Plot & Creation: Wozzeck
An opera in three acts, sung in German
Music and libretto by Alban Berg
The dramatic fragment Woyzeck by Georg Büchner
The three extant plays of Georg Büchner (1813–1837) reveal a writer profoundly out of step with the style and interests of his day. Though he died just five years after the preeminent figure of German literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), Büchner’s works are miles away from the older writer’s depictions of idealism, freedom, and individual self-determination. Instead, they display a deep pessimism about humanity and the bleakness of existence. Büchner’s Woyzeck takes as inspiration the historical case of an ex-soldier, Johann Christian Woyzeck, who murdered his mistress. A record of Woyzeck’s paranoia and hallucinations was published in the Zeitschrift für Staatsarzneikunde, a medical journal to which Büchner’s father subscribed, and Büchner’s play portrays the title character’s psychosis in vivid but economical terms, often drawing dialogue directly from the medical journal’s account. The result is a grim portrait of mental disease, yet it is also a searing indictment of a society that would allow poverty, the fickle whims of superior officers, medical malpractice, and romantic betrayal to drive one man to cataclysmic violence.
Woyzeck was unfinished upon Büchner’s sudden death at age 23 and languished in obscurity for more than 40 years. In 1879, the novelist Karl Emil Franzos undertook the publication of Büchner’s collected works, deciphering and ordering his episodic Woyzeck manuscript sketches into a cohesive narrative (but misspelling the title character’s name as “Wozzeck” in the process). The play was not mounted on stage for a further 34 years. In 1914, Alban Berg attended its Viennese premiere and, profoundly moved by the work, immediately decided to set it to music. Acting as his own librettist, Berg hewed closely to the published play. He omitted seven of Büchner’s scenes and rearranged the remaining ones into a symmetrical structure of three acts comprising five scenes each. The dialogue remains almost unchanged, with minor textual edits designed to heighten musical-dramatic connections. With these small shifts, Berg married the underlying structure of Büchner’s play to his own rigorous organizing principles, creating a precisely ordered framework for the full expression of his musical ideas.
Act I: An army town and the surrounding countryside
The soldier Wozzeck is shaving the Captain. The officer urges him to work more slowly, then tells him that he is a good man but lacks morality because he has an illegitimate child. Wozzeck replies that virtue is a luxury the poor cannot afford.
Wozzeck and a fellow soldier, Andres, are cutting firewood in the fields. Wozzeck is frightened by visions: He hears noises and imagines the sinking sun as a fire setting the earth aflame. Then suddenly all is quiet.
Marie, the mother of Wozzeck’s child, and her neighbor Margret watch a military band pass by outside their window. Marie admires the handsome Drum Major, and Margret mocks her. Left alone with her young son, Marie sings him a lullaby. Wozzeck arrives and tells her about his visions, which he sees as an omen of evil things to come. Marie tries to comfort him, but he rushes off to the barracks without even greeting their child. Overwhelmed by her own fears, Marie runs out of the room, leaving the child by himself.0
Wozzeck visits the Doctor, who pays him a few pennies to participate in his bizarre medical experiments. Obsessed with the idea of making a grand scientific discovery, the Doctor asks Wozzeck about his diet. Wozzeck attempts to bring up his visions, but the doctor dismisses them as mere imagination.
On the street in front of Marie and Wozzeck’s house, the Drum Major flirts with Marie. She resists at first, but then she gives in to his attentions.
Marie admires a pair of earrings the Drum Major has given her. Wozzeck enters. Marie quickly tries to hide the earrings. When Wozzeck sees them, she lies and claims she found them in the street. Wozzeck is suspicious. He gives her the money he has earned and leaves. Marie is overwhelmed by remorse.
The Captain and the Doctor meet in the street and callously talk of sickness and death. When Wozzeck passes by, they taunt him with allusions to Marie’s infidelity. Shocked, Wozzeck asks them not to make fun of the one thing in the world that is his. Then he rushes off.
Wozzeck confronts Marie. He threatens to hit her, but she remains defiant, telling him that she’d rather have a knife in her belly than his hands on her.
Two drunken apprentices amuse a crowd in a beer garden. Wozzeck enters and sees Marie and the Drum Major on the dance floor. A fool approaches Wozzeck and tells him he smells blood. Wozzeck thinks he sees blood-covered people dancing a wild waltz.
That same evening in the barracks, Wozzeck wakes to nightmarish memories of what happened in the beer garden. The Drum Major enters, drunk and boasting about his conquest of Marie. The two men fight, and Wozzeck is knocked down.
