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Encyclopedia > Wozzeck

Wozzeck is the first opera by the Austrian composer Alban Berg (1885-1935). It was composed between 1914 and 1922 and first performed in 1925. Since then it has established a solid place for itself in the mainstream operatic tradition, and modern productions are consistently sold out. Though its musical style is challenging, the quality of Berg's work (in particular, the characterization of the situation through clearly defined musical techniques) amply repays repeated listenings. Although a typical performance takes slightly over an hour and a half, it is nevertheless an intense experience. The subject matter – the inevitability of hardship and exploitation for the poor – is brutal and uncompromisingly presented. Though Berg's musical style is not as violent as some other composers might have written for this story, the style suits the subject matter. The Teatro alla Scala in Milan is one of the worlds most famous opera houses. ... Portrait of Alban Berg by Arnold Schoenberg, c. ...



Wozzeck is based on the drama Woyzeck left incomplete by the German playwright Georg Büchner at his death. Berg attended the first production in Vienna of Büchner's play (on 5th May, 1914), and knew at once that he wanted to base an opera on it. From the fragments of unordered scenes left by Büchner, Berg selected fifteen to form a compact structure of three acts with five scenes each. He adapted the libretto himself. Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzogs Woyzeck Woyzeck is a stage play written by Georg Büchner. ... Karl Georg Büchner (October 17, 1813 – February 19, 1837) was a German dramatist and writer of prose. ...

Though Berg began work on the opera in 1914, it was not until he was on leave from his regiment towards the end of World War I that he was able to devote his full attention to it, completing the opera in April 1922. Erich Kleiber conducted the world premiere at the Berlin State Opera on December 14, 1925. It quickly became so well established in the repertoire of the major European opera houses that Berg found himself able to live a comfortable life off the royalties. He spent a good deal of his time through the 1920s and 30s travelling to attend performances and to give talks about the opera. At Berg's death, his fellow pupil Anton Webern noted in a letter to their teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, how tragic it was that the most renowned of their trio was the first to die. That fame had come predominantly from the success of this opera. 1914 (MCMXIV) was a common year starting on Thursday. ... Combatants Allied Powers: France Italy Russia Serbia United Kingdom United States Central Powers: Austria-Hungary Bulgaria Germany Ottoman Empire Commanders Ferdinand Foch Georges Clemenceau Victor Emmanuel III Luigi Cadorna Nicholas II Aleksei Brusilov Herbert Henry Asquith Douglas Haig John Jellicoe Woodrow Wilson John Pershing Wilhelm II Paul von Hindenburg Reinhard... 1922 (MCMXXII) was a common year starting on Sunday (see link for calendar). ... Erich Kleiber (August 5, 1890 – January 27, 1956) was an Austrian-born conductor. ... Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 2003 Berlin State Opera (in German: Staatsoper Unter den Linden) is a prominent German opera company. ... December 14 is the 348th day of the year (349th in leap years) in the Gregorian Calendar. ... 1925 (MCMXXV) was a common year starting on Thursday (link will take you to calendar). ... Anton Webern (December 3, 1883 – September 15, 1945) was an Austrian composer. ... Arnold Schoenberg, Los Angeles, 1948 Schoenberg redirects here. ...

Musical Style

Wozzeck is one of the most famous examples of atonality (music which avoids establishing a key). Berg was following in the footsteps of his teacher by using free atonality to express emotions and even the thought processes of the characters on the stage. Not only was the expression of madness and alienation possible with atonal music, the themes of love and humanity and the striving of ordinary people for dignity in the face of abuse and brutality are marvellously portrayed in Berg's music. Such is Berg's skillful observation of real life that he is able to convey pictures of the ordinary (the scenes in a tavern - inside and outside Marie's room) or the mundane (the snoring soldiers in their barracks). For these sections he drew on the style of popular folksong, using its rhythmic and melodic patterns in combination with his own harmonic and structural innovations. Atonality describes music that does not conform to the system of tonal hierarchies, which characterizes the sound of classical European music between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. ... In music theory, the key identifies the tonic triad, the chord, major or minor, which represents the final point of rest for a piece, or the focal point of a section. ...

