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Wozzeck: The Genesis of a Masterpiece

A look at the inception, creation and reception of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck.

By Douglas Jarman (Music Scholar)

29 October 2013 at 2.52pm | Comment on this article

Writing in the programme book that accompanies Wozzeck, Douglas Jarman details the moment Alban Berg was inspired to write the Wozzeck. The full article, 'An Eloquent Testimony', describes Berg's composition process and the reception to the opera when it had its premiere.

I stood up amidst wild applause and met Alban Berg a few steps behind me. He was deadly pale and perspiring profusely. ‘What do you say’, he gasped, beside himself. ‘Isn’t it fantastic, incredible?’ Then, already taking his leave, ‘Someone must set it to music’.

This description, by a young man called Paul Elbogen of the first performance of Büchner’s play at the Rezidenzbühne in Vienna on 5 May 1914, must be one of the very few accounts of the precise moment at which a work of genius had its inception. Overwhelmed by the experience, Berg started to jot down ideas for the music of Wozzeck in the days immediately following the performance, but was then forced to put the project to one side, initially because of the need to attend to other unfinished business – notably the completion of the still unfinished Three Orchestral Pieces op.6 (some of the earliest sketches for Wozzeck appear on the same manuscript paper as sketches for the march of op.6) – and then by his being called up to join the army.

Released from military service at the end of the war, he began work on the opera in earnest. The composing of the music and the fashioning of the libretto seem to have gone hand in hand. Berg reduced Büchner’s 26 scenes to 15, added his own stage directions and made various small textual modifications in order to point up musical and dramatic relationships. By May 1922 the work was finished in full score and by June a piano score, made under Berg’s supervision by his pupil Fritz Heinrich Klein, was also complete. Berg then faced the problem of persuading an opera company to stage a difficult and complex work by a composer whose name was little known in, let alone outside, his native Vienna.

During the autumn of 1923, Erich Kleiber, the new musical director of the Berlin State Opera and a passionate admirer of the Büchner play, had seen a piano score of Berg’s opera and made his interest known to a number of the composer’s acquaintances. In January 1924 Kleiber was in Vienna for a few days and it was arranged, at his request, that the entire opera should be played for him by the pianist Ernst Bachrich (with Berg, who was not an accomplished pianist, helping out in the more difficult parts of the score). By the time the first two scenes of the opera had been played Kleiber had already decided to do the work at the Berlin State Opera, even, he joked, if it cost him his job.

In the event Wozzeck, which received its premiere on 14 December 1925, was an enormous success – so much so that Berg began to worry that it meant the piece was no good. In spite of an ongoing press campaign against the opera, which had been sparked by controversies at the Berlin State Opera, most critics immediately recognized the work as a ‘milestone in the history of opera’. It continued to be widely and successfully performed in the eight years following the premiere throughout Europe and in the USA.

Less than two years after the New York premiere in November 1931 the Nazis came to power in Germany. Berg became a proscribed composer and Wozzeck disappeared from the German stage for almost twenty years. Although, sadly, the British premiere planned to take place at Covent Garden on April 1935 came to nothing, it is, nonetheless, pleasing to remember that England still afforded Berg the pleasure of hearing Wozzeck for the last time before his early death in 1935, when a concert performance from the Queen’s Hall under Adrian Boult on 14 March 1934 was broadcast by the BBC and transmitted into Austria by Swiss radio.

The progamme book for Wozzeck is available in the theatre at performance times and from the ROH Shop. The Royal Opera’s production of Wozzeck runs from 31 October–15 November 2013. Tickets are still available

By Douglas Jarman (Music Scholar)

29 October 2013 at 2.52pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged Alban Berg, Berg, by Keith Warner, opera, Production, programme trail, Woyzeck, Wozzeck