February 15

Alban Berg’s Reflections onWozzeck

Emil Stumpp, Porträt des Musikers Alban Berg, Deutsches Historisches Museum (1927), above left
B. F. Dolbin, Alban Berg (1935), Modern Music, Vol. 8 No. 3 (March-April 1936): [31], above right


This week, we celebrate the influential Austrian composer, Alban Berg, born 9 February 1885. A longtime student of Arnold Schoenberg, Berg’s compositional style blended modernist twelve-tone and serial techniques—hallmark characteristics of the so-called Second Viennese School—with late 19th-century Romanticism. His first major success was the 1925 opera, Wozzeck, derived from an unfinished play by German dramatist Georg Büchner, which told the story of an impoverished soldier’s descent into madness and murder. To commemorate Berg’s birth, we present several reflections on Wozzeck written by the composer himself—translated and published in an issue [Vol. 5 No. 1 (Nov. – Dec. 1927): 22-24.] of the journal Modern Music—accompanied by video excerpts of several memorable scenes from Act III of a 1987 production by the Vienna State Opera, the late Claudio Abbado conducting.


I wanted to compose good music; to develop musically the contents of Buechner’s immortal drama; to translate his poetic language into music; but other than that, when I decided to write an opera, my only intention, as related to the technique of composition, was to give the theatre what belongs to the theatre.

Berg’s commitment to writing music in service of the opera’s action is reflected in the so-called “drowning music” of Act III Scene IV.  Having returned to the pond where he killed his wife Marie, Wozzeck fears that his murder weapon will be discovered, and soon after, drowns.  Though Wozzeck is no longer visible to the audience, Berg’s use of overlapping ascending chromatic patterns of increasing duration signifies Wozzeck’s continued subjective experience of rising water and gradual loss of consciousness.

Act III Scene IV (Invention on a Six-Note Chord)


I obeyed the necessity of giving each scene and each accompanying piece of entr’acte music, whether prelude, postlude, connecting link or interlude, an unmistakable aspect, a rounded off and finished character.  It was therefore imperative to use everything warranted to create individualizing characteristics on the one hand, and coherence on the other; thus the much discussed utilization of old and new musical forms and their application in an absolute music.

Rather than adopting more traditional operatic forms in Wozzeck, Berg designed each scene and interlude using instrumental, or “absolute”, forms (fantasia and fugue, suite, passacaglia, invention, etc.).  While predominantly atonal, the interlude that follows Wozzeck’s drowning is closely tied to D minor, a Romantic afterword to the tragic character’s demise, and further evidence of Berg’s desire to “use everything warranted” to create his opera.

Interlude (Invention on a Key [D minor])


No matter how cognizant any particular individual may be of the musical forms contained in the framework of this opera, of the precision and logic with which everything is worked out and the skill manifested in every detail, from the moment the curtain parts until it closes for the last time, there is no one in the audience who pays any attention to the various fugues, inventions, suites, sonata movements, variations and passacaglias…
no one who heeds anything but the social problems of this opera which by far transcend the personal destiny of Wozzeck.  This I believe to be my achievement.

Berg’s unflinching depiction of poverty, militarism, and sadism in Wozzeck–no doubt inspired by the composer’s own military service during World War I–is of paramount importance.  Perhaps the most chilling scene is the opera’s last; a group of children are told Marie’s body has been discovered and hurry to the scene, while Marie and Wozzeck’s little boy continues to play, before joining the others.

Act III Scene V (Invention on an Eighth-Note Moto Perpetuo)


RIPM search tip: To read more about Wozzeck in the musical press, search “Wozzeck” as a keyword in RIPM’s Retrospective Index and Preservation Series: European and North American Music Periodicals.

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Posted February 15, 2018 by John Ehrenburg in category "Curios and Chronicles