I'm not much of an opera fan. I get far more transported by abstract instrumental music than from a bunch of overstuffed prima donnas screaming their guts out.
I realize that's more a confession of my personal limits than a meaningful critique of Western civilization. After all, opera is the apex of our culture, blending the arts of poetry, acting, singing, dance, painting, costuming, lighting and design. There's a good reason why opera seats can cost more than Superbowl tickets. And I'll even admit that many operas move me - the rollicking spirit of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, the devout morality of Beethoven's Fidelio,the visceral power of Verdi's Otello, the brooding mysticism of Wagner's Gotterdammerung, the gossamer wonder of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande. Yet, I constantly find myself laboring to wrest musical gems from silly plots, cardboard characters and insipid lyrics. Even the finest operas seem utterly unworthy of their magnificent music.
But then there's Alban Berg's Wozzeck – a shattering plunge to the core of the human soul that transcends entertainment without a shred of pretension.
The roots of Berg's opera stretch back a century before its creation to 1824, when Johann Christian Woyzeck, a sometime soldier, barber, drifter and all-around loser, was publicly beheaded for murder, despite a then-novel defense of insanity stemming from the oppressive turns of his failed life. The troubling issues of the case gripped Georg Buchner, a young physician, political radical and budding playright, who died of typhoid in 1837 at age 23, leaving unfinished a gritty play envisaging the social pressures Woyzeck had faced. Four decades later, 27 scenes were found, some of only a few lines, but the faded ink, scrawled handwriting and disparities among several fragmentary manuscript drafts posed daunting challenges. In 1914, Berg saw a realization in Vienna and was captivated. Over the next three years, he tightened Buchner's material into three acts of five scenes to be joined by orchestral interludes, in another three composed the music and took a final year for the orchestration.
An antidote to the sprawling romanticism, glamour and spectacle of grand opera, Berg's bold structure and spare sound stress precision and economy. Even so, there's nothing refined about the story itself; indeed, it's perhaps the rawest of any opera. The first act presents Wozzeck in relation to the four other major characters – a cruel Captain who ridicules his poverty and humility; fellow soldier Andres who tries to soothe his terrifying apocalyptic visions; Marie, who has borne his child out of wedlock and whom he is struggling to support; and a perverse doctor obsessed with dietary theories who pays Wozzeck to eat nothing but beans. As with each act, the first ends with a brief scene that twists the emotions tighter – here, Marie is enthralled by a preening drum-major passing by her home and grabs him for a quick fling.
Act Two traces the path to murder – Marie arouses Wozzeck's suspicions; the Captain and doctor tease him; and, as the final insult, the drunken drum-major barges into Wozzeck's barracks, boasts of seducing Marie and beats him up. The final act presents Marie's remorse as she reads the Bible with her child; her murder by a forest pond; Wozzeck's suspicious behavior in a tavern; and his own drowning when he attempts to retrieve the knife. There follows a magnificent orchestral postlude which weaves the opera's strands into a heartrending elegy, not only for Wozzeck but, by inference, for all victims of societal cruelty throughout the ages. As the music subsides in a bitter mixture of tribute and regret all is seemingly over, with plot, characters and themes brought to their natural end.
But then, in a hugely inspired touch, there's a brief final scene of sparse spoken dialogue that's truly devastating in its emotional impact. Nearly every other opera ends with the social/moral order restored and the promise of a better future – evil is punished, virtue rewarded, lovers united, riches bestowed, passions regretted, valuable lessons learned. But not here. The curtains part once again to find Marie's toddler playing on his rocking horse outside her house. Three children run on stage. One flatly tells him, “Your mother is dead,” but he doesn't understand and keeps rocking. Another child says that the body is on the path by the pond. The others go to look. Marie's child continues to rock a few moments. Then he, too, runs off to join the excitement. And so the opera ends with this bleak, callous and downright vicious comment on the human condition, drained of even a glimmer of redemption.
To present and magnify the force of such powerful material, Berg reached well beyond traditional operatic method. The musical language is expressionist and mostly atonal. Without the burdens of melodic development and harmonic progression, or the disruption of pausing for arias, ensembles and other typical means of displaying performers and gratifying audiences, the music is free to track the exact demands of the drama and enrich the text more subtly. In his poetic and probing study, Theodore Adorno declares that even the sheer texture constantly “crackles with hidden meaning.”
There are only a few genuine songs in the usual sense – drinking songs, lullabies – but, typical of Berg's outlook and intentions, they're mere fragments which arise naturally in the course of the drama. Thus, when Marie first sees the drum-major she bursts into a stirring melodic line (“Soldaten, Soldaten ...”) that in other hands would blossom into a magnificent aria, but here, having served its evocative purpose, is interrupted by an outburst from her friend Margaret after the first line and is never resumed.
Nearly all the text is presented in sprechstimme. This bizarre technique, introduced by Berg's mentor Arnold Schoenberg in his 1912 Pierrot Lunaire, inhabits a world between talk and song, with more emphatic cadence and pitch than speech but without the stylized tonal precision and metric regularity of singing. As a result, it reflects the realism of the story and characters, but with an overlay of fantasy and just enough stylization to raise the narrative from the commonplace into the realm of art.
