Major Operas | Wozzeck by Alban Berg | Modern Era

Composed between 1917 and 1922 and first performed in Berlin on 14 December 1925, this work features Berg’s own libretto, based on the Georg Büchner play Woyzeck. Written a century earlier, the play recounts the true story of a soldier, barber and drifter who is executed for murder.

Büchner may have read about Johann Christian Woyzeck as a case history in one of his father’s medical journals. Suffering from paranoia and hallucinations, Woyzeck sought a pardon based on his mental condition, and the case’s notoriety thus stemmed from his plea of diminished responsibility, or the ‘insanity defence’.

Under the banner of ‘wir arme leut’ (‘we poor folk’), Berg symbolically raises Wozzeck as a universal figure, creating a work that is one of the high points of German Expressionism. Berg creates three acts, each with five fast-paced scenes, each with its own musical form and linked by orchestral interludes, featuring wonderfully effective and meticulously notated use of Sprechgesang (‘speech-singing’). Much of Berg’s structural and thematic organization is not apparent unless studying the score, thus making the operations of these devices and techniques subliminal. However, the spoken score traverses numerous musical styles, from tonal to atonal, Sprechgesang to song, and from cabaret to dissonant counterpoint.

Composed: 1917–22
Premiered: 1925, Berlin
Libretto by the composer, after Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck

Act I

Wozzeck, an orderly, is shaving the captain, who tells him to slow down. What is he going to do with the rest of his life? Tired of Wozzeck’s replies of ‘Yes, sir’, the captain calls him dim and worthy, but he has no morality. He also has a child ‘not blessed by the Church’. Wozzeck replies that God will not spurn the mite because of that. Poor people cannot afford to have morals. The captain says that Wozzeck thinks too much.

Wozzeck and Andres are cutting sticks in the fields. Andres sings a hunting song, but Wozzeck senses the place is cursed. The sun sets with a final blaze of colour. Marie and her child are standing at her window watching a parade. Her neighbour Margret suggestively comments on the drum major’s interest in Marie. She slams the window shut and sings a lullaby, rocking the child asleep. Wozzeck briefly returns, still deep in gloomy thoughts, and pays little attention to their child. Marie declares that this cannot continue.

The doctor has been supplementing Wozzeck’s army pay with a few coins from medical experiments, including living on a diet of just beans for three months. He is angry that Wozzeck has not been following orders. Wozzeck asks if there is anything to hang on to when everything is dark. The doctor boasts that his research will make him immortal provided Wozzeck follows instructions. The drum major is puffing himself out to impress Marie. She resists, but then succumbs, saying ‘What does it matter?’

Act II

Marie is admiring her new earrings from the drum major. Her child is frightened. She tells Wozzeck she found them, but...

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