For fans of lurid operatic drama, Wozzeck (1914–1922) is one of the greatest stage works of the 20th century. Students of music cannot help but encounter it, since it is one of the most cleverly structured works in the canon. It compiles the musical styles of the present and the past, from simple choral writing to grotesque speech singing, chromatic jabbering, classical forms, and fragments of ragtime.
The plot of this mélange seems to take place in a nightmare. The main character at one point tells us that the Earth is like a skull; it is an important clue that tells us that the drama unfolds inside the mind of someone who is trapped in a world run amok. Based on a play by Georg Büchner that was in turn based on a true tale, Wozzeck concerns a despised, destitute ex-soldier, a barber and wigmaker by trade who stabs to death his unfaithful mistress. At his trial, the defense pleads madness and an expert is appointed to investigate his psychotic break. He is declared sane, however, and executed. Those are the events of the play, which Berg at once condensed and embellished, depicting the medical experiments to which Wozzeck is subject in black comic details, and changing the ending from an execution to a suicide. After the abused anti-hero murders his mistress (an event precipitated by a beating he receives from his mistress’s new lover), Wozzeck drowns himself beneath a blood-red moon. The orchestral interlude that follows is apocalyptic.
Act I, which is the exposition of the drama, comprises five character pieces, a suite, a rhapsody, a march and lullaby, a passacaglia, and a rondo. We know these and other details of the score not from music theorists, but because Berg helpfully wrote an essay describing the structure of the opera and the challenges he faced in sustaining a drama with non-tonal music. Each section is associated with specific characters in the opera, offering a sense of their relationship to Wozzeck while also revealing something of their mental state. The repeated bass line that characterizes a passacaglia, for example, is perfect for representing obsessive compulsion. Act 2 mimics the structure of a five-movement symphony, and here Wozzeck’s plight is exposed in all of its horribleness. Act 3 offers five “inventions” based on a single musical device: a theme, a single pitch, a rhythm, a chord, a key, and a pitch length. Perhaps the final scene is most gruesome of all. Wozzeck’s son is on a rocking horse, mechanically shifting his weight back and forth as he absorbs the news that both his father and mother are dead. The music at the start of the scene derives, obscenely, from “Ring Around the Rosie.” It grinds to a halt on a rocking tritone, modernism’s favorite dissonant interval, but also an emblem of the demonic.
Berg wrote of Wozzeck the man: “There is a bit of me in this character, since 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 strict structures of his music seek out a solution to the challenge of organizing post-tonal music, but they also issue a call for order in a war-torn world seemingly gone mad.
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Alban Berg (1885–1935) came from a wealthy Austrian background and only began to teach for a living after World War I. Despite composing for 30 years, he produced only about 10 major works. He began to study with Arnold Schoenberg in 1904, and his compositions up to 1910 were written while his student. Berg, Anton Webern and their teacher Arnold Schoenberg were together known as the Second Viennese School—the heirs to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Despite his admiration for Schoenberg, however, Berg differed from him in important ways.