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About this Piece

Composed: 1917-1922
Length: c. 90 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (4th = piccolo), 4 oboes (4th = English horn), 4 clarinets (1st = clarinet in A, 3rd & 4th = clarinet in E-flat), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones (alto, 2 tenors, bass), tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, rute, side drums, suspended cymbals, tam-tams, triangle, xylophone), celesta, harp, strings, chorus, and vocal soloists; military band – piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in E-flat, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, sides drums, triangle); tavern music – 2 fiddles (violins tuned up a step), clarinet in C, accordion, guitar, tuba, upright piano

Poised at the precipice of World War I – May 1914 to be exact – Alban Berg attended a performance of Georg Büchner’s 1837 play Wozzeck at the Residenz Theater in Vienna. The story, that of an oppressed soldier victimized by the machinations of a corrupt society that drive him to the eventual murder of his mistress, greatly impressed the composer. Berg’s strong emotional reaction to the play found nearly immediate crystallization in his decision to set this fragmentary work to music as an opera. The auspicious timing of his encounter with this work of fiction would soon be felt in Berg’s own life as a soldier, when Europe plunged inauspiciously into war with itself three months. Nearly 75 years earlier, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Büchner had created in Woyzeck (the original spelling) a scenario of humanity steeped in arrogance, cruelty, delusion, and the smugness of scientific positivism that eventually found full expression in the catastrophe that was World War I; Wozzeck’s time had truly come. But who was Georg Büchner, considered to be the father of modern theater by many prestigious literati, from Artaud to Brecht?

Georg Büchner (1813-1837) was born into a family that had for generations been barber-surgeons in Goddelau in the Grand Duchy of Hess-Darmstadt; at the time of his birth, his father was a doctor in the service of the autocratic Grand Duke. Beginning in 1831, Büchner studied natural science (zoology and comparative anatomy) in Strasbourg. It was during this period that he had his first encounter with radical student politics. Because he had to comply with state regulations, he was obliged to return to Hess in 1833 to continue his studies at the University of Giessen, where he became one of several co-founders of the revolutionary Society of Human Rights. He became an ardent advocate for the overthrow of the autocratic governments of the German states, a position forcefully and eloquently articulated in his radical political pamphlet The Hessian Courier (considered to be the first revolutionary document in the German language). This pamphlet was a call to the disenfranchised and materially suffering peasantry to form a revolutionary base as a prerequisite to revolt. However, Büchner overlooked one tiny obstacle: the near total illiteracy of the peasant class. Ironically, the peasants who received the pamphlets immediately turned them over to the police for fear of the ever-looming guillotine. Under fear of arrest, Büchner fled to Strasbourg in March of 1835, never to return to Germany. In the wake of this fiasco, he all but abandoned his political activism. In September 1836, Büchner became Doctor of Philosophy at Zurich University. Several months later, in February 1837 and nearing the completion of Woyzeck, Buchner died of typhus after 17 days of illness. With his death at age 23, Büchner left to posterity the infamous The Hessian Courier, the historical drama Danton’s Death, the comedy Leonce and Lena, a short story Lenz, an influential scientific paper On Cranial Nerves, and finally, Woyzeck, a play in 27 scenes, left unfinished.

Büchner modeled the name-sake of his play on the historical personage Johann Christian Woyzeck (1780-1824) who, orphaned at the age of 13, became by turn a transient, a barber, wigmaker, and, eventually, a career soldier in various armies (Dutch, Prussian, Swedish, Mecklenbrugian). While in Sweden he fell in love and had a child with a young woman whom he could not marry because his papers were not in order. As a consequence, he deserted both of them, an act from which he was to be haunted with guilt that only added to his increasing paranoia. Upon his return to Leipzig in 1818, he established a relationship with a Frau Woost, an on-again, off-again prostitute to soldiers. During this affair with Frau Woost, Woyzeck fell into deepening spiritual disintegration, once again becoming a transient filled with growing fears and hearing disembodied voices. In a fit of jealous rage, Woyzeck murdered Frau Woost for her increasing infidelity in June 1821.    

Woyzeck was found guilty and executed in the Leipzig marketplace in 1824, but not until after appeals on the basis of diminished responsibility had been rejected. A forensic expert testified to Woyzeck’s apparent sanity at the time of the murder; however a private observer volunteered testimony to the effect that Woyzeck showed signs of mental instability prior to the killing. A Doctor Clarus later testified about Woyzeck’s mental instabilities, but insisted that he also had the mental capacity to be a quite normal and reasonable person, though perhaps of less than average intelligence. Thus, Büchner’s antihero: a victim of society’s oppression, an object of scientific judgment, and a tragic figure bereft of free will. Or, as Büchner stated in a letter to his fiancée in March 1834, “I find in human nature a terrible uniformity, in human relationships an irrepressible force, shared by everyone and no-one. The individual just foam on the wave, greatness mere chance, the rule of genius a puppet-play, a laughable struggle with an iron law; to recognize this is the highest insight, to control it impossible…”

It was Berg’s participation in the war as a soldier that increased his identification with the protagonist of his opera. He makes this comparison of himself to Wozzeck in a letter to his wife, August 7, 1918: “I have been spending these war years just as dependent on people I hate, have been in chains, sick, captive, resigned, in fact humiliated.”

