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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 transitions, but also—and in this the opera far outstrips the play—to heighten the tensions of preceding scenes and the contrasts with succeeding ones. Each interlude is a high point in the opera.

Danton’s Death and the doctoral thesis, The Nervous System of the Barbel (written in French), were the only works by Georg Büchner to be published in his twenty-three-year lifetime. Shortly after his death, in 1837, Lenz and Leonce and Lena appeared in a periodical, and in 1850, Dr. Ludwig Büchner, Georg’s brother and the author of a popular book on “free-thinking” philosophy, published the Nachgelassene Schriften. But this volume included neither Pietro Aretino, the last completed play, now presumed to be lost, nor Woyzeck,1 which survived only in preliminary drafts and sketches. Though the play was published in 1879, Woyzeck was not performed until 1913, in Munich. In the following year, Berg saw it in Vienna; also in 1914, Hugo Bieber discovered that Büchner had based the story on the life of Johann Christian Woyzeck, executed in Leipzig in 1824 after two examinations to determine his mental competence. The doctor who performed these, Clarus, later published a paper on his findings in a medical journal to which Büchner’s father was a contributor. Johann Woyzeck evidently suffered from delusions, and some of the things he said, as repeated by Clarus, are incorporated in Büchner’s play.

Berg decided to compose the opera as soon as he saw the play, but World War I intervened, and in 1915 he was conscripted. The score was completed in 1922, but the first performance did not take place until December 1925, in Berlin. One other early production—1927, in Leningrad—must be mentioned, both because the Russian text was by Mikhail Kuzmin, and because a performance of this greatest modern opera a half-century later in the USSR is scarcely conceivable.

In a staging of the opera at the 1980 Edinburgh festival, Büchner’s word “pissen” in the Doctor’s scene was employed instead of Berg’s word “husten” (cough). The restoration is not merely of a detail, but of the meaning of an entire episode; the Doctor, having sought to prove that “the bladder muscle is subordinate to the will,” intended to do a urinalysis. “Pissen,” moreover, immediately indicates that the Doctor treats Wozzeck as an experimental dog. The words that Berg substituted, “I saw it, Wozzeck, you coughed in the street, barked like a dog,” are not only meaningless—coughing in the street being in no way unusual—but rob the scene of its purpose. Although the bowdlerization was probably inevitable in the Vienna of 1919, would the same have been true of the Berlin of Brecht and Weill, where, by the end of the 1920s, Wozzeck had become a success? One wonders why Berg did not make the change himself at the later date, especially since the published score optionally retains the word “Altweiberfurz,” which has no significance in the drama. Yet in Britain, as late as the 1960s, Büchner’s play, which contains such handy scatological locutions as “Arschloch,” could “only be performed in public with certain modifications approved by the Lord Chamberlain.”

Mr. Perle is absorbing on these and other textual amendments, and especially on the contributions of Karl Emil Franzos, “the Galician-Jewish novelist who first deciphered the faded and almost illegible manuscripts….” Franzos must be credited not only with transcribing, editing, and publishing the play, but, first of all, with discovering it—in 1875, among the papers sent to him by Ludwig Büchner. The dramatist’s brother, who had read as much of the text as he could make out, was convinced that because of “cynicisms” and “trivialities” it could not be of much value. Franzos’s 1879 edition is not without errors and misunderstandings, but, as Mr. Perle concludes, “the historical and textual investigations” of modern scholars are on the whole “more damaging than Franzos’s mistakes…. After forty years of critical research, we are brought back to Franzos’s conception of the denouement,” concerning which Büchner’s intentions are unknown. No less remarkable are the many additions by Franzos that are worthy of Büchner and enhance the play. In fact, what may be its best-known line, “Du! Dein Mutter ist tot!,” which one of the children says to Wozzeck’s three-year-old son in the final scene, is actually the contribution of Franzos.