Though the music is atonal in the sense that it does not follow the techniques of the major/minor tonality system dominant in the West during the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods, the piece is written with other methods for controlling pitch to direct the harmonic flow. The tritonal pair B natural and F natural, for example, represents Wozzeck and Marie, permanently in a struggle with one another. The combination of B flat and D flat represents the link between Marie and the child. In this way the opera continually returns to certain pitches to mark out key moments in the plot. This is not the same as a key center, but over time the repetition of these pitches establishes continuity and structure.


Berg uses a variety of musical techniques to create unity and coherence in the opera. The first is the use of leitmotif. As with most composers who have used this method, each leitmotif is used in a much more subtle manner than being directly attached to a character or object. Even so, motifs for the Captain, the Doctor and the Drum Major are very prominent. Wozzeck is clearly associated with two motifs, one often heard as he rushes on or off stage, the other more languidly expresses his misery and helplessness in the face of the pressures he experiences. Marie is accompanied by motifs that express her sensuality, as when she accepts a pair of earrings from the Drum major (an act that indicates that her submission to the 'rape' at the end of act 1 was not so reluctant). A motif that is not explicitly linked with a physical object would be the pair of chords that are used to close each of the three acts, used in an oscillating repetition until they almost blur into one another. A leitmotif (also spelled leitmotiv) is a recurring musical theme, associated within a particular piece of music with a particular person, place or idea. ...

The most significant motif is first heard sung by Wozzeck himself (in the first scene with the Captain), to the words 'Wir arme Leut' (poor folk like us). Tracing out a minor chord with added sharpened seventh, it is frequently heard as the signal of the inability of the opera's characters to transcend their situation.

Beyond this, Berg also reuses motifs from set pieces heard earlier in the opera to give us an insight into the character's thoughts. The reappearance of military band music, for example, informs the audience that Marie is musing on the Drum major's physical desirability.

Classic Forms

Berg decided against the use of the classic operatic forms such as aria or trio for this opera. Instead, each scene is given its own inner coherence by the use of forms more normally associated with abstract instrumental music. The second scene of Act II (during which the Doctor and Captain taunt Wozzeck about Marie’s infidelity), for instance, consists of a prelude and triple fugue. The fourth scene of Act I, focusing on Wozzeck and the Doctor, is a set of passacaglia variations. The various scenes of the third act move beyond these structures and adopt novel stategies. Each scene is a set of variations, but where the term ‘variation’ normally indicates that there is a melody undergoing variation, Berg identifies different musical elements for ‘variation’. Thus scene two is a variation on a single note (B natural, heard continuously in the scene, and the only note heard in the powerful orchestral crescendos at the end of the scene); scene three is a variation on a rhythmic pattern, with every major thematic element constructed around this pattern; scene four is a variation on a chord, used exclusively for the whole scene; the orchestral interlude is a freely composed passage that is firmly grounded in the key of d minor; the final scene is a moto perpetuum, a 'variation on a single rhythm (the quaver). In music, a fugue (IPA: ) is a type of contrapuntal composition. ... In music a passacaglia (French: passacaille, Spanish: pasacalle) is a musical form and the corresponding court dance. ...


Premiere, December 14, 1925
(Erich Kleiber)
Wozzeck baritone Leo Schützendorf
Marie, his common-law wife soprano Sigrid Johanson
Marie's son boy soprano
Captain buffo tenor Waldemar Henke
Doctor buffo bass Martin Abendroth
Drum Major heldentenor Fritz Soot
Andres, Wozzeck's friend lyric tenor Gerhard Witting
Margret, Marie's neighbor contralto Jessika Koettrik
First Apprentice deep bass
Second Apprentice high baritone
Madman high tenor
Soldiers, apprentices, women, children

Erich Kleiber (August 5, 1890 – January 27, 1956) was an Austrian-born conductor. ... Baritone (French: baryton; German: Bariton; Italian: baritono) is most commonly the type of male voice that lies between bass and tenor. ... Look up soprano in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ... Boy soprano (or treble in British English; see below) is a term applied in music to a young male singer with an unchanged voice in the soprano range. ... In music, a tenor is a male singer with a high vocal range. ... A bass (or basso in Italian) is a male singer who sings in the lowest vocal range of the human voice. ... In music, a tenor is a male singer with a high voice (although not as high as a countertenor). ... In music, an alto is a singer with a vocal range somewhere between a tenor and a soprano. ...


