Expressive Atonality


AS WE APPROACH the year 2000, it becomes ever clearer that the number of twentieth-century musical masterpieces is remarkably small, compared either with the number of contemporary literary or artistic ones or with the number of musical masterpieces produced in the eighteenth or the nineteenth century. High on the list of these few masterpieces stands the opera Wozzeck, by the Viennese composer Alban Berg (1885-1935). Though it is mainly atonal, an avowedly avant-garde work in which no apparent concessions are made to popular taste, its 1925 Berlin premiere was an immediate popular (as well as critical) success, and was quickly followed by equally successful productions in Prague (1926) and Leningrad (1927). The American premiere, conducted by Leopold Stokowski and with sets by Robert Edmond Jones, took place in 1931. Wozzeck had had twenty-seven separate productions by the end of 1932, a month before the Nazis came to power and banned it and other “decadent" works; by the end of 1936, the total number of performances had risen to 166; in 1942, there was even a performance in Rome, over strong Nazi protest. Since the end of the war, Wozzeck has been performed in most major opera houses, and is now firmly established in the permanent repertoire.

For a formidably difficult work, Wozzeck has been recorded fairly often. Moreover, all the recordings are well worth hearing. Dmitri Mitropoulos’s pioneering 1951 version (until recently, available on Odyssey set Y2 33126, but now, unfortunately, out of print) is the one that most successfully projects the

work’s haunted, nightmarish atmosphere. The recorded sound lacks definition, and the orchestral playing is occasionally haphazard, but Mack Harrell and Eileen Farrell are superb as Wozzeck and his mistress, Marie, and Joseph Mordino’s Captain and Ralph Herbert’s Doctor are masterpieces of grotesque caricature, unsurpassed on later recordings. Karl Böhm’s 1965 version (Deutsche Grammophon 2707 023) is somewhat less exciting dramatically, but it has superb playing by the Berlin Philharmonic and two excellent principals in Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Evelyn Lear. Pierre Boulez’s 1966 Paris Opera performance (CBS M2 30852) has a less distinguished cast, but Boulez renders Berg’s complex orchestral textures with unique clarity and transparency. (There is also a fine 1953 broadcast performance of three excerpts from Wozzeck, conducted by Erich Klieber, who conducted the opera’s premiere, on Fonit Cetra DOC 3; this important record, which also contains an equally fine 1945 broadcast performance of the Berg Violin Concerto by the Hungarian-born Joseph Szigeti, may be ordered from IBR Classics, 40-11 24th Street, Long Island City, New York 10111.)

Now there is a fourth recording, by Christoph von Dohnányi and the Vienna Philharmonic, with Eberhard Waechter and Anja Silja in the principal roles (London LDR 72007). The flawless orchestral playing is captured with breathtaking fidelity by the new digital recording process, and the balance between singers and orchestra is better main-

tained than on any of the previous versions. But the performance is a little tame and careful, standing at the opposite end of the spectrum from the inspired madness of Mitropoulos’s reading.

Waechter sings well but is rather impersonal, not as tormented and desperate as Wozzeck ought to be. Silja, too, sings beautifully and accurately, but she rarely stops sounding like an opera singer long enough to become fully involved in her role and in the drama. In her scenes with Waechter, they often seem to be standing at arm’s length from each other, and at the end of Act I, when she first refuses and then allows herself to be seduced by the Drum-Major, there is none of the violent reversal of feeling so memorably projected by Farrell and Lear.

Similarly with the minor characters. In the opening scene, for example, the Captain, whom Wozzeck is shaving, keeps badgering him, telling him to go more slowly, to take life easy (“Langsam, Wozzeck, langsam!”). It is obvious, however, from what the Captain says and from the erratic, angular contours of his vocal line, that he himself is anything but easygoing. He is, in fact, fearful and obsessed with death, as we are later to see clearly in his long scene with the equally crazy Doctor. Yet Heinz Zednik’s Captain seems perfectly sane and not even especially cruel as he taunts Wozzeck and lectures him about having an illegitimate child. As the Doctor, Alexander Malta is powerful and full-voiced, but he, too, plays it straight, never sounding really possessed by thoughts of the immortality he imagines he will gain through the dietary experiments he is performing on Wozzeck.

Despite its comparative tameness, the performance has an unobtrusive, cumulative power that is very impressive. The large, panoramic scenes, especially the ones in the inn and the tavern, are more effective than the intimate, conversational ones. Yet this Wozzeck, its many virtues aside, fails to re-create the crazed world that Berg so perfectly imagined.

