Editor's note: As the Houston Symphony stages a concert version of Alban Berg's epic opera Wozzeck Friday and Saturday, Shepherd School of Music composition faculty member Anthony K. Brandt was asked to pen answers to probing questions about what renders this tragic drama an obsession for musicians, scholars and music aficionados.
His commentary below was first commissioned by the Houston Symphony for its concert brochure. Think of it as insights behind the music.
Q: This opera is a psychological whirlwind. What was Berg's inspiration?
A: In 1821, Johann Christian Woyzeck murdered his common-law wife. His murder case was the first in German legal history to use the insanity defense. His lawyers claimed that his jealous rage was a result of diminished mental capacity.
His execution was stayed while he was examined by specialists; but, ultimately, he was beheaded in 1824.
Berg's opera probes the life of an ordinary man in the grip of a community that seems hell-bent on crushing him. The opera explores the impossibility of remaining sane in such a dysfunctional environment.
Q: How does Wozzeck depict its characters' struggles?
A: Wozzeck was written at the dawn of a new conception of mind and self. Before psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the mind was regarded like a house in which consciousness could visit any room at will; we could know ourselves completely.
Freud proposed a radically different view.
The conscious mind lives in the tiny vestibule by the house's front door; it sits there, waiting for signs and signals from inside, but it is forbidden to enter. In other words, we are not privy to most of our own thoughts. In Wozzeck, what the characters are saying is in their voice parts; what they are thinking is in the orchestra. And what is in the orchestra is complex, enigmatic, chimerical and conflicted — in other words, it sounds like the unconscious.
In traditional opera, a single line of text may take minutes to unfold. Wozzeck is the first "real-time" opera.
The challenges of Wozzeck grow from an effort to portray the inner lives of its characters.
Q: Would you say that the music in Wozzeck is hard to listen to?
A: Wozzeck is undeniably dissonant. If you hear dissonance as "ugly," works like Wozzeck quickly become unbearable.
However, another way of thinking about dissonance is to view it as "musically opaque." The complex harmonies make it harder to analyze what is happening. Viewed that way, dissonance becomes a tool for Berg to musically render the unconscious. His dissonant harmonies help to create the "opacity" that renders a character's inner thoughts harder to decipher.
If you can tolerate the ambiguity that dissonance creates, Wozzeck gains a poignant resonance.
Q: Can you offer an example?
A: The most striking example of this occurs in Wozzeck's final confrontation with his wife, Marie. The pitch B natural is sustained throughout the scene in the orchestra — a musical symbol of Wozzeck's fixation on his wife's infidelity.
However, flickering in different registers and shaded by dissonance, the B natural's presence is disguised. It hovers in the background until it erupts after Marie's murder. All of a sudden, the entire orchestra converges on this pitch that has been there all along, building to one of the most famous orchestral crescendos in classical music. It is a truly shattering moment.
Q: How does this differ from traditional opera?
A: In traditional opera, a single line of text may take minutes to unfold. Wozzeck is the first "real-time" opera.
If you were to act out the words alone, it would take you almost as long as performing them with the music. The opening scene, when Wozzeck is shaving his Captain, is so realistically paced that you almost forget they are singing. Being freed from traditional tonality, melody and phrase structure helps Berg to accomplish this. It allows him an extraordinarily compressed and flexible sense of musical continuity.
There aren't the same unforgettable melodies of bel canto opera, but the opera gains an intensified — and more natural — dramatic momentum.
Q: What makes the music different?
When listening to Wozzeck, first and foremost, follow the text. There's not a single musical gesture in this that isn't supporting the story.
A: The music of Wozzeck is based on intricate thematic connections. In this regard, Berg was highly influenced by Richard Wagner. Before Wagner, operas consisted primarily of "set pieces"— arias and choruses brought to life in a particular scene and then rarely revisited. If you think of any of your favorite arias from classical opera — Mozart, Verdi — you have likely only heard them once per performance.
Wagner was the first composer to take the motivic connections of chamber music and symphonies and apply them to evening-long drama. His leitmotifs are used as totems of characters and dramatic themes (love, fate, revenge). These leitmotifs are varied and blended with each other to help underscore the evolving musical narrative. The four-part Ring Cycle begins with one theme and ends 15 hours later with the same theme; in between, the theme has coursed through all four operas, a constant reminder of the story's origins. No one had ever done that before.
Like Wagner, Berg conserves themes. Wozzeck's cry "Wir arme Leut" ("We poor people") functions as a musical touchstone throughout the opera, becoming its emotional center of gravity. Other characters, such as the Captain, Doctor and Drum Major, are identified by musical signatures. The leitmotif technique allows Berg to refer back to earlier moments in the plot.
For instance, when Wozzeck confronts Marie about earrings she is wearing, the orchestra plays the same motto heard during her tryst with the Drum Major.
A: How can the audience get the most out of their listening experience?
Q: When listening to Wozzeck, first and foremost, follow the text. There's not a single musical gesture in this that isn't supporting the story.
When Marie slams her apartment window shut, you can no longer hear the marching band on the street; in a scene with soldiers asleep in the barracks, the music sounds like snoring; when Wozzeck enters a saloon, an out-of-tune piano is playing; when Wozzeck sinks into the river, the music literally floods over his head. In one unforgettable moment, the Captain laughs, and the orchestra laughs with him.
A concert version of this opera is a great way to experience it; it allows Berg to work his magic directly on your imagination. Everything you are watching is also depicted musically. Just follow the libretto and give yourself over to the story.
Second, Wozzeck also draws on familiar emotional cues.
Characters show anger by raising their voice and widening their vocal range; when sullen or depressed, they sing in a more subdued monotone; a character telling a secret will whisper. Berg carefully modulates levels of tension. When the situation demands, the music rises to fierce culminations, but it is also capable of tranquility and even sweetness. Even if you've never heard music that sounds like this before, you've heard these emotional cues: Hectic speed that represents panic or monotonous repetition that depicts boredom.
Third, because Wozzeck is a real-time opera, prepare yourself for a different sense of pacing.
The "slow-motion" of classical opera is replaced by furious, relentless progress. Wozzeck is under assault — by his superiors, by his economic situation, by his precarious love life — and Berg's music rarely lets up.
When it premiered, audiences "got" Wozzeck right away. The opera was an immediate sensation, bringing Berg international acclaim. Wozzeck is a demanding and harrowing work; but, from the start audiences responded to its compassion, fierce integrity, overwhelming inventiveness and psychological honesty.
Wozzeck is radical and unique; but it is also accessible. Nearly 100 years after its premiere, it hasn't lost an ounce of its relevance or impact.
Hans Graf conducts a cast that includes Roman Trekel as Wozzeck, Anne Schwanewilms as Marie, Gordon Gietz as Drum Major, Marc Molomot as Captain, Nathan Berg as Doctor, Robert McPherson as Andres, Katherine Ciesinski as Margaret, Calvin Griffin as Apprentice 1, Samuel Schultz as Apprentice 2, Brenton Ryan as Fool, voice students from the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University Adult Chorus directed by Grant Loehnig and members of the Houston Grand Opera Children's Chorus directed by Karen Reeves.