The complex orchestration contains everything from a marching band to an out of tune piano. Indeed, the sheer atonal sound and odd instrumentation disturbs our sense of perspective and creates its own complex interplay of perceptions. As in other experimental art of the time – the skewed sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the rambling hypnotic syntax of James Joyce or the shattered planes of cubism – the forms distance us from ordinary experience yet coalesce with their own novel logic. By reordering the familiar into something both disturbing and compelling, Berg draws us in to a new world of discovery and wonder.
Yet, lest the opera seem an anarchistic path wholly blazed toward the future, it's also a deep homage to the traditions of the past. Beyond highly effective use of motifs and tone painting, the accompaniment to the prechstimme is the most rigidly organized and conservative of any opera, couching each scene in forms and materials that trace the history and methods of Western music. The opening comprises a baroque suite, complete with prelude, sarabande, gigue, gavotte and air and then proceeds through a rhapsody, military march, cradle song, passacaglia and andante. The second act evokes a five-movement symphony, beginning with a sonata and progressing through a largo, scherzo and rondo (with a fantasy and fugue somewhat incongruously tossed in). The third act focuses on musical technique – inventions on a theme, a note, a rhythm, a chord and a key. The wonder, though, is that at no time are we consciously aware of this underlying structure; rather, the composer intended that the accompaniment operate on two interrelated subconscious levels, providing a means of cohesion without reliance on tonality, and a loose symbolic commentary to advance our understanding of the characters, the situations and the overall concept.
Once perceived, the relationship between the music and drama can seem quite logical. Thus, the passacaglia (a repeated harmonic figure) of Act I, scene 4 conjures the doctor's all-consuming and unwavering fixation upon his scientific theory. Some connections are more subtle – Act I, Scene 2, in which Wozzeck is terrified by his own fantasies, is underlined by a rhapsody (a form of composition that encourages free invention). Other links seem rather obscure – the fugue supporting the Captain and doctor mocking Wozzeck in Act II, scene 2 interweaves and reinforces their contrasting attitudes into a forceful, albeit evil, unity that gains in its cruel effect upon their common victim. Yet other relationships are quite complex – Act III, Scene 2 (the invention on a note) begins with the note (B natural) flitting in and out of the accompaniment to suggest the idea of murder infecting Wozzeck's mind and culminates in two massive full orchestral climaxes on the same B, affirming the enormity and finality of the act he has just committed.
Fittingly, Berg reserves the most emotionally gripping musical touch for the chilling ending after Marie's child has run off, leaving the stage bare and empty. As if to intimate the close of the story, the orchestra offers a tentative repeated conventional cadence, but it's barely heard over the persistent perpetual rhythm which instead aptly suggests the eternal universe going on utterly unaffected by the petty human concerns of the plot.
No opera has been more thoroughly analyzed. Legions of scholars have studied the interrelationships of nearly every note. Like the proverbial onion, each layer they penetrate reveals yet more to invite exploration. Even with a score, much of it is tough to see and even harder to hear, yet fascinating. Thus, the passage at the moment of Marie's death looks and sounds like a random, dissonant jumble, but Derrick Puffett has shown how it consists of ten fragments of music heard in her earlier scenes – it's her life figuratively passing before her!
Upon its completion in 1921, Wozzeck attracted little more than academic curiosity, undoubtedly due not only to its novelty but its expense, requiring ten stage sets (most used only once), a full chorus (which sings only a few notes) and a huge orchestra (generally idle while chamber-sized offshoots play). In 1924, avant-garde enthusiast Hermann Scherchen arranged Marie's music, the elegy and final scene into a twenty-minute concert suite that garnered several successful performances. Yet, heard today with knowledge of the full work, the suite gives a distorted perception by isolating the accompaniment and depriving the ending of the weight of the preceding drama. The first full performance was given (after 137 rehearsals!) in December 1925 in Berlin by Erich Kleiber and battled controversy and censorship before achieving its current status as a masterpiece, albeit a highly unconventional one.
The first recording of Wozzeck was of a 1951 New York Philharmonic concert performance (that is, complete but in an auditorium without any staging) led by Dmitri Mitropoulos (now on Sony MH2K 62759). Despite a gaffe that nearly ruins the crucial rhythm of the ending, it remains a swift, vibrant, hugely powerful and altogether gripping rendition.
Subsequent stereo recordings of Wozzeck (most also of live performances) led by Abbado (DG 423587), Barenboim (Teldec 14108) and Dohnanyi (London 417348) are all fine, but sprawl this 90-minute work over two full-priced CDs. Bohm's rich studio set (DG 435705) adds a third disc and includes Berg's other opera, the incomplete Lulu. In a fascinating alternative by the Paris National Opera, Pierre Boulez, himself a celebrated futuristic composer, articulates the structure and differentiates the shadings of the sprechtstimme with a relentless precision that generates a veiled but pervasive terror. The LP set was enriched with Boulez's notes that provided not only a probing analysis but a compelling explanation of what the work meant to him.
The budget-conscious have two live recordings – a dynamic but sonically-challenged 1971 Vienna production also led by Bohm (Opera d'Oro 1257) and a gleamingly clear but restrained 2000 Stockholm Royal Opera performance (Naxos 660076-77). But both lack a libretto, an indispensable guide (unless you speak fluent German) to the meticulous craftsmanship, potent integrity and demanding wonders of Berg's astonishing multi-faceted triumph – transmuting the forces of opera to the service of profound reflection and insight.
Copyright 2003 by Peter Gutmann
For a note about the illustrations, please click here.
copyright © 1998-2014 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.