Opera and Wozzeck

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  • Topic: Opera, Wozzeck, Alban Berg
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Summary for Wozzeck by Alban Berg

Title: Wozzeck

Composer: Alban Maria Johannes Berg (1885-1935)

Librettist: George Buchner (1813-1837)

Circumstances of composition and place of the work in the composer’s output

The roots of Berg's opera stretch back a century before its creation to 1824, when Johann Christian Woyzeck, soldier, barber and drifter, was publicly beheaded for murder, despite a then-novel defence of insanity stemming from the oppressive turns of his failed life. The troubling issues of the case gripped Georg Buchner, a young physician, political radical and budding playright, who died of typhoid in 1837 at age 23, leaving unfinished a gritty play envisaging the social pressures Woyzeck had faced. Four decades later, 27 scenes were found, some of only a few lines, but the faded ink, scrawled handwriting and disparities among several fragmentary manuscript drafts posed daunting challenges. In 1914, Alban Berg, an Austrian composer saw a realization in Vienna and was captivated. His own service in the Austrian military during World War I gave him a sense of Wozzeck’s life as a soldier and provides details for the opera.[1] Over the next three years, he tightened Buchner's material into three acts of five scenes to be joined by orchestral interlude and took a final year for the orchestration.[2] Though Berg began to work on the opera in 1914, he was delayed by the start of World War I and it was not until he was on leave from his regiment in 1917 and 1918 that he was able to devote his attention to it. Completing Act 1 by the summer of 1919, Act 2 in August 1921, and the final act during the following two month (with orchestration finalized over the following six months), Wozzeck was completed in April 1922. [3] Wozzeck is regarded as the first opera produced in the 20th century “Avant garde” style and is also one of the most famous examples of employing atonality. Berg was following in the footsteps of his teacher. Arnold Schoenberg, by using free atonality to express emotions and even the thought processes of the characters on the stage. The expression of madness and alienation was amplified with atonal music.

Berg’s bold structure and spare sound stress precision and economy. It is indeed the rawest of any opera.[4] Berg’s opera presents us with such a “Heightened and distorted” actuality rather than with a documentary realism. There is no attempt in Wozzeck, as there is in Britten’s Peter Grimes for example, to depict the title figure as a misfit in a normal society in which people are going about their everyday business and leading the recognizably ordinary lives. The picture with which Berg presents us is that of a society in which the underprivileged are at the mercy of an unfeeling, selfish and sadistic ruling class, a class that keeps the less fortunate in their place through its financial domination and its appeals to various moral ideals.[5]

Date and place of first performance

Erich Kleiber (1890-1956), the Berlin State Opera institution's music director, conducted the world premiere at the Berlin State Opera on 14 December 1925.

Reception on first performance and brief subsequent reception history

The opera’s first performance received excellent reviews from the audience. It led to a stream of productions in Germany and Austria, before the Nazis consigned it to the dustbin of 'decadent art' after 1933. Initially, Wozzeck established a solid place for itself in the mainstream operatic tradition and quickly became so well-established in the repertoire of the major European opera houses that Berg found himself able to live a comfortable life off the royalties. He spent a good deal of his time through the 1920s and 30s travelling to attend performances and to give talks about the opera.now it is regarded as one of the most successful modern operas and by far the most popular atonal opera.[6]

Vocal and instrumental forces and their deployment

Vocal deployment:
In...
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