So, too, Wozzeck’s exclamation, “Ach, Marie!“—a significant slip from his subconscious, which the Doctor on his a priori path fails to notice—is Franzos’s interpolation, along with several improvements in the drowning scene, including the repetition of Wozzeck’s cry “Murderer, murderer” from the end of the second scene in the act. The hobby horse which Marie’s child rides in the final scene was also Franzos’s idea. As for his mistakes, the most serious was his exclusion of the Idiot’s appearance before the one in the Tavern Garden, thus making his entry there ex machina, and his vision of blood gratuitous. This incident remains the weakest in the opera.

Berg used Franzos’s edition, but in Acts One and Two followed the order of the scenes in Paul Landau’s 1909 version, which reverses Büchner’s first two scenes—opening with the one in the fields rather than with that of Wozzeck shaving the Captain. Most productions of the play now follow Büchner, though Jean Jourdheuil, who translated the version currently enjoying a season (October-November 1980) in Paris, points out the disadvantages of placing either scene first:

To start with the Captain/Wozzeck is to place the emphasis of the play on the oppression of Wozzeck, but to begin with the scene in the fields is to make of the work a fait divers.

Berg, having made the “Wir arme Leut” (we poor people) theme primary, had to begin the opera with the Captain scene. And in respect to musical dynamics, the extended and deepened portrait of Wozzeck in the field could only follow the comparatively limited one in the scene with the Captain. Wozzeck in the fields is with an equal, his companion Andres, whose normality provides radical contrast to Wozzeck’s wild visions. Mr. Perle quotes the critic Margaret Jacobs:

The fire and thunder of the storm bring to [Wozzeck’s] mind the images of the Apocalypse…. His hallucinations have all the terror…of weird folk-superstition, and in his inarticulateness before the Doctor he can only give to all these unintelligible, irrational and fearful things the name, “die doppelte Natur.”

The field scene, too, best demonstrates the truth of Ms. Jacobs’s observation that Wozzeck’s words are “tersely allusive, not explanatory.” With Andres, Wozzeck sees toadstools. Then two scenes later, he remarks to the Doctor: “…the toadstools…. Circles, figures, if one could read them!” Mr. Perle calls such recurrences “verbal Leitmotive,” a new but henceforth indispensable term in the analysis of this as well as other operas.

Berg’s own textual emendations testify to his theatrical imagination as well as to his exceptional literary sensitivity. In the street scene, when Wozzeck is taunted about Marie’s infidelity, the stage direction is the composer’s: the Doctor beats time with his umbrella, imitating the Drum Major with his baton. Not surprisingly, Berg devised verbal correspondences, just as he did musical ones; an example is his repetition of the word “Langsam” (“slowly”) at the end of the first scene, to match its opening words, “Langsam, Wozzeck, langsam.” Still other alterations were necessary because he omitted scenes included by Franzos, and references to them had to be deleted.

Wisely, Berg corrected the Franzos text in the tavern scene, when, after murdering Marie, Wozzeck tries to immerse himself in the crowd of merrymakers. In his “desperate attempt to escape from his own identity…he sings another man’s song,” that of his comrade Andres from the opera’s second scene. Franzos attributed this repetition to oversight, and provided new words, but Berg, perceiving the relevance of Büchner’s lines, and the irony in their suggestion of a faithless woman, retained the original. Here, remarking on Wozzeck’s “assumption of the Drum Major’s manner” in saying “I’d like a fight today, a fight,” thereby pathetically echoing the man who has humiliated and destroyed him, Mr. Perle uncovers a musical reference to one of Marie’s Leitmotive, and connects it to “the sudden obtrusion of thoughts which Wozzeck has come here to escape.” Finally, the reader learns to think of the scene, of

…the stage piano’s Polka…and Margret’s song, accompanied only by the stage piano…[as] musical parentheses in which the “real” music on the stage [represents] that outer world in which the murderer Wozzeck seeks refuge from his own…identity….

