Skip to content
Updated health and safety protocols for Symphony Hall, effective May 11
BSO, Pops, Tanglewood, and Symphony Hall Logos
Work

Wozzeck

One of the most important operas of the 20th century, Wozzeck is based on a startlingly modern play by Georg Büchner (1813-1837) about an uneducated soldier whose confrontations with society lead to madness and tragedy.

Quick Facts

  • Composer’s life: Born in Vienna on February 9, 1885; died there on December 23, 1935
  • Years composed: 1914-1922
  • First performance: The first performance of the full opera took place December 14, 1925, in a production by the Berlin Staatsoper, Erich Kleiber conducting. Leo Schützendorf sang the title role and Sigrid Johanson that of Marie
  • First BSO performance: Concert performances of April 17, 18, and 21, 1987, Seiji Ozawa conducting; Benjamin Luxon sang the baritone role of Wozzeck and Hildegard Behrens the soprano role of Marie
  • Approximate duration: 95 minutes in 3 acts (15 scenes)

Scoring

Main orchestra: 4 flutes (all 4 doubling piccolos), 4 oboes (4th doubling English horn), 4 clarinets in B-flat (1st clarinet in A, 3rd and 4th doubling E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets in F, 4 trombones (alto, two tenors, bass), contrabass tuba, timpani, percussion (xylophone, triangle, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, large tam-tam, small tam-tam, several snare drums, rute (birch twigs), bass drum with cymbal), harp, celesta, strings

Military band (Act I, scene 3): piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 E-flat clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets (in F), 3 trombones, 1 contrabass tuba, triangle, snare drum, bass drum with rute

Chamber orchestra (Act II, scene 3): flute (doubling piccolo), oboe, English horn, E-flat clarinet, A clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, 2 horns in F, 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass

Dance band (Act II, scene 4): 2 fiddles, accordion, guitar

Upright bar piano (Act III, scene 4)

A synopsis of the opera's plot is included below the program essay.

Wozzeck opens with a shaving scene: “Slower, Wozzeck, slower!” the Captain beseeches the soldier Wozzeck, going on to moralize and ridicule his underling, whose laconic “Jawohl, Here Hauptmann,” draws a sharp line between the character’s personalities. The trajectory of the scene prefigures the opera’s variety and richness, with the composer’s transparent, ironic music initially mirroring the shaving scene’s prosaic absurdity. The tenor’s slightly ridiculous lyricism becomes the baritone Wozzeck’s wondering emotion as he sings of his out-of-wedlock child and of his poverty.

The Captain is played as confident and self-important, a tenor whose blithe worldview is shaken only by the clinical sadism of the Doctor. In their successful navigation of their world, they stand in stark contrast to the hapless, bewildered Wozzeck, the uneducated but dangerously introspective soldier at the mercy of his circumstances. Likewise, the humor of the Captain’s and Doctor’s scenes works in tandem with episodes of deep pathos and chilling horror to evoke the rich realism of life itself, a realism too often missing from this axiomatically melodramatic genre. This is true verismo opera, opera that delves into the reality of what it means to be human.

Alban Berg crafted his own libretto for the opera from the collection of scenes that make up Georg Büchner’s unfinished drama Woyzeck. Born in 1813 in Goddelau, Germany, near Frankfurt, Georg Büchner was a medical student with strong political views whose small literary output—he died of typhus at age 23—included a novella about the schizophrenic poet Jakob Lenz and a play about the guillotined French revolutionary Georges Danton. As a scientist, he wrote a brilliant paper on the nervous system of a species of Rhine River fish; this earned him a doctorate and a post on the scientific faculty of the University of Zürich. He wrote Woyzeck (Berg’s spelling of the name is due to an error in an early printing of the play) in 1836, basing it on a real case of an ex-soldier who was executed in Leipzig for killing his wife. Büchner’s scientific training, as well as his experience writing of the mental disturbances of Jakob Lenz, led him to create authentic symptoms of madness in the character of the soldier whose fatal instability is brought to crisis by outside forces.