WHY WAS WOZZECK so much more immediately intelligible to audiences than most avant-garde musical works of the 1920s, and why has it demonstrated so much more staying power than they have done? Avant-garde apologists, actually somewhat embarrassed by the opera’s popularity, have often chalked it up to the superficial “excitement" of the play Berg used, only slightly altered, as his text. And Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck is undeniably exciting. Moreover, though it was written in 1836 by the amazing Buchner, who died the following year at the age of twentythree, it reads almost as if it might have been written eighty or ninety years later. The poor army barber Woyzeck— hounded and victimized by the Captain and the Doctor, betrayed by the pathetic, capricious Marie, subject to terrifying visions he can neither understand nor control—is not only an unforgettable character; he is also a character who fits perfectly into the world of 1920s expressionist drama. Equally unforgettable are the scenes that make up the final, inevitable catastrophe: Woyzeck’s murder of Marie, which he commits as though entranced by the blood-red moon rising in the sky; his guilty, compulsive return to the pond beside which he stabbed her and his drowning as he walks farther and farther out into the water, searching for the incriminating knife; and the chilling, poignant last scene, in which a group of slightly older children who have found Marie’s body try to make her child understand that his mother is dead, while he just keeps riding his hobby-horse, repeating “Hipp, hopp! Hipp, hopp!”

But Büchner’s drama was also set by another composer of the 1920s, Manfred Gurlitt. Given its premiere only a few months after Berg’s opera, Gurlitt’s had a brief success, but quickly sank without a trace. The inescapable conclusion is that the success of Wozzeck, like that of all great operas, is based primarily on its music.

No one who knows the opera can read the drama without recalling vividly the soft, slow, muted-trombone arpeggios that catch the image of the moon rising over the pond, or the slithering upward chromatic scales in winds and strings as Wozzeck drowns, or the eerie quiet of the very last bars. Moreover, it was Berg who decided to cut Büchner’s final lines, in which a policeman comments on the murder, and end with the child’s pathetic, uncomprehending words. More important, Berg inserted between the drowning and the final scene a powerful orchestral elegy for Wozzeck. Though often criticized, by Stravinsky among others, as too explicit and too traditional in its musical substance, the elegy is a dramatic masterstroke: it releases at last, without the intrusion of words, which would have been crudely explicit at this point, all the feelings of pity and despair built up by Wozzeck’s tragedy. The sustained invention and dramatic rightness of Berg’s music give body and depth to Büchner’s somewhat fragmentary play; Berg not only overcomes the difficulties of the atonal idiom in which the music is cast but wonderfully exploits them, rendering the twisted and distorted nature of Wozzeck and the characters who surround him more effectively than would have been possible in a more traditional idiom. Most listeners, even relatively inexperienced ones who dislike (or think they dislike) modern music, have no trouble becoming immediately engaged and following the course of the elaborate score from beginning to end.

TO ENTER THE world of Wozzeck is one of the great, central twentiethcentury aesthetic experiences, fully comparable to entering the world of Ulysses or The Waste Land or Kafka’s stories, the world of Picasso or Matisse. For a three-act opera, Wozzeck is very short: almost exactly an hour and a half, or about the length of a single act of a Wagner opera. In fact, one often has trouble remembering how short it is—so much drama, so much intensity and variety of feeling, so much wit and grotesquerie, are packed into its ninety minutes. Extraordinarily grand and imposing, it is also as pitilessly concise and economical as a Bach fugue. One may say of it what D. F. Tovey said of Haydn—that almost everything is unexpected yet nothing is difficult to follow. How did Berg manage it? Certainly no listener has ever been particularly troubled by this question. Anyone who knows the opera well can point out many telling details like the ones I mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Moreover, there are many recurring motifs—snatches of folk songs, the little march associated with the Drum-Major and with Marie’s betrayal of Wozzeck, the four-note phrase that embodies Wozzeck’s impassioned outburst “Wir arme Leut’!” (“We poor people!”)—that help the listener to organize the music as he listens. Yet it is always very satisfying to have one’s appreciation of a piece of music complemented, explained, and extended by systematic analysis; and until recently, the analysts have been of remarkably little help with Wozzeck. There are two related reasons for this failure.