Alone with her child, Marie reads from the Bible. First she reads about the adulteress who was forgiven, then she reads about Mary Magdalene. Wracked with guilt, she begs God for mercy.
Marie and Wozzeck walk together near a pond. Marie wants to hurry back to town, but Wozzeck forces her to remain. He kisses her and makes ironic remarks about her fidelity. When she attempts to escape, he draws a knife and kills her.
Wozzeck is drinking in a tavern, shouting wildly and dancing with Margret. Then Margret notices blood on his arm. Unable to explain where the blood came from, Wozzeck rushes out.
Back at the pond, Wozzeck searches for the knife and throws it into the water. Terrified that the moon will reveal his crime, he wades farther into the water to hide the knife in a safer place and wash the blood off his hands. The Doctor and Captain, passing by, hear him struggling in the water, but they hurry along without offering help. Wozzeck drowns.
While playing in the street, neighbor children tell Marie’s son that his mother is dead. He does not understand and keeps playing.
Georg Büchner is born near Darmstadt on October 17 to a family of physicians. A a medical student, Büchner becomes an early expert in comparative anatomy, which he pursues alongside his interests in economics and political revolution.
The ex-soldier and barber Johann Christian Woyzeck murders his mistress, whom he suspects of infidelity. At his trial, his defense demonstrates that Woyzeck hears voices and hallucinates, and they enter a plea of insanity. The court’s expert witness judges him fit for trial; he is found guilty and executed three years later in Leipzig.
Dr. Johann Christian August Clarus, the court’s expert witness, publishes his interviews with Woyzeck in the medical journal Zeitschrift für Staatsarzneikunde. Büchner’s father has a subscription to the journal, and much of the dialogue in Büchner’s play is taken directly from this account.
Büchner composes his dramatic fragment Woyzeck. When he dies of typhoid fever at age 23 on February 19, 1837, Woyzeck is left incomplete. The work can be understood as either grittily realistic or morbidly expressionistic, but by either measure, it is an example of astonishing modernism for the age.
Woyzeck is published for the first time in a collection of Büchner’s works. (The misspelling of the title character as “Wozzeck” dates from this publication.) The play becomes well known in avant-garde literary circles.
Alban Berg is born on February 9, the third of four children, to a wealthy Viennese family. Berg learns piano from his governess and often composes songs for family performances.
Berg begins private composition lessons with Arnold Schoenberg, Vienna’s preeminent avant-garde composer and an instrumental figure in the development of a post-tonal music system. Despite having had no formal musical training before this time, Berg’s skill increases rapidly under Schoenberg’s rigorous tutorial.
Seventy-six years after Büchner’s death, Woyzeck is performed for the first time, in Munich.
Berg attends the first Viennese performance of Woyzeck. According to contemporary accounts, Berg leaves the performance pale and clammy, commenting to a colleague, “Isn’t it fantastic? Someone must set it to music.” Berg begins sketching ideas for an opera—his first work for the dramatic stage—almost immediately. But war is declared in July, and World War I forces a delay in Berg’s composition.
Berg is conscripted into the Austrian army in June. A life-long sufferer from asthma, he is declared unfit for active duty and assigned to an office job at the War Ministry. This time spent subject to the caprices of despotic military managers increases Berg’s sense of self-identification with the title character of Wozzeck. Although the work remains at the forefront of Berg’s creative thought, he is not able to make measurable headway on its composition until after the war.
Berg resumes work on Wozzeck. He finishes Act I in the summer of 1919, Acts II and III by the fall of 1921, and the full orchestration in April 1922.
Without a commercial publisher willing to print the score, Berg borrows money to pay for a private publication of the vocal reduction. Separately, Schoenberg writes to his publisher, Universal Editions, praising the work. Berg contracts with Universal for Wozzeck’s publication in 1923.
Having worked unsuccessfully for over a year to interest opera companies in his new opera, Berg produces a concert suite based on portions of the work. These Drei Bruchstücke aus Wozzeck (Three Fragments from Wozzeck) are performed in Frankfurt in the summer to critical acclaim.
In the meantime, the conductor Erich Kleiber decides to produce Wozzeck at the Berlin Staatsoper. Despite political infighting, the resignation of the opera’s general director, and the intrusion of government bureaucracy, Berg’s opera survives the Staatsoper’s period of upheaval and has its premiere on December 14.
Adolf Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany. With the increasing power of the Nazi party, atonal and experimental music, becomes dangerous to perform. From this time on, Berg’s financial situation worsens steadily.
Berg dies on December 24 from an infected insect sting.