral interlude the fourth scene is the same as the second: the forest, the path and the pool. Looking for his knife he stumbles over Marie’s body. He finds the knife and throws it into the pool. A blood-red moon illuminates the water. Afraid the knife may be too close and so be discovered he wades into the pool to throw the knife further out. The moonlight makes him think that he is covered in blood. He moves further into the pool to wash himself but drowns. The Captain and the Doctor pass by but hurry on, anxious not to become involved. The scene ends with the croaking of the toads beside the pool. An orchestra interlude leads to the final scene of the opera: the setting is the street in front of Marie’s house, on a sunny morning. Marie’s son is playing with some other children. A child enters and reports the discovery of Marie’s body: the children run off to have a look. Her child is left alone before himself following the other children.

David Patmore

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