The subtle humanity with which the playwright invests his antihero and his fate is Shakespearean, but the play’s episodic, fragmentary presentation of its brief, sharply etched scenes is modern. Though we don’t know how Büchner would have revised the play had he lived, the effectiveness of its terse language and structure in the surviving sketches is undeniable. Alban Berg was deeply excited by a production of the play he attended in May 1914, and although he was still working on his Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6, he simultaneously began sketching the opera. The process was disrupted by World War I and other events, though in the end the composer’s brief experience in the Austrian army enabled a closer connection to the world of his main character, notable in the proximity of casual violence and class divisions, and, on a sonic level, the “snoring chorus” of soldiers in Act II, scene 5. Such notions would otherwise have been largely abstract to Berg, an upper-middle-class product of the outwardly opulent Viennese Belle Époque.

That Wozzeck was written at all, and that it would become one of the most celebrated operas of the 20th century, is remarkable. Berg was no precocious musical genius, but, having had the piano lessons usual for children of the Bergs’ social level, he began composing, mostly songs, in his mid-teens. His formal advanced musical training began, surprisingly enough, at age 19 with Arnold Schoenberg. The works dating from his apprenticeship include his Seven Early Songs, his Opus 1 Piano Sonata, and the String Quartet, Opus 3, all of which demonstrate an exploratory, chromatic approach to melody and harmony. The first work Berg attempted without Schoenberg’s guidance was his set of five Altenberg Lieder for voice and orchestra (1911-12), which features highly colorful orchestration and luxurious, expressive vocal lines that foreshadow much of Wozzeck.

The premiere of the Altenberg Songs was a disaster, culminating in an audience revolt. In addition, they were rejected by Berg’s mentor Schoenberg, who seemed to think Berg was experimenting for experiment’s sake. Berg’s response was to write the comparatively massive Three Pieces for Orchestra, a kind of elegy for the Romantic era that he dedicated to Schoenberg. Some eight years passed before that score’s Prelude and Reigen were premiered under Anton Webern’s direction in Berlin. That performance was witnessed by the conductor Erich Kleiber, newly appointed director of Berlin’s Staatsoper, to whom Berg had already presented a piano reduction of the score to Wozzeck. Kleiber, anxious to promote the Schoenberg camp of new music in the face of steep opposition, promised to stage the opera, even if it cost him his job. (It nearly did.)

Meanwhile Berg, at the conductor Hermann Scherchen’s urging, produced a small suite of Wozzeck scenes (Three Fragments from Wozzeck) for orchestra with soprano, the successful premiere of which created anticipation for the complete work. With Kleiber conducting, Leo Schützendorf in the title role, and Sigrid Johanson as Marie, Wozzeck premiered at the Berlin Staatsoper to critical acclaim on December 14, 1925, and ran for ten performances. In spite of the score’s difficulties, the production had come together without undue rehearsal time. The opera was soon taken up by other companies, arriving in the U.S. only six years later, where it was given by the Philadelphia Opera Company under Leopold Stokowski’s direction.

As strange and new as Berg’s music was to its first hearers, its essential aptness to the subject matter remains its greatest strength. Much has been made of Berg’s use of a variety of formal approaches in the fifteen scenes of the opera (see synopsis), but these ideas were hardly new to Berg. The intricate network of Leitmotifs—small musical gestures associated with specific ideas or characters—derived from Wagner, while instrumental genres such as sonata form and multi-movement symphonic arcs can be found in the operas of Mozart or Verdi. Berg went further, concluding that each of his short, self-contained scenes determined its own form, e.g., Baroque suite for the opening scene, Passacaglia (variations over a repeated chord progression) for Act I, scene 4, five movements of a “symphony” for Act II, the six varied inventions of Act III.

Within these abstract forms, and reflecting Büchner’s play, Berg repeatedly mixes in vernacular music: Andres’s folk song in Act I, scene 2, and his song with guitar within the symphonic scherzo of Act II, scene 4; the piano polka and Wozzeck’s own song in the Act III bar scene; the “Tschin boom!” march music that ushers in the drum major in Act I. These moments, experienced and created by the characters themselves, emerge from and are absorbed back into the opera’s densely chromatic musical fabric seamlessly, offering the listener recognizable landmarks within a changing chromatic kaleidoscope.

Ultimately, Wozzeck’s nuance, architectural variety, and brilliantly imagined instrumental sonorities speak for themselves. The music is so completely aligned with the opera’s emotional content—the absurdist humor, infuriating condescension, bewildered violence, despair—and paints the characters so vividly that the listener is simply swept up in the opera’s universal and compassionate humanity, even in the face of the bleak horror of the murder and the hint of a tragic cycle beginning anew.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the BSO's Director of Program Publications.

