It was the start of the 20th century, and the artistic world was shifting to a new interpretation of the world. The days of rich vitality and passion of the Romantics were fading away, and crawling to the surface was a gritty, twisted, yet painfully honest style.
An artistic style based on the distortion of reality, to express meaning and to give a deeper emotional experience. In terms of music, expressionism is characterized by hyper-expressive harmonies, wide leaps, and instrumentation in high registers, harsh dissonance, sudden dynamic changes, and large jumps in the melody. A reaction to positivism, naturalism, as well as French Impressionism, the artists of the movement were furiously committed to creating an individual perspective evident in their work.
Most of all, it was the curiosity of the subconscious and the drive to give it a voice that defined expressionism.
Alban Berg, citizen of Vienna, champion of expressionism, and member of the 2nd Viennese School, was busy questioning his future in the year of 1914. World War I was fast approaching, and he was not excited to have to give up his gradually forming idea of an opera. He had been studying music with Schoenberg, leader of the group of musicians known as the 2nd Viennese School. However, war came anyways, and his progress on his opera was halted until 1917, when he was able to leave his regiment and resume composing. The work was completed in 1922, a grand work of his time, and it was named, Wozzeck.
Synopsis from Vienna State Opera:
Alban Berg’s Wozzeck details the harsh existence of the title character, a former soldier in the German army who has to struggle mightily to make a living, even as others around him prosper. Wozzeck is living with Marie, a former prostitute and the mother of his young son. Wozzeck’s mental state seems to be increasingly unsettled, and he begins to see visions. Marie worries about him but does not know what she can do. Meanwhile, Wozzeck has agreed to be part of a dietary experiment by a doctor, who seems pleased with his patient’s increasing instability. While Wozzeck is out, Marie allows herself to be seduced by a flirtatious drum major. Wozzeck suspects that something has occurred, a suspicion that is inflamed when the doctor and a captain for whom Wozzeck works taunt him with hints about Marie’s faithlessness. His visions growing wilder, Wozzeck stabs and kills Marie, then drowns himself, leaving his son alone in the cruel world. ~ Craig Butler, Rovi
Based on the incomplete drama Woyzeck by German playwright Georg Buchner, Wozzeck was born from Berg’s own response to the play. He used fifteen of Buchner’s unordered scene and structured the opera into three acts with five scenes. He adapted the libretto himself, retaining the essential character of the play and its haunted realism for the life of the poor and the fragility of the human spirit. It was the first opera, and even more importantly, the first large scale composition that was written atonally. (Atonality= the lack of tonal key or centre; music without harmonies based on a home key) Atonality had been decried by its adversaries as “the technic for miniatures,” and for good reason. Music without a key leaves the audience searching for resolution and a feeling of “home.” To use it as a foundation for a grand-scale structure had never been done before, and very much avante-garde. So how did Berg maintain unity in such a large work without a key centre or home? Leitmotifs, such as character motives, created the sense of coherence necessary for an opera like this one. Established in the first act for each individual character, Berg also uses motifs to give the audience an insight into the character’s thoughts. The most significant motif is first heard sung by Wozzeck himself, to the words ‘Wir arme Leut’ (poor folk like us). Tracing out a minor chord with added major seventh, it is frequently heard as the signal of the inability of the various characters to transcend their situation.
I don’t think I’ve quite put the peculiarity of Expressionist music into words quite well enough. Take a listen yourself. This is Act 3, Scene 5, the last one. The last few phrases may be my favorites of the opera.
So why did I choose this piece of art? And what is the aesthetic value of something so twisted, yet so jarring and powerful?
Growing up surrounded by rich, harmonious Classical (or pre-20th century) music, I remember the very first time I heard this opera. Sitting in the chair of my music history teacher’s piano room, I felt something the moment I heard the first phrase. Simply speaking, I was wary, if not repulsed by the key-less and dissonance sounds that seemed to go nowhere but straight into my face. The harmonies never resolved and the rhythm and dynamics kept trying to pull and push and stretch beyond what I had ever heard before. The singing was staggering; the melody that contained the voices exploded in register and the notes were continuously being dropped and re-strung in pitch. But the more I continued to listen the more tightly the music’s grip seemed to be. No, I was not captured by beauty, nor tenderness that gave me shivers. What shook me was the strange all-knowing power of each and every unusual note. It was in no key but each chord knew with affinity where it would go next. This opera, written to give a voice to the subconscious, was not beautiful, nor morale. Instead, it was full of clashing, unheard of dissonances and bloodthirsty murder and hallucinations. The fear occupying the undercurrent of the opera felt real inside of me. This piece of art made me scared, terrified at times. Did that go against our very basic instinctual love for beauty that created art? Aesthetically, it didn’t project the perfection that could or should exist in our world, but told a raw and realistic story of a poor, broken man. Yet, there is no possible way that I would ever consider it value-less, or not art. The power and honesty and musical inventiveness of Mr. Berg made me feel something. And a lot of that something.
When the scene ended, I leaned back in my chair and realized I was out of breath. The music had been pulling the air from my lungs and pushing me into the world of Wozzeck very deeply but I hadn’t quite realized until I resurfaced.
Though it may not be beautiful in a conventional sense, nor particularly pleasing, Wozzeck has the power to hit an audience at the core, making us feel both at mercy and entranced with the strange and fascinating voices that fill our lives.