Berg scores for a fairly large orchestra in Wozzeck, and has two onstage ensembles in addition to the large orchestra (a marching band in Act 1, Scene 3, and a tavern band in Act 2, Scene 4). The instrumentation of the work is as follows:

Pit Orchestra

Four flutes (all flutes double piccolo), four oboes (fourth oboe doubles cor anglais), four clarinets in B-flat (first clarinet doubles clarinet in A, third and fourth clarinets double clarinet in E-flat), three bassoons, contrabassoon, four french horns, four trumpets in F, four trombones (1 alto, 2 tenors, and 1 bass), tuba, four timpani, an assortment of cymbals (one pair, one suspended, and one attached to the bass drum), bass drum (with switch), snare drum, two tam-tams (one smaller than the other), triangle, xylophone, celesta, harp, and strings. This article pertains to the musical instrument. ... The piccolo is a small flute. ... Modern Oboe The Oboe is a musical instrument of the woodwind family. ... A cor anglais The cor anglais, or English horn, is a double reed woodwind musical instrument in the oboe family. ... A bass clarinet, which sounds an octave lower than the more common Bb soprano clarinet. ... Bassoon Playing range of a bassoon The bassoon is the tenor member of the woodwind family. ... This is a contrabassoon. ... The horn is a brass instrument consisting of tubing wrapped into a coiled form. ... Trumpets in the Bible According to Eastons Bible Dictionary, trumpets in the Bible were of a great variety of forms and were made of various materials. ... Never look at the trombones. ... The tuba is the largest of the low-brass instruments and is one of the most recent additions to the modern symphony orchestra, first appearing in the mid-19th century, when it largely replaced the ophicleide. ... A timpanist in the United States Air Forces in Europe Band. ... It is also possible that you want to know about the Cymbalum instrument. ... A bass drum is a large drum that produces a note of low definite or indefinite pitch. ... The snare drum or side drum is a tubular drum made of wood or metal with skins, or heads, stretched over the top and bottom openings. ... Beaver Lake, on the top of the Mount Royal Mount Royal (French: Mont Royal) ( ) is a mountain on the Island of Montreal, immediately north of downtown Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the city to which it gave its name. ... Its very easy to find the area of a triangle the formula is Italic textbase times Italic texthight equals (area of a square). ... Xylophone in Bali 1937 The xylophone (from the Greek meaning wooden sound) is a musical instrument in the percussion family which probably originated in Indonesia (Nettl 1956, p. ... French type, four-octave Celesta The Celesta (IPA ) is a struck idiophone operated by a keyboard. ... The harp is a stringed instrument which has its strings positioned perpendicular to the soundboard. ... See also string (disambiguation) Strings (as a sound (voice) in electronic musical instruments and synthesizers) is an imitation of classical string ensembles sound. ...

Onstage Groups

Marching band: one piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in E-flat, two basoons, two french horns, two trumpets in F, three trombones, tuba, bass drum with cymbals, snare drum, triangle (Berg in his instructions in the instrumentation says that the players in the marching band may be taken from the main orchestra, and even goes so far as to indicate exactly where the players can leave with a footnote near the end of Act 1, Scene 2.)

Tavern band: two fiddles (violins with retuned strings), Clarinet in C, Guitar, Bombardon in F (or tuba, if it can be muted), accordion

Upright piano (for Act 3, Scene 3)


Act I

Scene 1 (Suite): Wozzeck is shaving the Captain who lectures him for living an immoral life. Wozzeck protests that it is difficult to be virtuous when he is poor, but entreats the Captain to remember the lesson from the gospel, ""Laßet die Kleinen zu mir kommen!"" ("Suffer the little children to come unto me," Mark 10:14). The Captain greets this admonition with pointed dismay.

Scene 2 (Rhapsody and Hunting Song): Wozzeck and Andres are cutting sticks as the sun is setting. Wozzeck has frightening visions and Andres tries unsuccessfully to calm him.

Scene 3 (March and Lullaby): A military parade passes by outside Marie's room. Margret taunts Marie for flirting with the soldiers. Then Wozzeck comes by and tells Marie of the terrible visions he has had.

