An ‘Unheard of Intensity’

The Operas of Alban Berg Vol. I: Wozzeck

by George Perle
University of California Press, 231 pp., $20.00

It is not only the fate of this poor man, exploited and tormented by all the world, that touches me so closely, but also the unheard-of intensity of mood of the individual scenes.

—Alban Berg to Anton Webern, August 19, 1918

After Wozzeck had won comparatively wide acclaim, Berg stated that “…the social problems of the opera by far transcend the personal destiny of Wozzeck.” But surely Berg was too great an artist to believe this and not to recognize that the tragedies of Wozzeck, Marie, and their illegitimate child far transcend sociology. Even on this level the composer does not do justice to his achievement, since the opera indicts not a particular society, but the condition humaine; the tormentors—the harebrained Captain, sadistic Doctor, bullying Drum Major—are also victims, prisoners of their circumstances and personalities, and, as such, more pathetic than evil. The subjects of universal drama are not theses and philosophies, but human beings.

Opera can reveal contradictions between a character’s words and thoughts in a way not possible in spoken drama, a resource that Berg fully exploits. Yet critical commentaries on Wozzeck tend to overemphasize the importance of its ironies, apart from the principal one of Wozzeck himself, who has the lowest status and the greatest power of feeling. A larger aspect of both the play and the opera is the portrayal of incomprehension. Understood by no one, Wozzeck is thought to be mentally unbalanced, even when, with perfect sanity, he says of his child, “The good Lord’s not going to look down on the poor worm just because nobody said ‘amen’ before he was made.” The conventional mind of the Captain cannot appreciate the logic and humanity of this. No wonder that, in another dimension, Wozzeck is talking only to himself, as when he cries out, Lear-like, “Why doesn’t God put out the sun?”

Berg’s genius is nowhere more manifest than in his musical realization of Büchner’s characters. The plot is secondary, a tale of infidelity, vengeance, and retribution that begins only when the opera is almost one-third over. Partly for this reason, the classical three-act formula, exposition-development-catastrophe, does not fit a play made up of disconnected scenes, dependent on juxtaposition rather than development, and cumulative in effect. The unprecedented economy and concentration of each scene—the play contains nearly twice as many as the opera—preclude the standard processes of elaboration.

George Perle remarks in his perceptive new study of Wozzeck that:

It was the nature of the composer rather than the nature of his subject that led Berg to impose order…through the rigorous formal framework that governs the work as a whole.

In truth both natures coalesce in this perfect unification of music and subject, and to transform Büchner’s detached episodes into opera clearly required a musical structure, if not the autonomous one that Berg provided. He told Webern of being “tempted” by the idea of “combining” scenes through orchestral interludes. Eventually these were to function not only as links and…

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