Synopsis

[Berg’s own descriptions and designations are given in square brackets.]

Act I [Wozzeck in his relation to the world around him: Five Character Pieces]

Scene 1. [Baroque Suite] The Captain’s room. Wozzeck shaves the Captain, who ridicules him. A distracted Wozzeck sings of the poor being in thrall to economic circumstances.

Scene 2. [Rhapsody on three chords] Wozzeck and Andres cut sticks from the bushes. Wozzeck is beset by hallucinations. Perplexed, Andres sings folk songs to deflect Wozzeck’s manic mood.

Scene 3. [Military March and Lullaby] Marie’s room with a window on the street. The Drum Major passes by, saluting her, at the head of a band. Marie’s neighbor Margret snidely notes her interest in the dashing figure; Marie retorts, then sings a lullaby to the child. Wozzeck appears and briefly tells her of his visions before leaving.

Scene 4. [Passacaglia on a twelve-note theme] At the Doctor’s. The Doctor informs Wozzeck of the next stages in his experimental diet, becoming clinically excited as his subject recounts his hallucinations. The Doctor offers Wozzeck a raise of a penny for his newly strange behavior.

Scene 5. [Andante affettuoso, quasi Rondo] At Marie’s. Marie asks the Drum Major to march by her. After brief objections, she recognizes the futility of resisting his advances. She yields: “Oh well, it’s all the same to me.”

Act II [Dramatic Development: Symphony in five movements]

Scene 1. [Sonata-allegro movement] Marie’s room. Marie admires the earrings the Drum Major gave her. Wozzeck’s unexpected arrival stirs her guilt. Wozzeck laments their poverty while observing the sleeping child, gives Marie his pay, and leaves. Her guilt flares.

Scene 2. [Fantasy and Triple Fugue] A street in town. The Captain and the Doctor mock each other, the latter terrifying the Captain with a dire diagnosis. They turn their derision on Wozzeck as he hurries by, alluding to Marie’s dalliance with the Drum Major. Wozzeck reacts confusedly while the Doctor observes him closely.

Scene 3. [Largo for chamber orchestra] At Marie’s. Wozzeck confronts her with his awareness of her infidelity; she responds with contempt. “Rather a knife in me than touch me.” “Rather a knife?” he repeats bemusedly.

Scene 4. [Scherzo] A tavern, with people dancing. Two drunks sing a snatch of song. Marie and the Drum Major dancing together drive Wozzeck to distraction. The men strike up a song, Andres sings with a guitar and a drunken apprentice launches into a rant.

Scene 5. [Introduction and Rondo] The guard room. Chorus of snoring soldiers. Wozzeck can’t sleep. The boasting Drum Major enters and taunts Wozzeck, then beats him up.

Act III [Catastrophe and Epilogue: Six Inventions]

Scene 1. [Invention on a melody] Marie’s room. Marie seeks solace for her guilt in the Bible. Seeing the child exacerbates her angst. She wonders why Wozzeck hasn’t come by.

Scene 2. [Invention on a single pitch, B] A forest path by a pond at dusk. Wozzeck tells Marie to rest; she is restless to return to town. He kisses her earnestly as the moon rises. “How the moon rises red!” “If not me, no one!” He stabs her, then rushes away.

Scene 3. [Invention on a rhythm] A dive bar. A ragged piano accompanies dancers. Wozzeck sings a bar tune, dances with Margret, then suddenly stops. Margret sings a little song, then notices blood on Wozzeck’s hand. The apprentices amplify her questions. Wozzeck bolts out.

Scene 4. [Invention on a six-note chord] A forest path by a pond at night. Desperately seeking the knife, Wozzeck stumbles on Marie’s body. He finds the knife and throws it into the pond, but retrieves it to throw it further out. He decides he must wash himself clean, and wades into the pond until he drowns. The Doctor and the Captain pass by.

Orchestral Interlude [Invention on a key, D minor]

Scene 5. [Invention on a steady eighth-note rhythm] The street by Marie’s. Children at play. One tells the others of the murdered woman, and all but Marie’s child rushes off to look. He continues playing obliviously.