Scene 4 (Passacaglia): The Doctor scolds Wozzeck for not following his instructions regarding diet and behavior (which Wozzeck has been submitting to make extra money for Marie). However, when the Doctor hears of Wozzeck's mental aberrations, he is delighted and congratulates himself on the success of his experiment.

Scene 5 (Rondo): Marie admires the Drum-major outside her room. He makes an advance on her, to which she first rejects but then gives in.

Act II

Scene 1 (Sonata-Allegro): Marie is telling her child to go to sleep while admiring earrings which the Drum-major gave her. She is startled when Wozzeck arrives and when he asks where she got the earrings, she says she found them. Though not convinced, Wozzeck gives her some money and leaves. Marie chastises herself for her behavior.

Scene 2 (Fantasia and Fugue on 3 Themes): The Doctor rushes by the Captain in the street, who urges him to slow down. The Doctor then proceeds to scare the Captain by speculating what afflictions may strike him. When Wozzeck comes by, they insinuate that Marie is being unfaithful to him.

Scene 3 (Largo): Wozzeck confronts Marie, who does not deny his suspicions. Enraged, Wozzeck is about to hit her, when she stops him, saying even her father never dared lay a hand on her. Her statement "better a knife in my belly than your hands on me" plants in Wozzeck's mind the idea for his subsequent revenge.

Scene 4 (Scherzo): Among a crowd, Wozzeck sees Marie dancing with the Drum-major. After a brief hunter's chorus, Andres asks Wozzeck why he is sitting by himself. An Apprentice delivers a drunken sermon, then an Idiot approaches Wozzeck and cries out that the scene is ""Lustig, lustig...aber es riecht …Ich riech, ich riech Blut!"" ("joyful, joyful, but it reeks...I smell, I smell blood").

Scene 5 (Rondo): In the barracks at night, Wozzeck, unable to sleep, is keeping Andres awake. The Drum-major comes in, intoxicated, and rouses Wozzeck out of bed to fight with him.


Scene 1 (Invention on Themes and Variations): In her room at night, Marie reads to herself from the Bible. She cries out that she wants forgiveness.

Scene 2 (Invention on a Pedal-Point): Wozzeck and Marie are walking in the woods by a pond. Marie is anxious to leave, but Wozzeck restrains her. As a blood-red moon rises, Wozzeck becomes determined that if he can't have Marie, no one else can, and he stabs her.

Scene 3 (Invention on a Rhythm): People are dancing in a tavern. Wozzeck enters, and upon seeing Margret, dances with her and pulls her onto his lap. He insults her, and then asks her to sing him a song. She sings, but then notices blood on his hand and elbow; everyone begins shouting at him, and Wozzeck, now agitated and obsessed with his blood, rushes out of the tavern.

Scene 4 (Invention on a 6-Note Chord): Having returned to the murder scene, Wozzeck becomes obsessed with the thought that the knife he killed Marie with will incriminate him, and throws it into the pond. When the blood-red moon appears again, he wades into the pond and drowns. The Captain and the Doctor, passing by, hear Wozzeck moaning and rush off in fright.

Intermezzo (Invention on a Key): This interlude leads to the finale.

Scene 5 (Invention on a Equal of 8ths quasi toccata): Next morning, children are playing in the sunshine. The news spreads that Marie's body has been found, and they all run off to see, except for Marie's little boy, who after an oblivious moment, follows after the others.

Further reading

  • Jarman, D., The Music of Alban Berg (Faber & Faber, 1979)
  • Perle, G., The Operas of Alban Berg: Wozzeck (California University Press, 1980)

  Results from FactBites:
Wozzeck - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (1857 words)
Wozzeck is based on the drama Woyzeck left incomplete by the German playwright Georg Büchner at his death.
Wozzeck is clearly associated with two motifs, one often heard as he rushes on or off stage, the other more languidly expresses his misery and helplessness in the face of the pressures he experiences.
Wozzeck protests that it is difficult to be virtuous when he is poor, but entreats the Captain to remember the lesson from the gospel, ""Laßet die Kleinen zu mir kommen!"" ("Suffer the little children to come unto me," Mark 10:14).
  More results at FactBites »



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