Berg wrote this opera before the period when he used serialism in his works. His teacher Schoenberg had not yet developed the twelve tone system. The music of Wozzeck has tonal music in the tradition of Mahler, but also some atonal music (music which is not based on any key) as well as melodies which are based on the whole tone scale. The music sounded very modern at the time it was written. Berg also writes for the voices in unusual ways: sometimes they have to half-speak, half-sing (this is called Sprechgesang).
The opera is based on a play called Woyzeck by the German playwright Georg Büchner. Woyzeck was an unusual drama because, instead of being a story about someone important such as a king or a god, it was about a poor man who is not very smart and is bullied and misused by other people. When Berg wrote the opera nearly a century later, it was still an unusual story for an opera. The heroes in operas were usually important people, while working people often had comic parts: they were often servants. But Wozzeck is a simple man who cannot help what is happening to him. In drama this is sometimes called an "anti-hero".
[change] The story of the opera
[change] Act I
Scene 1 (Suite): Wozzeck is working as a barber. While he is shaving the Captain, the Captain tells Wozzeck that he thinks Wozzeck leads a bad life because he has had a child with a woman (Marie) without being married to her. Wozzeck says that it is hard for him to be good because he is poor. He reminds the Captain that Jesus said "Let the little children come to me," (Mark 10:14). The Captain is confused by this remark.
Scene 3 (March and Lullaby): Soldiers march by outside Marie's room. Her neighbour, Margret, tells Marie she is bad because she is with the soldiers. Then Wozzeck comes and tells Marie of the terrible visions he has had.
Scene 4 (Passacaglia): The Doctor tells Wozzeck that he should not cough in the street (Büchner wrote: “piss in the street”). He says he is doing a medical experiment. Wozzeck is so simple that he believes him. The doctor is glad to hear about Wozzeck’s terrible visions.
Scene 5 (Rondo): Marie admires the Drum-major outside her room. He wants to love her. At first she turns away from him, but then she gives in and they rush out together.
[change] Act II
Scene 1 (Sonata-Allegro): Marie is telling her child to go to sleep while admiring earrings which the Drum-major gave her. Wozzeck arrives. He asks her where she got the earrings. She says she found them. Wozzeck does not know whether to believe her, but gives her some money and leaves. Marie knows her behaviour is wrong.
Scene 2 (Fantasia and Fugue on 3 Themes): The Doctor rushes by the Captain in the street, who tells him to slow down. The Doctor makes the Captain frightened by thinking of nasty illnesses that he might get. When Wozzeck comes, they tease him by saying that Marie loves someone else.
Scene 3 (Largo): Wozzeck talks about it to Marie. She admits that she has a boyfriend. Wozzeck is furious. He is about to hit her when she stops him, saying even her father never dared to hit her. She says: "better a knife in my belly than your hands on me". This gives Wozzeck an idea for revenge.
Scene 4 (Scherzo): Wozzeck sees Marie dancing with the Drum-major in a crowd. Andres asks Wozzeck why he is sitting by himself. A drunkard gives a sermon, then an idiot goes up to Wozzeck and says he can smell blood.
[change] Act III
Scene 2 (Invention on a Single Note (B)): Wozzeck and Marie are walking in the woods by a pond. Marie wants to leave, but Wozzeck stops her. The moon is shining bright red. Wozzeck becomes determined that if he can not have Marie, no one else can, and he stabs her.
Scene 3 (Invention on a Rhythm): People are dancing in a pub. Wozzeck enters, and when he sees Margret, he 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 to shout at him, and Wozzeck rushes out.
Scene 4 (Invention on a 6-Note Chord): Wozzeck goes back to the place where he killed Marie. Wozzeck thinks that the knife he killed Marie with will prove that he is the murderer. He throws the knife into the pond. When the blood-red moon appears again, he walks into the pond to try to wash the blood of his body, but he drowns. The Captain and the Doctor, passing by, hear Wozzeck moaning and rush off in fright.
Intermezzo (Invention on a Key (D minor)): This interlude leads to the finale.
Scene 5 (Invention on an Eighth-Note moto perpetuo, quasi toccata): The next morning a group of children are playing in the sunshine. People are telling one another that Marie's body has been found. The children all run off to see. Marie and Wozzeck’s little boy has been playing on a toy horse. He stops and runs after the other children to the pond.
[change] History of the opera
Berg saw Büchner's play Woyzeck in 1914. It was the first time it had been performed in Vienna. The play had been advertised as Wozzeck because people could not read Büchner’s handwriting. This is why Berg uses this spelling for his opera.
Berg knew at once that he wanted to make the play into an opera. Büchner, who had died in 1837 at the age of 23, had left the play unfinished. Berg took fifteen scenes from the play and made them into an opera with three acts. He composed music with a particular form for each scene so that the music develops in a very organised way. He made changes to the libretto himself.
Though Berg began work on the opera in 1914, he was serving in the army during World War I, so he did not have time to continue working on it until 1917. He finished the opera in April 1922. Erich Kleiber conducted the first performance at the Berlin State Opera on 14 December 14 1925. It quickly became famous and was performed in all of the big opera houses in Europe. It was so successful that Berg was able to live off of the money he earned from it.
[change] Musical style
Wozzeck was the first major opera written in a modern 20th century style. A lot of the music is atonal (not in any key) so Berg was able to use this to express the madness of Wozzeck. Sometimes the music becomes more tonal, especially when the story is telling about love and humanity. He also bases some of the music about the soldiers on folksong which he treats in his own special way.
Another musical technique he uses is the leitmotif, in which particular characters or things are linked to particular themes or musical ideas. This technique can be very useful to suggest certain things. For example, there is a leitmotif for the earrings which the Drum major has given to Marie. When the major makes love to Marie we hear this leitmotif. The music makes us realize that he is not forcing her to love him but that she is willing. In another place, the military music tells us that Marie is thinking of the Drum major.
Another leitmotif is the chord we hear when Wozzeck, near the beginning of the opera, talks about “poor folk like us”. The chord we hear is used in other parts of the opera when characters are not strong enough to change their situation in life.