Berg pointed out in several articles that in arranging the twenty-six scenes of Büchner’s drama into the fifteen of the opera, he had employed a number of traditional musical forms. Each of the three acts contains five scenes. Those of Act I are what Berg called “character pieces”: Suite, Rhapsody, Military march and lullaby, Passacaglia, and Andante affetuoso (quasi Rondo). Those of Act II constitute a “symphony”: Sonata-form movement, Fantasia and fugue, Largo, Scherzo, and Rondo con introduzione. Those of Act III, together with the orchestral elegy inserted between Scenes 4 and 5, are a series of “inventions”: on a theme, a note, a rhythm, a hexachord, a tonality, and a regular eighth-note movement. While these forms were evidently of help to Berg in the act of composition, they have only occasional relevance to the listener, who remains largely unaware of their presence. Berg himself repeatedly stressed their lack of relevance, yet many critics, beginning with his first biographer, his friend and pupil Willi Reich, eagerly seized upon them and made them central to their analyses of Wozzeck. Reich even arranged them into a convenient chart, very much like the one of the episodes of Ulysses that Joyce communicated to his friend and early apologist Stuart Gilbert. Like Joyce’s chart, Reich’s has proven to be a red herring, of little use to listeners and a distraction to analysts.

The second reason for the failure of most analyses of Wozzeck stems from the fact that Berg, as a pupil of Arnold

Schoenberg, played an important part in what was once thought to have been the crucial development in twentieth-century music—the evolution and employment of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method. Convinced that the resources of tonality had been utterly exhausted by the post-Wagnerian chromaticism of the late nineteenth century, Schoenberg, followed closely by his two most important pupils, Berg and Anton von Webern, set about effecting what was often spoken of as “the liberation of the dissonance,” the freeing of music from any dependence upon a tonal center. The twelve-tone method, which completed this process by supposedly rendering all twelve notes of the chromatic scale of absolutely equal value within a given work, was thought by its enthusiastic supporters to be an achievement not only natural and fruitful but also historically inevitable, ordained by an iron determinism governed by the “laws” of music. René Leibowitz’s assertion, in his 1947 book Schoenberg and His School, that the music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern is “the only genuine and inevitable expression of the musical art of our time” is characteristic of this view. Now, Wozzeck is not a twelve-tone work. It belongs, rather, to what is often called the period of “free atonality,” which just preceded and overlapped Schoenberg’s development of the twelve-tone method in the early 1920s. Because twelve-tone propagandists such as Leibowitz and Josef Rufer viewed the period of free atonality as merely a necessary transitional stage, a way station on the road to the twelve-tone promised land, for them the most significant feature of Wozzeck was its anticipation of twelve-tone techniques. But such techniques, even when they are exclusively employed, are usually no more audible to the listener as organizing forces in the music than are the traditional forms Berg employed in Wozzeck.

THE FIRST BOOK to move toward a more just and accurate analysis of the ways in which the music of Wozzeck actually creates its effects was Hans Redlich’s 1957 Alban Berg: The Man and His Music. Taking to task such “proselytizing apologists” as Leibowitz and Rufer for treating the three Viennese composers as “an artistic unity, with an indivisible community of aims and tendencies,” Redlich tried to view Berg’s music on its own terms rather than as part of a lockstep movement. Though Redlich, too, stressed twelve-tone anticipations in Wozzeck, he also called attention to Berg’s use of Wagnerian leitmotifs and of quasi-tonal harmony, neither of which had been of much interest to the apologists.

In a 1975 biography, Alban Berg: The Man and the Work, Mosco Carner paid still closer attention to harmony in Wozzeck, and stated clearly that “Berg’s great merit in Wozzeck was to have been the first to write a full-length opera in the atonal style, a style characterised by an extreme lability and randomness, but in which certain recurring melodic, harmonic and rhythmic configurations act as points of reference or as landmarks in the music.” To point out the “lability and randomness” to which atonal music is liable—a far cry from the old talk about “the liberation of the dissonance”!—and the resulting need for “points of reference” and “landmarks” that will do the work of those formerly supplied by tonality is to put the stress where it belongs: on the fact that our ways of hearing are still basically tonal, and that if a composer chooses to deprive his music (and his listener) of traditional tonal means of organization, he must somehow compensate for the loss so incurred—not by supplying the analyst with fancy schemes that make sense only on paper but by linding new ways to help the listener organize the music as he hears it. For the main problem with atonal music is not, as is so often charged, that it is “ugly”: much of it is, but so is much of Wagner and Mahler, and even some of late Beethoven. The main problem is precisely the absence from most atonal music of audible “points of reference” and “landmarks.” And the main job of the analyst of an atonal work is to locate these, if they exist, and to show how they function in their dramatic context.

At last there are two books that perform this job quite satisfactorily for Wozzeck: George Perle’s The Operas of Alban Berg: Volume One / “Wozzeck” (1980) and Douglas Jarman’s The Music of Alban Berg (1979). Though both writers occasionally go over the mark into the inaudible, pointing out hexachords and intervallic cells that most listeners do not and cannot hear, both unearth and systematize a great deal that is audible and therefore illuminating. Moreover, both quite rightly (and very refreshingly) view the period of free atonality not as a mere transitional stage but rather as a time of unique opportunity and fruitful experimentation.

