Angelika-Prokopp-Sommerakademie der Wiener Philharmoniker,Stage music
* Member of the Young Singers Project – Supported by the KÜHNE FOUNDATION
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
‘Man is an abyss – you feel giddy when you look into it’
It was 1917, precisely a hundred years ago. The world was at war. Alban Berg, in his mid-thirties, a composer and a soldier, took advantage of a long leave to get down to work on a project that had been nagging him for three years. In May 1914 he had seen the play by Georg Büchner that tells how a simple army batman, much put upon, suddenly explodes into violence. Here, he recognized right away, was the subject for an opera: Wozzeck.
His army experience in the interim can only have brought that subject closer and surely helped him reimagine the conditions of barracks life. The immediate, urgent prod, though, came directly from the play. Büchner’s quick lines exposed the rudiments of emotional life, the tendons of frustration, desperation, hopelessness and love. Short scenes, too, must have made the play look, on the page, like a readymade libretto. But what perhaps appealed to Berg most of all was the play’s portrayal of a society in which everyone is lost.
There is no God here, no hierarchy that is not senseless and brutally imposed, no settled agreement on the responsibilities people owe one another. In this play – and it is still astonishing that Büchner was writing in the 1830s – Berg saw the conditions of his own time (conditions that, we may feel, have not altered too much). Normality is over. Welcome to the real world.
Moreover, as a composer, Berg found here the waiting template for the kind of music he and his teacher Arnold Schoenberg had arrived at only a few years before. Tonality, too, is over. Or, rather, it is all too present, as a force that can longer exert itself, a paradise all in the past. Freed from its power, its order, melodies can seethe in all kinds of directions, harmonies shake us by their ignorance and waywardness.
Up to this point, the new atonality had seemed the language only for extreme situations: for, in the case of Schoenberg’s one-woman opera Erwartung, the search a woman makes by night for a missing lover, who may have left her, may be dead, may have been killed by her. Nothing is certain, except her erratic distress.
In Wozzeck, on the other hand, the action is quite straightforward. We are faced with one of the oldest devices known to drama, a love triangle – except that the sides fail to meet. The priapic Drum Major is thoroughly self-absorbed; Marie is helpless in her attraction to him; and the real love in the piece, between Marie and Wozzeck, seems largely a thing of the past. Marie goes on trying to restore their connection, but Wozzeck is unreachable in his state of despair, brought on by the disparagement meted out to him and, more, by his inner sense of meaninglessness. All he can do is lash out.
Around this kernel Berg built a classic three-part form. The first act establishes the central relationships – or non-relationships – and ends with Marie’s succumbing to the irresistible. The second builds from the arousal of Wozzeck’s suspicions to their confirmation. The third is the triple catastrophe, for Marie, for Wozzeck and for their child. Everything is very clear. Everything is very untoward.
It took Berg five years to complete the score, and another three to get the work staged – in Berlin, in 1925, thanks to the driving enthusiasm of the conductor, Erich Kleiber. From there the opera went around the world, stifled by the Nazis, but careering on after the war. It has not finished yet.