What’s to love?’- Alban Berg’s Wozzeck and the latent lyricism of the Second Viennese School

Posted on Posted in Opera articles, Uncategorized



Even now, so many decades after the composers of the Second Viennese School were active, the music of Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and his pupils Alban Berg (1885-1935), the creator of Wozzeck, and Anton von Webern (1883-1945) is difficult for many audiences to understand and not strikingly popular. The Twelve-Tone Technique which Schoenberg invented in 1921 to corral the possibilities of the early 20th century’s increasingly all-pervasive Atonality did not ensure the supremacy of German music for the next 100 years as Schoenberg predicted, nor do postmen whistle Webern’s tunes as easily as Webern once prophesised (if, in fact, at all). Now that a considerable period of time has passed however, it seems that Atonality and 12-Tone Technique (which I tend to bundle together because one led to the other) are merely two among many weapons in a contemporary composer’s arsenal. No-one baulks at atonal passages in a film score by John Williams, for example.

But there are certain uncompromisingly Atonal and 12-Tone works of the first half of the 20th century which have gained a foothold in the repertoire. A performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire or Erwartung is always an event. His Survivor from Warsaw is an effective concert piece, not least because of its compelling message. Over the years Webern’s aphoristic Five Pieces for Orchestra has acquired a patina of intrigue and charm, and Berg’s Violin Concerto ‘To the Memory of an Angel’ is an emotionally-wrenching experience in which the soloist enlists an audience’s sympathy with his/her eloquence against the grain of 12-Tone Techniques’ eschewal of traditional melody. Wozzeck is another of the works which has gained a respectful following. Introducing the work to a Royal Opera House audience in 2013, conductor Sir Mark Elder conceded, ‘it’s a difficult listen but it’s a very powerful experience’.  

In many ways these works are emblematic of the time and place in which they were born – the economically- and politically-stressed Austria and Germany around the First World War. And audiences are not wrong in detecting a certain nightmarish quality in this music. That accounts for some of their difficulty. But many audiences also miss the tonal harmony familiar from most works of the classic-romantic repertory: ‘Where are the tunes?’

If you consider the story of Wozzeck, there probably shouldn’t be any. What is this 1925 opera about? A brilliant adaptation by Alban Berg of an 1836-37 play by Georg Büchner, Wozzeck tells of a poor, overly-sensitive, almost ‘psychotic’ soldier, harassed by people and events in his life until driven to murder his wife and drown himself, leaving their child an orphan. You might expect that this story should be told in terms at least as anguished as the late music of Mahler (the work is dedicated to Alma Mahler, Gustav’s widow). But even conceding that point, many audience-members have difficulty appreciating why Wozzeck goes so much further. I remember overhearing a well-known singer, outside a screening of the Joachim Hess/Rolf Liebermann 1972 film, complaining to friends: ‘But why does it have to sound so ugly?’ Actually, after a while, I don’t think it does. But it would be true to say that audiences have to work harder at appreciating Wozzeck’s attractions.

It is easier to understand the historical reasons why this music sounds the way it does. Berg’s teacher Schoenberg felt he had no choice but to build on the intense High-Romantic emotionality of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. How? By continuing in the direction Wagner had been going, raising the level of harmonic dissonance. (Note, dissonant does not necessarily mean ugly. In traditional tonal harmony, it means something like ‘unable to conclude’. Wagner’s level of dissonance was appropriate to Tristan, an 1865 opera about unquenchable longing. A contemporary critic of Schoenberg’s 1899 Transfigured Night said it sounded as if the score of Tristan had been smeared while still wet.) Schoenberg’s great insight, however, was to realise that at a certain point it becomes trite to return to consonance. Once the music has stayed ‘up in the air’ for too great a length of time it seems redundant to bring it to ground. Schoenberg’s refusal to return to a tonic in later works has been hailed as ‘the emancipation of the dissonance’. From this point on, there was no compulsion to home in. The ‘saturation of chromatic space’ (critic Charles Rosen uses this term) was the new normal, and since chromaticism was the means of heightening emotion in music of the classic-romantic era, Atonal music, like the Wozzeck of Schoenberg’s protégé, Berg, sounds incredibly intense.

Schoenberg then solved the perceived threat of chromatic anarchy with his invention of Twelve-Tone Technique, whereby a fixed ordering of the 12 notes became the source of all material in the music – melodic and harmonic – a technical solution that suits composers better than most audiences-members who have difficulty recognising underlying 12-tone patterns unless they are distinguishable as motifs. In the music of Berg, the conservative member of the Schoenberg-Webern-Berg trinity, motifs are often more easily distinguishable.