Perle gives an exhaustive catalogue of the leitmotifs in Wozzeck, and sensitively describes their use. Also, he very interestingly shows how Berg often gives a particular note—C-sharp/D-flat in the opening scene of the opera, for example–the priority and organizing force that establish it as a “tone center” without involving it in the elaborate hierarchical relations required to make it a true tonic or key note in the traditional sense. Finally, Perle discusses Berg’s use of characteristic scale fragments—for example, a five-note segment of the whole-tone scale with one added “odd” note—in many of the most important recurring themes of the opera.

Jarman is less interested than Perle in leitmotifs, but he accepts and complements Perle’s analysis of “tone centers” in Wozzeck. Jarman also illuminates Berg’s relation to the twelve-tone method. Berg, as Jarman shows, had a lifelong fondness for ciphers and numerological schemes, and his works are full of hidden, secret meanings and patterns. It was recently discovered, for example, that The Lyric Suite, his 1925-1926 work for string quartet, contains a sort of coded account of a long-forgotten love affair. What emerges from Jarman’s analysis is that Berg was drawn to the method not primarily by an apocalyptic recognition that tonality had to be supplanted (indeed, his later, twelve-tone works make greater use of tonal modes of organization than do those from the period of free atonality) but by the same emotional need that produced his virtually obsessive interest in other private, abstract schemes and systems.

In fact, the method itself, viewed at this comfortable distance from the fierce (and often foolish) polemics of 19201950, seems almost entirely a private organizing device for composers. Schoenberg admitted this in later life, but earlier it was often claimed that the twelvetone method was precisely on a par with tonality, and Berg himself compared the role played by Schoenberg in the transition from tonal to twelve-tone music to that played by Bach in the transition from modal to tonal music. But the analogy does not hold. Tonality organizes music not only privately for the composer but also publicly, because audibly, for the listener. “I have made a discove.y which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years,” Schoenberg boasted to Rufer in 1921. But, of course, he had done no such thing. His and his followers’ apocalyptic statements about historical inevitability and the laws of music now sound as silly and dated as the very similar political statements of their Marxist contemporaries. With very few exceptions (almost none of them works by Schoenberg), twelve-tone music has not proved acceptable, even to a thoughtful and openminded public, because most of it is organized only by means that are, and remain, private, secret, inaudible. The success and importance of composers as diverse as Stravinsky (who turned to twelve-tone music only in his old age, when he was already a master), Bartók, Prokofiev, Ives, Janácek, Britten, and Elliott Carter make nonsense of all the twelve-tone propaganda. The resources of tonality, it turns out, were and are far from exhausted. Surely, the splendid and enduring achievement of Wozzeck is best viewed, and most successfully analyzed, not in relation to the twelve-tone method but in terms of Berg’s remarkable exploitation and extension of tonal ways of thinking and hearing.

It is also useful to view Wozzeck in relation to the works that Berg wrote just preceding it, especially the Altenberg Lieder, Op. 4, of 1912 and the Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6, of 1914— 1915. (Both works are excellently performed by Boulez on CBS MS 7179 and by Claudio Abbado on Deutsche Grammophon 2543 804.) The Altenberg Lieder, not performed in their entirety until 1952, are a dazzling achievement. Though the mass and variety of orchestral sonority sometimes threatens to overwhelm the rather slight texts, the sheer mastery of the writing makes it all but impossible to believe that this was Berg’s first work for orchestra. The Three Pieces for Orchestra, though better known, are less successful. Compared with Webern’s Six Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6 (1909) and Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 10 (1911-1913), which Berg obviously used as models, they seem long and garrulous. The vocabulary and syntax of Wozzeck are there, but the music sounds musclebound, trapped in itself, lost in its search for a fitting subject. Berg found that subject—as well as the greater scope that he was reaching toward in the Altenberg Lieder—when he saw Büchner’s play in May of 1914, while he was at work on the Three Pieces for Orchestra. He knew it at once, and resolved that Woyzeck would provide him with the text of the opera he had been wanting to write.

Berg died at fifty, and he was a slow and careful worker. Hence, he did not write a great deal of music. Though none of his other works is either so immediately compelling or so perfectly formed as Wozzeck, all of them are well worth hearing and studying, especially the Piano Sonata, the Altenberg Lieder, The Lyric Suite, the Violin Concerto, and his second opera, Lulu, left unfinished at his death but recently completed from his sketches. For it is Berg, along with Stravinsky, who best helps us understand the problematical relations between twentieth-century music and the tradition through his strikingly original and creative use of the great music of the past.