Alban Berg – Wozzeck

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Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann! This opera starts with Wozzeck shaving a captain in the army. The captain is telling him how to behave like a good person, which Wozzeck accepts, even though it is abusive. In this little miniature the atmosphere of this strange opera is set. Fourteen scenes of casual cruelty follow.

Wozzeck was written between 1914 – 1922, and performed in 1924. It was based on a play called Woyzeck. While not immediately popular, it found its place into the repertoire of the great opera houses by the thirties.

Alban Berg was a pupil of Arnold Schönberg, following his lead into the twelve tone theory. In short, twelve tone theory teaches a rejection of the familiar eight notes and major / minor scales. Instead, the five black keys on the piano are added to the whole, forming 12 tones. In music five plus eight equals twelve (okay… that is because with the eight you traditionally count the first note of the next octave: c/d/e/f/g/a/b/c).

This has always sounded to me like a desperate attempt to do something new, to break the chains of tradition. It is the logical progression of what was happening in music for a long time. What used to be unacceptable in harmony found its way into the compositions. More and more dissonant cords were used, more and more traditional scales were left.

Wozzeck is perhaps the most famous opera in this style, and that was the reason I wanted to try it. A very ambitious plan, I still think. Musically I still don’t understand it, but I do understand its historical significance better.

In the story, Wozzeck has to deal with his woman flirting with someone else. He deals with it by casually shoving a knife in her belly and killing her. He then goes to a bar, flirting with a young woman there, before the blood on his arm is seen and panic ensues.

So many small points in this story connect to the time in which it was written. A militarised time, where at the same time civil life was growing into prominence. Common people, given the key to a democratic government, but looking for a moral. Looking for guidance from a sadistic and inhuman upper class.

Wozzeck could not have been written in any other time, and it reflects the period and sheds a shadow over the immediate future. That casual violence eventually leads to the horrors of twenty years later.

Interestingly, the sides of this record are distributed in a different way, to accommodate for automatic record loading systems. Instead of record 1 having a/b, record 2 c/d sides, these have record 1 a/d and then record 2 b/c. You will see this more often in American pressings, which is where this is coming from.

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