Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Wozzeck

Conductor Erich Kleiber, Alban Berg, and Leo Schützendorf, prior to the world premiere of Berg’s Wozzeck
Left-to-right: conductor Erich Kleiber (1890-1956), Alban Berg (1885-1935) and bass-baritone Leo Schützendorf (the first Wozzeck, 1886-1931) at the State Opera in Berlin, December 1925, prior to the world premiere of Berg’s Wozzeck

We mark the premiere performance on December 14, 1925 – 95 years ago today – of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck in Berlin, conducted by Erich Kleiber. That premiere performance was preceded by 137 rehearsals. Wozzeck was, and remains, one of the great masterworks of the twentieth century.

Johann Franz Wozzeck, the title character of Berg’s opera, is described as being:

“Thirty years and seven months old, militia man and fusilier in the second regiment, second battalion, fourth company; uneducated, uncomprehending.”

Wozzeck is slowly being driven insane by those around him, something we become aware of early in the first act.

Composed in greatest part during and immediately after World War One, Johann Franz Wozzeck’s incipient madness reflects not just the eroding mind of a doomed soldier but a doomed generation as well. According to the musicology Professor Glenn Watkins of the University of Michigan:

“Wozzeck’s growing madness is as vivid a projection of impending world doom as any to come out of the Great War.”

Johann Christian Woyzeck
Johann Christian Woyzeck (1780-1824)

Berg’s opera is based on a play based on a real-life person: a confessed murderer named Johann Christian Woyzeck (W-o-y-z-e-c-k). This Woyzeck was a Leipzig-born wigmaker and barber who later enlisted in the army. In a fit of jealous rage, suffering from hallucinations, he stabbed and killed the woman he’d been living with: a 46-year-old widow named Johanna Christine Woost.

This Woyzeck was guillotined on August 27, 1824 for his crime. A few years later, a young medical student and aspiring playwright named Karl Georg Büchner used a book written about Woyzek’s case as the basis for a play entitled Woyzeck. Tragically, Büchner died of Typhus on February 19, 1837, at the age of just 23. His play was left unfinished and in nearly illegible manuscript. (Which is why generations of readers – including Alban Berg – thought the protagonist’s name was Wozzeck – W-o-z-z-e-c-k: Büchner’s “Woyzeck” was miscopied when the unfinished play was first published after his death.) Over the years, the play has been “finished” by a number of authors and editors. In the process is has become one of the most popular and influential plays in the German theatrical repertoire.…

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