Compozitorul Alban Berg
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On September 14, for the first time at the 2015 Enescu Festival and in Romania, Lo Hussain will conduct the Choir and Orchestra of the George Enescu Philharmonic with the concert opera Wozzeck, by Alban Berg. Although less known to the Romanian audience, Wozzeck is considered the last major opera in history or, on the contrary, the first opera in a new age of the history of music. Alexandru Pătrașcu tells the fascinating story behind this composition and gives you the reasons why you should listen to it.

by Alexandru Pătrașcu, author of the blog Despre operă

First there was a typo.

The manuscript of Georg Büchner’s theatre play was almost illegible, his bad handwriting being even more difficult to decipher because the ink had faded, so his editor, Karl Franzos, read “Wozzeck” and “Woyzeck” when the first edition was published in 1879.

The Vienna premiere of the theatre play was in 1914.

A young composer, Alban Berg, was in the audience, and he was so stunned with what he had seen that, at the end, he exclaimed: “Someone should put this to music!”

The result was the opera Wozzeck, which premiered in Berlin, in 1925, conducted by Erich Kleiber.

The music is avant-garde, to the point where Wozzeck is considered the last major opera in history or, on the contrary, the first opera in a new age of the history of music.

It is a difficult music for those who like Barbers and Traviatas, which is why it is not performed in Romania.

But it is a music that concludes the European belle époque, being the result of an artistic and intellectual burst in the Vienna of the beginning of the 20th century, where Alban Berg lived among geniuses like the composer who reinvented symphonies – Gustav Mahler, the inventor of psychoanalysis – Sigmund Freud, the symbolist painter Gustav Klimt, the modern architect Alfred Loos (author of the Tzara House in Paris). A world of madmen who turned the artistic world upside down, before the real world did the same after the First World War.

But the history of Woyzeck/Wozzeck is full of challenging coincidences. For instance, in 1913, the year when Büchner’s play had its absolute premiere, George Enescu received the libretto for Oedipe from Edmond Fleg, and in 1922, when Berg finished writing Wozzeck, the Romanian composer finished the music of the same Oedipe, completing the orchestration in 1931.

Woyzeck truly existed

Woyzeck truly existed. He was a soldier, an outsider, who killed his lover out of jealousy. He was sentenced to death and executed in Leipzig, the city where Bach lived and Wagner was born, in 1824, a few weeks after Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 had premiered in Vienna.

A crime of passion, yet a common one, at the outskirts of society, a brutal execution, which could have gone unnoticed.

However, history made Woyzeck’s trial be instrumented by a medical expertise to show if the defendant was mad or if he had the entire responsibility for the murder.

Johan Clarus, the doctor who led the expertise, published his study in a specialised journal. This is how Georg Büchner, a young physician, could read it and then write a theatre play on the subject, which he had found fascinating.

Büchner, who was born in 1813, the same year as Verdi and Wagner, started writing around the year 1836, leaving the composition unfinished because he died a year later.

The composer Alban Berg in a photo published by the famous New Yorker

Another coincidence, of the fact that during the same period of time Donizetti finished composing Lucia di Lammermoor, made then the director Andrei Șerban see in Lucia’s character the female version of Woyzeck: the man pressed by a military, inherently oppressive environment, which turns people mad and kills them. I wonder what it would have been like if the roles were reserved: if Donizetti had composed an opera inspired by the case of Woyzeck, and if Alban Berg had written Lucia di Lammermoor…

Instant success in the Germanic world

If Alban Berg’s opera was instantly successful in the Germanic world, for the Latin countries it took some more time.

At the end of the Second World War, a concert performance of Wozzeck at the Teatro alla Scala was booed.

The music is avant-garde, to the point where Wozzeck is considered the last major opera in history or, on the contrary, the first opera in a new age of the history of music.

This incident made the Italian writer and publicist Alberto Savinio (1891-1952) write an article entitled I am addressing some of the spectators of the Teatro alla Scala, in which he blamed the conservatism and provincialism of an Italy dominated by a nationalism aiming to matter in European politics. According to Savinio, if a nation which invented opera cannot understand the music of Alban Berg, then that nation cannot matter in international politics.

If Savinio could make this association of ideas in 1948, we should think about the fact that Wozzeck is not played at all in Romanian opera theatres in 2015.

That Romania is dominated by a conservative, nationalist mentality and by provincialism, is no longer a secret, but an evidence. Besides, as a member state of the European Union, we also suffer from an inferiority complex that we can’t influence European politics, after Romanian politicians have had enough of boring people with singing various versions of the Choir of slaves who have escaped Communism.

This is a very good reason to see the Wozzeck opera at the 2015 Enescu Festival.

