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(by Alban Berg)

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Opera in three acts.

Written in 1914-22.

Premiere: Statsoper, Berlin, 1925.

Libretto: Alban Berg based on Georg Buchner’s 1837 play, Woyzeck.

Act 1
Wozzeck, a soldier, shaves the Captain, who lectures him on his moral failures. Wozzeck replies that "we poor folk" could be virtuous if only they were well-off "gentlemen". Wozzeck is in a field with another soldier, cutting brush. Wozzeck sees half-visions. Marie, Wozzeck’s mistress, admires a passing Drum Major. She sings her son a lullaby. The Doctor is experimenting on Wozzeck (for which he pays the latter money) when Wozzeck tells him that he has been seeing visions. The Doctor is delighted. Marie again smiles at the Drum Major and invites him into her house.

Overture to Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck (image)

Overture to Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck

Act 2
Marie is admiring a new pair of earrings that the Drum Major has given her. Wozzeck enters and ask her from where she obtained the earrings. She does not tell him. Though he is suspicious, Wozzeck gives her his pay and leaves. The Doctor and the Captain tease Wozzeck about the Drum Major and hint that Marie is being unfaithful. Wozzeck returns to the house and accuses Marie of infidelity. She denies it. Marie and the Drum Major dance in a garden, watched by Wozzeck. An idiot is telling the future and says that he smells blood on Wozzeck. The latter tries to sleep but is troubled by visions. The Drum Major arrives and boasts of his "conquest" of Marie. Wozzeck and the Drum Major fight. Wozzeck is beaten up and the Drum Major leaves.

Act 3
Marie is reading the Bible. Her son tells her a story about a hungry orphan. Marie and Wozzeck walk in the woods. A blood-red moon rises and Wozzeck stabs Marie. Wozzeck goes to a tavern where he drowns his guilt by drinking. Someone notices blood on his hand and Wozzeck panics and rushes out. Wozzeck throws away the murder weapon, a knife, deep into a pond. Spooked by the red moon, he wades into the pond to retrieve the knife and throw it into deeper water; but he wades into too far and drowns. The Doctor and the Captain pass by and hear the sound of a man drowning but they hurry on. Marie’s son is playing outside his mother’s house when the other children tell him his mother has died.

Study Notes

Berg's opera is based on a play by Georg Büchner that lay unperformed for almost a century.

Büchner's play was based on the real-life story of a man in the early 19th century named Woyzeck who was executed for murdering his common-law wife.

Büchner die in 1837 and the manuscript of his play was only discovered amongst the writer's effects in the 1870s. The play was then published but it was not to have a performance until 1913.

The first performance caused a sensation.

Berg happened to attend the play's premiere and he determined that he would turn the play into an opera. This was delayed by Berg's war service during the First World War and his opera, Wozzeck, finally had its premiere in 1922.

This premiere was also a sensational success and was immediately regarded as a milestone in operatic history. The opera almost caused a riot at its first performance with its shock-horror plot and its atonal music based on a musical structure that few could understand at the time.

In his book The Problem of Opera, Berg wrote of his opera, Wozzeck, as follows:

There must not be anyone in the audience who ... notices anything of these fugues, inventions, suites and sonata movements, variations, and passacaglias. Nobody must be filled with anything except the idea of the opera.

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Author: David Paul Wagner
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See also:
Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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