Mr. Perle writes that

…the musical coherence of the opera, independent of the staged events, reflects an objective order whose irrelevance to the subjective fate of Wozzeck poignantly emphasizes his total isolation in an indifferent universe.

On one level, however, the music relates very literally to the action, moving upward or downward according to the words’ suggestion, screaming with Marie when Wozzeck stabs her, and whispering with him in his aside, “When the morning dew falls, you won’t feel the cold.” The music mimics real noises, too—croaking frogs, snoring soldiers in their barracks—with a degree of verisimilitude that makes them identifiable even without the stage picture. “Real,” too, are the popular forms, the march, lullaby, and waltz, no matter how untraditional some of the harmonic ingredients.

In the opera’s subterrain, Berg has erected a complex of musical symbols and analyses that are dependent on “learned” and often remote conventions. Thus the Doctor’s scene is a passacaglia, an “academic” and an “old” form suitable to represent an educated man who knows Latin and quotes Pliny. (Perhaps Pliny’s “Natura nusquam magis est tota quam in minimus” was in Büchner’s mind when he wrote the line about the circles and rings in toadstools.) The passacaglia also serves to connect the Doctor with science, for the theme employs the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale, as Strauss had done in the “science” section of Also sprach Zarathustra. Thus the form is an overall symbol for an entire scene. At the same time, Berg has created many small musical analogies for the notion of an idée fixe. According to the Doctor, Wozzeck suffers from this malady, but Mr. Perle demonstrates how the music “tells us,” by association, that the more seriously afflicted of the two characters is the Doctor himself. When he says, “Cultivate your obsession,” the words are accompanied by “a three-part canon on an ostinato motive,” and when he exults, “Oh! meine Theorie!,” the music is a six-part canon

culminating in a verticalized segment of the cycle of perfect fourths…[which], since it is generated by a single interval, can “stand” for the Doctor’s monomaniacal obsession.

The reader may wonder why a repeated note or chord would not be a more apt metaphor for the aberration. But Berg’s mind worked differently.

Mr. Perle traces the composer’s mental processes at their most ingenious in the music accompanying Wozzeck’s reference to Marie’s adultery with the Drum Major: “It must stink enough to smoke the angels out of heaven.” Here, four instruments play simultaneously ascending figures in regular patterns starting from the same note, one of them a chromatic scale, the second a whole-tone scale, the other two sequences of, respectively, minor and major thirds. A fifth part, the solo violin, “representing the odor of Marie’s sin rising to heaven,” spoils these perfect designs “in its weaving and irregular ascent and in its interpolation of a ‘wrong’ note into each of the simultaneities”—an example of Walter Pater’s “getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.”

Proceeding from the most obscure to the most obvious of such devices, in the opera’s final interlude, or orchestral epilogue, catharsis and tonality are identified, willy-nilly. Did Berg anticipate philistine comment concerning this phenomenon? In any event, the audience’s feeling of recognition and relief at the beginning of the D minor is almost tangible, even today. Mr. Perle ignores the matter, no doubt because he does not regard this symphonic peroration as an integral part of the drama, but also, perhaps, because he considers such questions to be beneath the book’s intellectual level. If so, he should heed Eliot’s warning that “criticism is too important to be left to the fellows who write for the newspapers,” since in this opera, where everything is significant, the return to tonality at the climax begs an explanation.

When the strings sustain a C major triad while Wozzeck gives Marie money, the commonplace chord, Mr. Perle says, represents Wozzeck’s “sanity” and “ordinariness.” But the emphasis is clearly on money, Wozzeck’s words “we poor,” immediately before, being those of the principal Leitmotiv of the opera. Whether or not Berg’s intention was to associate C major with the evils of capitalism, he manages to make the chord sound sinister, at least for one listener. But this, too, is surely by design, namely, to turn aural perspectives inside out: the C major triad in an “atonal” context—not introduced by tonal functions—becomes the least common of chords. Mr. Perle warns his readers not to be misled, especially those with “a tonally oriented ear.” But which opera audience in the Western world has developed any other kind?