One difficulty for audiences caused by the diffusion of harmony in the Second Viennese School is the unhinging of the vocal line from the orchestral accompaniment in Wozzeck. In this opera the singing ranges from angular melody to rhythmical declamation (‘[t]he foreword to Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” should be consulted’ says Wozzeck’s orchestral score), to ordinary speech bearing tangential relationship to what’s going on in the orchestra. At moments, it’s like watching a ‘talkie’ which contains very opinionated soundtrack.

But there is latent lyricism in the music of the Second Viennese School. In his essay Arnold Schoenberg: Back from the Dead, Adelaide academic James Koehne mentions conductors such as Karajan making Schoenberg (and we could assume Berg) sound like extended  Brahms or  extended  Wagner.  It’s also possible to hear implied resolutions in this music if you slow it down to speeds that are more comprehensible to less mercurial intellects than those possessed by Schoenberg and his ‘school’. And after meeting Schoenberg’s son, Ronald, and daughter-in-law, Barbara, in Los Angeles in 2013, I realised how much his school was holding onto Western Civilization at a time when the Nazis threatened. I could hear Schoenberg’s Kammersymphonie No.1 in exactly the light Koehne mentions above. All of which is a more interesting focus than listening for examples of quartal harmony as I’d been taught at university.

The other great upshot of ‘emancipating the dissonance’ was liberation of the orchestra itself. As soon as an instrumental body no longer had to underline the hierarchies of traditional harmony, it was free to become kaleidoscopic. There are so many beautiful orchestral moments in this opera. Wozzeck sings ‘The Lord spake: Suffer the children to come to me’ to a marvellously hollow-sounding five-part harmony in horns and tuba. After Marie has sung her Act 1 scene iii lullaby (a beautiful melody, by the way) she sinks deep into thought. The celeste and harp create a magical atmosphere as muted horns sound ‘as if from afar’. Moreover, listen to the tone-pictures conjuring Act 1 Scene ii’s ‘field in the late afternoon’, or the drifting fog of the lagoon in Act 3 sc iv, or the flicking between textures at the beginning of Act 3 sc iv as Wozzeck goes back to the lagoon to look for the murder weapon. Not kaleidoscopic perhaps but certainly proof of Berg’s lyricism, note the beautiful horn melody (‘dolce’) to Marie’s prescient declaimed lines: ‘And once there was a poor wee child and he had no father nor any mother’ in Act 3.

Berg’s Wozzeck is an Atonal, rather than 12-tone, work and one of the great advantages that that holds for an audience is the relatively easy recognisability of key themes. Once noted, these will place an audience-member in a good position to appreciate the musical development of the work. Early on, the Captain upbraids Wozzeck for fathering an illegitimate child. ‘Wir arme Leut’ (‘We poor folk…’) replies Wozzeck claiming that he doesn’t have the luxury of better morals, and introducing a phrase worth listening out for; one that will gain greater and greater significance.

Admittedly, Berg was the most conservative of the three Second Viennese composers and his music is full of attempts to relate to the classical tonal-harmonic tradition, as if a more serene reality lies somewhere behind the nightmare surface of the world in which Wozzeck finds himself. It might be thought that a similar conservatism underlies the fact that each of Wozzeck’s 15 scenes is in a distinct musical form, as for example, Act I: a suite; rhapsody; military march and lullaby; passacaglia, and rondo, Act II: a five-movement symphony, Act III: ‘inventions’ on theme, note, rhythm, a six-note chord and regular quaver movement. But the reason why each of Wozzeck’s scenes is based on a traditional musical form (even those found exclusively in instrumental music) has less to do with harking back to tradition than concentrating musical expression. As Berg himself stated in a program note for the Neue Musik-Zeitung three years after Wozzeck’s premiere those traditional shapes couldn’t help but present themselves. In aiming to ‘render to the theatre what is the theatre’s, and…to shape the music in such a way that it is aware in every moment of its duty to serve the drama’, Berg had nevertheless to find a way to make sure the music did not collapse into a same-y underscore. Distinct forms arose as a means of providing every section of the music with an unmistakeable and well-rounded profile. But – Berg warned – the audience must not notice ‘anything else except the idea of the opera…’