Do you want more coincidences?

It’s still in concert.

With German soloists of great quality and with the Orchestra of the “George Enescu” Philharmonic conducted by Leo Hussain. The stake of this concert means more than a mere musical success or failure. Why? You will understand better if you read Alberto Savinio’s article.

I am addressing some of the spectators of the Teatro alla Scala

Last May we listened to a symphonic concert at the Teatro alla Scala, conducted by Erich Kleiber (a symphonic concert in 1948 – our note). The programme included fragments of Wozzeck, by Alban Berg. At the end, few applause and a lot of booing. I wondered: “How could we have a foreign policy if we boo Wozzeck?” […]

There is no foreign policy if we do not have a perfect knowledge of a common language.

            Language not in the strict meaning of vocabulary: a language a group of knowledge, notions, tastes, morals, mental shape. The language used today in foreign policy includes not just the French and English vocabulary, but also the system of knowledge, notions and morals that build the mental shape of the international man of today. To be on equal footing in foreign policy, we need everything that stands in the spirit of cultured men today to become common sense and natural elements. And Wozzeck by Alban Berg is in the spirit of cultured men today. […]

            I am addressing that part of the audience at the Scala who, after the fragments from Wozzeck, manifested their discontent loudly.

            You don’t need to love the music of Wozzeck. You don’t need to love it as you love the Cavalleria rusticana. In school you were not asked to love the Cyropaedia and Manzoni’s Sacred Hymns. It is enough to accept the music of Wozzeck. To accept it with the impassivity of the polite man accepting unpleasant things. To accept it, waiting for the thing you find unpleasant today to become pleasant tomorrow. You will hear Wozzeck and similar works are: “ugly music.” Don’t pay attention to this statement. Children don’t like beer. They find it bitter. Children can’t yet appreciate the sweetness of bitter taste. Understanding various tastes and flavours comes later. […] Wait. Be patient. One day, you will like the music of Wozzeck, just like today you like the music of Cavalleria rusticana. You will like it even more than the Cavalleria rusticana. Because the pleasure given by Wozzeck is better than the pleasure given by the Cavalleria rusticana. Better, because the pleasure given by Wozzeck includes the pleasure given by the Cavalleria rusticana, with a new, higher quality pleasure, which you can’t find in the Cavalleria rusticana. Why refuse a new, higher quality pleasure? If you boo after the fragments of Wozzeck, you do not just prove your inability to have a foreign policy, but you are also unfair with yourselves.

            Today, foreign policy no longer speaks the language in Cavalleria rusticana: it speaks Wozzeck’s language. The people who still use, nowadays, in foreign policy, the language in Cavalleria rusticana are first regarded with astonishment, then with indifference, and eventually they are treated as if they were absent. We want to learn the cause of some of the failures we have had in foreign policy, due to the indifference with which we are treated, the cause of an absence we are guilty of?… It’s easy: in Wozzeck’s time, some of our delegates still speak the language in the Cavalleria rusticana.

            The similarity between the Cavalleria rusticana and Wozzeck is not random, it is made deliberately. The two works are equivalent, but on different historic planes. Both are realistic, naturalistic, purely physical. Hence this feeling of “now” that both of them have, to the point where they leave no room for metaphysics. Both stem from the physical feeling of men and things, both express the physical feeling of men and things. Without false pretensions, without concessions, without compromise. And yet, there is a profound difference between Wozzeck and the Cavalleria rusticana, because the physical feeling of men and things has changed between the two operas. Or, to be more precise, the starting point of the physical has changed. In the age of the Cavalleria, the physical began on top of the skin. Under the skin there was the inviolable sanctuary of the soul. Today, the physical begins under the skin: in man’s intimacy. (The sanctuary has been violated, the seed of the physical has replaced the soul.) The Cavalleria expressed the first physical, Wozzeck expresses the second one. 

           Accepting the Cavalleria and not accepting Wozzeck means accepting the first physical and not accepting the second. Namely accepting the physical of yesterday and not accepting the physical of today. This means preserving a physical that is no longer physical, and not recognising the physical of today, “our” physical. How can one participate in today’s life, how can one “make” a foreign policy if one does not know the physical of today, if one does not feel the physical of today, if one does not live in the physical of today? Unreal foreign policy…

            And those who boo think the Cavalleria is real and that Wozzeck is unreal…

Unpleasant music. It is true. But life is unpleasant today, too. Life is no longer protected, adapted, disguised by a motherly, optimistic “divinity.” This is how things work. Man is alone. I cannot do anything about it and the only thing I recommend is resignation. Everything else is false.

 

Translation provided by Biroul de Traduceri Champollion

 

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