To “review” Mr. Perle’s analysis of the opera’s musical language, the most valuable portion of his study, would be to enter into technicalities requiring definitions that the author himself does not provide. He writes that “simultaneous voices moving by semitonal inflection are often symmetrically related to each other.” “Semitonal inflection” is simply a long way of saying chromatic. “Symmetrically related,” on the evidence, means “in contrary motion.” The difficulty is that three examples are given, and since two of these are in diagram form, the reader is obliged to turn to the score to understand the quoted statement. There, in example one, he finds that the upper voice moves “by semitonal inflection” only if the major seconds, the minor third, and the several fourths between the chromatic stepping stones do not count.

Yet Mr. Perle believes that his book “should in large part be accessible to the general reader as well as to the specialist.” To this one can only say that it would be much more readily accessible if the reader were not thwarted by so many verbal obstacles, and that in statements like the following even the most inured specialist must heed the Captain’s “Langsam, hübsch Langsam.”

Where it has seemed desirable to indicate exactly at which point in a given bar a cited passage begins or ends, this will be shown by durational symbols giving the portions of the initial and concluding bars comprised in the citation.

I.e., certain passages referred to in the score are identified by the time-values of their first and last notes.

A handicap even for specialist readers is that many of the musical examples contain mistakes. Why, one wonders, does a publisher go to the expense of printing 186 examples in music-type but fail to invest in an hour or two of editorial time to verify them?2 Some of the errors are in rhythm,3 but the main difficulty is that whereas the orchestra score leaves no doubt about accidentals, the book omits natural signs except where someone thought them to be necessary. In many places, this is merely confusing and in others no more than inconsistent—naturals are used in a chord in Ex. 86, but not in the same chord in Ex. 150—but the absence of the natural is definitely wrong in “the climactic bar of the final section” (Ex. 126, where the A-flat that obtains from the start of the measure must be canceled on the second quarter), in Ex. 42 (before the last A), in Ex. 153b (before the last E), and in Ex. 23x (before the B in the double appoggiatura).4

Mr. Perle concludes that

…Berg was the most forward-looking composer of our century, in the sense that he had progressed further than anyone else in the direction of that reformulation of postdiatonic compositional procedures that had motivated Schoenberg’s discovery of the twelve-tone system in the first place.

Formulation, surely, not reformulation. But no matter. Mr. Perle’s analysis persuades us that Berg was the most innovative composer of his time, whichever direction proves to be the forward-looking one. Some of us would add that he was also the most prodigally gifted, with rare “natural” melodic powers and originality in form. When Mr. Perle warns against just such “premature generalizations,” we disregard him only to say that if we meet such high standards of scholarship again in this decade, it will be in his sequel volume on Berg’s and modern opera’s most famous femme fatale.

  1. 1

    Berg used the diphthong spelling at first, then chose the one that is easier for singers to pronounce. “Woyzeck,” possibly a Polish name, would for this reason contribute to the character’s alienation in a German town.

  2. 2

    It is also the fault of the publisher that music is misidentified (Ex. 2, for instance, shows the end of Op. 2, No. 3), that some of the signs are wrong (Ex. 149 needs an equation, not a dash, in the second measure), and that the footnotes between pp. 131-148 (and again later) are found above the music examples.

  3. 3

    Viz., Ex. 75, where the first chord in the treble clef should be an eighth; Ex. 136, where the bass part in measure two contains one quarter too many; and Ex. 163, measure three, where the first two notes of the new part should be dotted quarters.

  4. 4

    Some of the German in the book is wrong, too. Thus “better a knife” is rendered “Leiber [sic] ein Messer” (p. 114), and “I smell, I smell blood” becomes “Ich reich [sic], ich reich Blut” (p. 84).

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