The libretto that Berg fashioned for his opera is based on the second edition, derived from the 1879 Franzos edition of the 27 scenes. He condensed these scenes to 15, placing them into three acts of five scenes each, a numerically (and musically) symmetrical arrangement. 

Berg’s large formal plan: Act I is an exposition in the classical sense. Scene 1: in the structure of a Suite; Scene 2: Rhapsody; Scene 3: Military March/Lullaby; Scene 4: Passacaglia and 21 variations; Scene 5: Andante affettuoso-quasi Rondo. Act II dramatically develops these relationships as a symphony in five movements; Scene 1: Sonata movement; Scene 2: Invention and Fugue; Scene 3: Largo for chamber orchestra; Scene 4: Scherzo; Scene 5: Rondo. Act III brings forth the catastrophe and epilogue in a series of six inventions.

This integration and realization of classical musical forms within the orchestral and vocal fabric as a mode of structural cohesion was foremost in Berg’s mind. He dramatically made this point in a letter to Anton Webern on August 19, 1918: “It is not only the fate of this poor man, exploited and tormented by all the world, that touches me so closely, but also the unheard of intensity of mood and of the individual scenes. The combining of four or five scenes into one act through orchestral interludes tempts me also… I have also given thought to a great variety of musical forms to correspond to the diversity in the character of the individual scenes. For example, normal operatic scenes with thematic development, then others without any thematic material…”

It is with an astonishing palette of orchestral colors and chamber-like writing of delicate clarity that Berg realizes the “unheard of intensity of mood and of the individual scenes” of his opera. Though a glance at the orchestra listing in the score preface reveals forces equivalent to Richard Strauss or early Schoenberg, Berg restricted his fortissimo effects nearly exclusively to orchestral interludes between scenes, the scenes themselves being accompanied by smaller groupings of instruments. These lighter textures are announced from the very opening scene of the opera where Wozzeck is shaving the Captain to a light accompaniment of five solo woodwinds, harp, muted strings, and specks of percussion. But it is in Act II, Scene 4 (tavern garden) where Berg’s art of orchestral differentiation is at its subtlest. Berg introduces a chamber orchestra onto the stage composed of two fiddles, clarinet, accordion, guitar, and bass tuba; the two orchestras perform simultaneously without covering each other or the voices. The balances between voices and instruments throughout the opera are largely a product of sotto voce (half voice) volume, the use of mutes, low registers, and mostly sequential (non unison) voicings. Berg referred to Wozzeck as a piano opera.    

Act I opens with Wozzeck shaving the Captain who, assured of his moral superiority, suggests to Wozzeck in a bourgeois manner that he lacks morals though he’s a “good fellow.” At sunset we find Wozzeck and the soldier Andres cutting sticks for firewood. Wozzeck hallucinates that the ground will open and swallow them. Scene 3 finds Marie with her child. As soldiers march by in a parade she gets her first glimpse of the Drum Major. Margaret, her neighbor, comments derogatorily about Marie’s infatuation with soldiers. Wozzeck appears later, sees his child and comments “Ah, we poor people… I cannot endure it much longer.” In Scene 4 Wozzeck is with the Doctor, who uses him as an object for his experiments for a new dietetic theory. The Doctor’s disregard for Wozzeck the man is total as he sings: “Oh my theory, my fame! I shall be immortal!” Act I concludes with the seduction of Marie by the Drum Major, who convinces her that he is even more handsome in his Sunday parade dress.

As the curtain rises on Act II, Marie is found admiring the earrings given her by the Drum Major. Wozzeck enters and questions her about the earrings. Suspicious of her answer that she found them, he nonetheless gives her his pay, leaving her feeling guilty. Upon meeting in the street, the Doctor tells the Captain that he looks apoplectic. Wozzeck enters and the two torment him with innuendos about Marie’s fidelity. In Scene 3 Wozzeck accuses Marie of infidelity. As Wozzeck is about to strike her Marie says, “Better a knife in me than a hand on me!” In Scene 4 (a tavern) Wozzeck observes Marie and the Drum Major dancing. Andres and others are there; a drunk gives a mock sermon and a fool says to Wozzeck that he “smells blood.” Wozzeck’s confusion deepens. That night in the barracks, sleepless, Wozzeck sees a knife flash before his eyes. The Drum Major enters bragging about his conquests, insults Wozzeck, and beats and humiliates him in front of the others.

In Scene 1 of Act III, Marie, guilt-ridden, reads the Bible story of Mary Magdalene and prays for forgiveness. As the moon rises blood red in Scene 2, Wozzeck stabs Marie near a pond. In Scene 3 Wozzeck, seeking comfort in the tavern, dances with Margaret, who sees blood on his hands and brings it to the attention of others. Wozzeck flees to the pond in search of the murder weapon. He finds it and throws it into the pond. He then wades into the water to retrieve it and drowns. The Doctor and Captain pass by; the Doctor comments on the sound of a dying man. The opera closes with Marie’s child riding a hobby-horse while other children are playing. One child shouts that his mother is dead. The other children rush off to see the body. Marie’s child, noticing that he is alone, hesitates for a moment, then rides off on his hobby-horse after the other children.        


Steven Lacoste is Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.