Wozzeck is leavened by dark humour, such as the snoring chorus (inspired apparently by Berg’s experiences sleeping in barracks during the First World War). But perhaps the biggest reason why Wozzeck is among those works of the Second Viennese School that sustains an audience is the way it keeps its audience on an emotional journey. Musicologists make a big deal about those traditional forms mentioned above, as if an audience watching this harrowing tragedy might be pacified to know they’re listening to some sort of ‘symphony’ or ‘rondo’. But it’s really Wozzeck’s emotional trajectory that pulls in an audience. Perhaps a listener’s attention would be better directed to the short interludes between the scenes, where Berg provides pointers to Wozzeck’s downward spiral. Some of the interludes develop the material in a purely musical manner. For example, the interlude between Act 1 scenes i and ii reviews material of the preceding scene (‘the suite’) and builds to a loud climax – you’ll hear the ‘Wir arme Leut’ motif prominently. In the interlude between Act 1 scenes iv and v, says Andrew Clements in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians ‘fragments of the passacaglia are gradually replaced by music associated with the following scene.’ If you note this interlude you will hear material which becomes prominent in the work’s famous final interlude. The interlude between Act 2 scenes iii and iv moulds the music gradually into the macabre ländler style that ‘graces’ Act 2 scene iv. The ländler’s grotesque incarnation between scenes iv and v is abruptly cut off by the scene of snoring soldiers in the barracks (you could call it a ‘jump cut’ and that would account for its modernity). Other interludes provide scenic transformation (the interlude between Act 1 scenes ii and iii gradually dispelling ‘the atmosphere of menace with the first stirrings of the military band’ (Clements again)) or focus on a character (actually it’s usually Marie). The interlude between Act 1 scenes iii and iv begins with a depiction of Marie’s agitation after Wozzeck has relayed to her the fears he experienced out in the field. The interlude between Act 3 scenes i and ii continue her ‘prayer for mercy’, while the interlude between scenes ii and iii force us to ‘look’ at her murder but moves us musically from concentration on a single note (the second scene’s ‘invention’) to a beating out of the opera’s signature rhythm (‘Hauptrhythmus’) just as Wozzeck flees to the tavern where the villagers, oblivious to the grisly events that have just taken place by the lagoon, are dancing a polka. Finally, at the end of scene iv, after blood has been seen on Wozzeck’s hand, he rushes back to the water’s edge to retrieve the knife with which he killed Marie and wades in and drowns. At that point everything that the music has prepared us for builds to a massive climax, the longest interlude. The ‘Wir arme Leut’ motif pounds migraine-like toward an explosive release – a big Aristotleian catharsis written into the score. Wozzeck’s greatest structural achievement is the creation of an overall expressive arc that culminates so effectively.

One night in 1952, the composer Igor Stravinsky had dinner with the novelist Albert Camus (author of The Outsider, another great artistic examination of alienation) and contended that this final interlude was a ‘mistake. “Until this point the composer stays behind his construction”, Robert Craft reports Stravinsky as saying in Chronicle of a Friendship, ‘“but here he comes up front and tells us exactly how we should feel…as if there had been any doubt  about how anyone felt.”’ But the audience may need exactly that validation of their feeling. Stravinsky’s solution: that Berg should have ended with the Doctor’s ‘jetzt ganz still’ (now very quiet) or the Captain’s ‘Kommen Sie schnell’ (Come away, Doctor, come away quickly) would hardly reward an audience which has sat through such an unremittingly bleak spectacle. And let’s face it. The end of the opera itself is a kick in the guts as the village children tell Wozzeck’s and Marie’s little son that his mother is dead and leave him playing by himself as they run off to see her body. ‘Hopp, hopp!, hopp, hopp!’, sings the boy innocently until wandering off, curious, after the other children with the music just… oscillating… into silence… It was Berg’s masterstroke to understand that the big ‘D minor’ interlude between scenes iv and v was what his audience needed at that penultimate point.

In some ways, the musicians of the Second Viennese School left audiences behind with their more adventurous music. They were too excited by the new possibilities in musical language and a sense of obligation to their craft to stop and consider if their audience could keep up. But Berg was the consolidator among the three. And his reward was possibly to create one of the few Second Viennese School works which an audience-member can grow to love.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2018

Gordon Williams is an Australian-born librettist, based in Los Angeles. This article was originally published in a program booklet associated with Opera Australia’s January 2019 performances of William Kentridge’s production.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *