Waltzing into Oblivion: Berg’s Atonal Dances
For this activity, students will need the reproducible handouts entitled Waltzing into Oblivion, copies of Berg’s Formal Design for Wozzeck, and the audio selections for this activity.
Music History, Music Theory, Humanities, Arts
- To increase students’ comfort and familiarity with the unique sound world of Wozzeck
- To exercise students’ critical listening skills and develop their ability to recognize musical dance forms
- To help students contextualize Berg’s music by exploring dance forms through operatic history
COMMON CORE STANDARDS
This activity directly supports the following ELA-Literacy Common Core Strands:
Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).
Interpret, analyze, and evaluate narratives, poetry, and drama aesthetically and philosophically by making connections to: other texts, ideas, cultural perspectives, eras, personal events, and situations.
Analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of the structure an author uses in his or her exposition or argument, including whether the structure makes points clear, convincing, and engaging.
In 1925, Berg’s Wozzeck inaugurated a new era in operatic composition: Expressionistic, atonal, fiercely complex, and impervious to easy comprehension, it is often called an “epoch-making work.” Indeed, the opera is an astonishing tour de force by any standards—and especially so when we consider that Berg had never before written for the dramatic stage. And yet, hiding in plain sight behind Berg’s intensely expressive melodies is an elegant structure that draws on a number of historical forms from across music history.
In Act II, a nightmarish tavern scene takes place onstage while the orchestra plays a symphonic scherzo imbued with the gestures and structure of a waltz. With this parody of an iconic Viennese dance style, Berg draws from his rich musical inheritance while transforming it to match the diseased mind of his protagonist. In this activity, students will:
- Learn about the concept of atonality
- Become familiar with some of the musical forms Berg employs in Wozzeck
- Study the characteristics of (and practice listening to) 19th-century dance forms
- Analyze a series of operatic and symphonic waltzes and draw conclusions about how Berg adapted the waltz structure for this scene in Wozzeck
In this activity, students will study some of the organizing principles Berg employed in crafting Wozzeck. Through an analysis of operatic and symphonic waltzes and Ländler, they will develop a working knowledge of several 19th-century dance forms. They will then analyze how Berg transformed these genres in an excerpt from Wozzeck and consider how these musical transformations relate to the opera’s plot.
Begin the class by playing at the piano a well-known melody that ends in a conventional tonic-dominant-tonic cadence—but omit the final tonic chord. An example is provided below: a phrase from Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the main theme of the final movement of his Ninth Symphony.
After you play the final A-major chord, ask students: What is missing? Is this satisfying? Where is this melody supposed to go? Could we end right here? Students will likely respond that the last note is missing. Prompt them to sing it.
Explain that the missing note, the last note of the melody, is the “tonic”—the “home pitch” of the musical example and the cornerstone of its key. Because we live in a world steeped in the musical system of tonality (essentially all popular music is tonal), our ears are trained to expect the kind of resolution just omitted from the “Ode to Joy” example.
A useful metaphor for tonality is that of gravity. (In fact, the composer Paul Hindemith once said, “Tonality is a natural force, like gravity.”) All other pitches are attracted to the tonic with varying degrees of strength, while the tonic holds these pitches and key areas in balance and defines their relation to one another. No matter where the music goes, as long as we are within a given key, the music will seem to be “drawn” inexorably back toward the tonic.
By the beginning of the 20th century, however, Western art music composers had expanded their harmonic language, introducing unresolved dissonances, distantly related chords, and harmonies that confuse the identification of the tonic. After 1910, even these tenuous relationships between pitches were often severed, and melodies could veer off anywhere, without any relation to a home key. Music theorists sometimes call this musical environment “atonality.” Explain to students that this is the musical world of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck.
Ask students to imagine how a piece of music might be organized without the gravitational pull of tonality. What are some musical elements that might help provide coherence and organization? Students may be stumped by this question; this puts them in good company, as many of Berg’s contemporaries were equally stymied by this problem! Possible responses may include the following:
- Themes that are repeated
- Themes that are associated with ideas or characters
- Distinctive clusters of notes that are repeated and developed
- Distinctive groupings of instruments
- Repeated rhythmic patterns
- The use of large-scale organizational structures (such as historical forms)
- Other ways of organizing pitches (such as the “12-tone system” developed by Berg’s teacher, Arnold Schoenberg)
Berg uses each of the organizational methods listed above in Wozzeck, but one of the opera’s most distinctive features is its formal design. Distribute copies of the sidebar Berg’s Formal Design for Wozzeck, which reproduces a chart of the opera’s underlying structure. (Although this chart was compiled by Berg’s student rather than by Berg himself, it was made with the composer’s authorization and oversight. Berg also made sure that a copy of this chart was included in the vocal score he had printed in 1923, indicating that he wanted these forms to be recognized by anyone who had access to the score.)
Ask students if they are familiar with any of the forms listed on this chart; forms they are likely to recognize include the symphony, march, and lullaby. Explain that each of the forms on this chart is defined by a set of compositional conventions, and by adopting or adapting these conventions, Berg constructed a score that was both historically informed and capable of meeting the opera’s modern dramatic needs. Even if the underlying structure is not always discernible to the listener, understanding how Berg used these forms can give us crucial analytic insight into the musical structure of the opera.
Before moving on, it will be helpful to make sure your students have a basic understanding of Wozzeck’s plot. You may wish to assign the synopsis as take-home reading before class. You can also hand out a copy of the “Who’s Who” chart or a copy of the summary, and/or you can briefly summarize the plot during class. For now, it will be enough if students understand that the opera tells the story of Wozzeck, a poor and beleaguered soldier who is tormented by psychotic visions. When he discovers that Marie, his common-law wife, has been unfaithful to him, his jealousy drives him to murder her by a lake. When he returns to the scene of his crime to dispose of the murder weapon, he falls into the water and drowns.
Now let’s direct our focus to a single scene in Wozzeck—Act II, Scene 4—and its accompanying music. At this point in the opera, Wozzeck suspects that Marie is cheating on him, and he is growing more and more paranoid. He visits a tavern, where he is surrounded by drunken soldiers and women. When he sees Marie dancing with the Drum Major, his vision suddenly becomes blurred, as though his eyes are covered by a blood-red mist. According to Berg’s organizational scheme, this is the fourth movement of the “symphony” created by the five moments of the opera’s second act. It is a “scherzo,” and it is the dramatic and developmental high point of the opera. To introduce the scene’s sound world to students, play Tracks 1 and 2. The texts and translations are provided on the first page of the reproducible handouts.
Invite students to share their impressions of this music. What does it sound like to them? Remind them that there is no wrong answer. Next, ask them to think about how what they just heard relates to what they know about the opera’s plot. Does this music fit the story of a man troubled by psychotic visions? Was there anything that was recognizable about this music or that students could latch on to?
To provide that hook, we’ll focus on Berg’s underlying structure for the scene: a scherzo. As a symphonic movement, the scherzo (pronounced “SCARE-tsoh”) grew out of the minuet and trio, which had been a part of the symphony since the late 18th century. Both the minuet and scherzo are dance numbers in triple meter, with a contrasting (“trio”) section in the middle. Unlike the minuet, which was an aristocratic and stately dance, the scherzo was fast and lively, and it often had comic undertones. (In fact, the word “scherzo” means “joke” in Italian.)
As with much of the lilting, triple-meter music of the time, the symphonic scherzo often became infused with the distinctive flavor of the waltz, which swept 19th-century Europe with its scandalous whirling and dizzying speed. But the waltz wasn’t the only dance that made its way into the symphony: Another German dance, the Ländler, also made its way into symphonic scherzo movements. Like the waltz, the Ländler was in triple time; unlike the elegant waltz, the Länder was a rustic folk dance. Moreover, as the 19th century progressed, the already-comic scherzo was frequently infused with an ironic (or even grotesque) sense of humor. Music in Vienna at the end of the 19th century was a melting pot of styles and ideas, and the late-Romantic scherzo could embody lilting triple-time rhythms, dance inflections, folk gestures, light-hearted comedy, morbid sarcasm—or all of the above. This cacophonic concoction of sounds was Berg’s musical inheritance and the foundation on which he built his own musical identity.
To familiarize ourselves with these dance styles and what they sound like, we’ll start by listening to a selection of waltzes from different sources. Distribute the next section of the reproducible handout, which provides relevant texts (where applicable) and space for students to make notes on what they hear. Students should pay attention to rhythm, tempo, melody, stylistic gestures, and any other element that they feel is notable. First, play Tracks 3 through 6 successively, playing each example once. Then return to Track 3 and repeat each excerpt as necessary, allowing students ample time to write down their conclusions. If your students are not familiar with listening to triple-meter rhythms, you may wish to help them count “one-two-three” (or “oom-pah-pah”) or conduct as they listen. A teacher’s guide to the excerpts is provided below.
Track 3 | Charles Gounod, Faust, Act II, “Ainsi que la brise légère”
This excerpt opens with a rustic introduction, as violins sound a series of open strings and repeated notes. Rapid scales lead into the waltz proper, which begins with the classic “oom-pah-pah” waltz rhythm in the horns and cellos. Throughout, the violins maintain a strong accent on the first beat of each bar with repeated notes and faster notes on the upbeats.
Track 4 | Franz Lehár, The Merry Widow, Act III, “Merry Widow Waltz”
This waltz is slower and more sentimental in tone than the previous excerpt. The orchestra provides a gentler “oom-pah-pah” rhythm, while the voices proceed in a long-short-long-short pattern. In the second stanza, Hannah’s melody uses faster notes on the upbeat and longer held notes on the downbeat to emphasize the waltz meter. This example also displays considerable rubato, in which the singer employs a kind of rhythmic freedom for expressive purposes, speeding up and slowing down to exaggerate the melodic line.
Track 5 | Richard Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier, Act II, “La la … Wie ich Dein Alles werde sein!”
The excerpt begins with the violins milking a lavish rubato upbeat, which they repeat several times against a gentle “oom-pah-pah” accompaniment. The bass voice enters with a lascivious tune that extends into the lowest parts of his range. As in the previous example, the violins’ melody is built on a repeated rhythmic pattern that emphasizes the downbeat. At the line “with me, no night will be too long,” the music veers into a distant key, a much faster waltz tempo, and a more forceful and accented style, verging on the coarse. When the other characters respond, their music is discordant and strained. As the waltz returns with the Baron’s text, it is set against the counterpoint of the other characters’ distress, represented by the chromatic instability of the music.
Track 6 | Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 9, II. Im tempo eines gemächlichen Ländlers (“In the tempo of a leisurely Ländler”)
In this excerpt from Mahler’s symphony (which he marks “etwas täppisch und sehr derb,” meaning “somewhat clumsy and very coarse”), the orchestra begins with heavily accented chords that descend through a whole-tone scale, confusing the tonality. When the violins begin an ornamented repetition of the melody, other instruments establish the waltz rhythm with the “pah-pah” pattern; the “oom” is omitted. The music becomes more and more disjointed. High woodwinds chirp on offbeats, seemingly out of step with the rest of the texture, cymbals crash in comically, and the tonality becomes more confused than ever. By the time the brass enters, the musical atmosphere has taken a distinctly grotesque turn.
Once students have finished listening, invite them to share out some of their observations from this step. You may wish to list some of the main characteristics of the waltz and Ländler on the board.
Now that students have identified (some of) the musical characteristics of the waltz, let’s return to Berg’s scherzo movement from Wozzeck. To help students make sense of the contrasting sections of the scene, let them know that rather than employing a simple scherzo-trio form (a ternary A–B–A form, with the scherzo A section repeated after the trio), Berg created a more complex structure. In this double scherzo, there are two scherzo sections and two trio sections that alternate:
Scherzo I (in the style of a Ländler) | Trio I |
Scherzo II (Waltz) | Trio II |
Scherzo I (Ländler) | Trio I | Scherzo II (Waltz)
If time allows, play the entire scene, provided on Track 7. The shifts between sections are indicated in the text on the reproducible handouts. Point out to students that Berg clearly delineated these sections in style and reserved his dance-inflected music for the various scherzo sections, omitting it from the trios.
Tracks 8 through 12 present shorter excerpts from this scene; asterisks in the text mark where each excerpt begins. Play each of them and ask students to identify musical elements that remind them of the dances they studied in Step 5. Space is provided on the reproducible handouts for students to make notes on their impressions. Some sample reflections are below.
Track 8: Instrumental introduction
- A slow triple meter
- Waltz rhythm in the horns and woodwinds (only the “pah-pah”; the “oom” is omitted)
- Chirping flutes, similar to the flutes in the Mahler example
- A marked slowing of the melody, leading into a lushly harmonized melody in the violins
Track 9: “Ich hab' ein Hemdlein an“ through “Und meine Seele stinkt nach Branntewein“
- A repeating rhythmic pattern of upbeat eighth-notes followed by a half note in the violin melody
- Repeated melodic patterns with slightly changed intervals (similar to the beginning of the Strauss example above)
- Also as in the Strauss example, a sudden shift of texture and style, with the music becoming much coarser andthe rhythm becoming more heavily accented
Track 10: Instrumental music and “Er! Sie! Teufel!“
- A faster triple meter
- An off-kilter tune in the violins at the beginning of the melody
- “Oom-pah-pah” rhythm provided by tuba and accordion
- A marked slowing of the melody, leading into a return of the opening melody
- The beginning of a new melody, featuring closely harmonized violins and repeating patterns that sweep up into a higher register
Track 11: “Bist besoffen? ” through “Warum ist der Mensch?”
- A slower waltz meter
- A modified version of the violin’s melody from Track 9 in the clarinet (later joined by a slide whistle)
- The violins joining the melody, which soon disintegrates
Track 12: Instrumental dance music
- The low brass intoning a melody that is based on the closely harmonized violin melody found part-way through Track 10, but with the melody (as well as the waltz meter) now obscured by the frenetic accompaniment
- After a period of transition, a loud timpani crash signaling the start of a new section and a new, slower tempo, with timpani and low brass playing the “oom-pah-pah” waltz meter underneath an increasingly chaotic musical texture
- The triple meter eventually becoming obscured by a cacophony of different instruments
- An abrupt shift to a faster rhythm, louder dynamic, and even more grotesque and brutal style, which breaks off abruptly
Conclude the lesson by engaging students in a free discussion about the effectiveness of Berg’s scherzo movement. Do they think the various dance stylings contribute to the narrative? Do they help form a vivid portrait of Wozzeck’s mental state? How would students describe the dramatic progression of this scene? Does it correspond to the structural shifts between the scherzo and trio sections? And finally, why might Berg have chosen this scene in particular for his exploration of dance forms?