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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions
Richard Taruskin

Yet in the final analysis, The Love for Three Oranges, being a farce that can be read as satire, came by its irony the old-fashioned way, as did all the little spoofs quoted in Ex. 9-4. Their frostiness and cynicism had a long history in musical comedy. And Prokofieff’s ingratiating music, while modern enough and (when needed) grotesque, is audience-friendly in a manner that comedy traditionally demands. In the guise of an orchestral suite it has been a repertory piece since the time of the premiere. For all the artifice expended on it by three successive adapters, moreover, the opera makes a fairly unpretentious impression, as a farce must. Coming in 1919 (or in 1921, to give it the date of its first performance) it might well have proven an isolated experiment in “farcical maximalism” rather than a bellwether.

It was only when devices of ironic distance comparable to those in The Love for Three Oranges began to show up in operas with serious or tragic or pretentious subjects, or operas by German composers who still took Beethovenesque notions of musical greatness at face value, that a “sea change” in the cultural atmosphere was incontestable. Such subjects would have received a very different sort of treatment from musical dramatists who traded unself-consciously in empathy and sincerity—or rather, who could still trade unself-consciously in the sort of illusions of empathy and sincerity that artists in the romantic tradition were trained to administer.

Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, conceived in 1914 and composed between 1919 and 1922, is now widely regarded as the most serious and significant opera to emerge from the postwar decade. Despite its arcane harmonic idiom (“atonality” à la Schoenberg, the composer’s teacher) and its great difficulty for performers, the opera became an immediate international hit after its Berlin premiere in December 1925, with seventeen productions in Germany and ten abroad by 1933, when performances were temporarily halted by the Nazi regime. By now it is a staple of the operatic repertory everywhere. (The last bastion of resistance, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, fell before it in 1958.) Productions of it are not newsmakers; they are expected, and accepted, the world over.

“How” Vs. “What”

fig. 9-2 Wozzeck, autograph score page from Act I, scene 4 (Passacaglia): Wozzeck and the Doctor.

Any attempt to account for the “unaccountable” success of this “difficult” “atonal” composition must of course begin where it began, with the story. Berg based the opera on Woyzeck, a brutal naturalistic play by Georg Büchner (1813–37), a short-lived and for a long time very obscure German writer who had been rediscovered by the expressionists. Inspired by a notorious crime story as reported in the newspapers, the play depicted the mental and moral degeneration of a miserable, much-despised soldier, who, crazed by jealousy and despair, murders his mistress. One sees the passive and dullwitted title character abused by all with whom he comes in contact—by his captain, who treats him as a personal servant; by a doctor, who employs him as a guinea pig for dietary experiments; by a conceited drum major who seduces his mistress Marie and beats him up into the bargain; and by Marie herself, who taunts him over his humiliation—until even this human block of wood is provoked to crude and tragic action.

Left unfinished at Büchner’s death, Woyzeck was speculatively pieced together from a sheaf of unfinished variants that even left the ending in doubt, by an editor who misspelled the title as Wozzeck thanks to the author’s difficult handwriting. It was first published in 1879 and first performed in Munich in 1913. The first Vienna performance, which Berg attended, took place the next year. Berg excerpted fifteen of its twenty-seven brief scenes and set them practically verbatim, the way Debussy set Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Thus rendered even more compact and concentrated than the original play, Berg’s opera traded brazenly in the kind of shocking violence made popular by the operas of the verismo school. The abject title character, moreover, and the world as seen through his increasingly demented eyes, were a natural for expressionistic — that is, luridly subjective — depiction.

Unlike the laconic original, which made a studied attempt at deadpan reportage, Berg’s musical treatment was highly manipulative: “operatic” in the fullest (indeed, potentially derogatory) sense of the word, replete with authorial interventions in the form of orchestral interludes that commented on the action — in the Wagnerian manner, one might say, or like a Greek chorus — by the use of leitmotifs. Berg saw himself as exposing a social problem — that of society’s ill treatment of wir arme Leut, “us poor folk” as Wozzeck calls his kind in the first scene, a phrase that reverberates thereafter as a verbal leitmotif. Not only did Berg give it a musical counterpart which could function much more freely in the opera’s texture than a catchphrase can ever do in a play, but he bent every effort to acting as his title character’s defense attorney, as he frankly put it in an essay on the opera, justifying his crime through “an appeal to humanity through its representatives, the audience.”5

The opera’s classic status testifies to the composer’s success in accomplishing these goals — not that they are at all unusual goals for an opera composer. What was exceedingly unusual was the way in which Berg went about the task, which only seemed to place gratuitous obstacles in his path. For the relationship between the humanizing music and the horrific subject is not at all direct. It is mediated through a huge and potentially distracting—or at least distancing—barrage of composerly virtuosity.

Some of that virtuosity was of a familiar kind—brilliantly colored orchestration, mimicry of many kinds of “ambient” music (folksongs, marches, waltzes, all reflected through an “atonal” distorting mirror), intricate motivic work and leitmotivic transformations. Wagner and Strauss, too, were ostentatious musical manipulators, and Wagner’s operatic reforms succeeded at least in part because he was able to turn his project into a staggeringly impressive composerly tour de force. But the Wagnerian or Straussian virtuosity, however allied it may have been with “symphonic” techniques, was self-avowedly “liberatory.” It aimed at the destruction of “rounded” or discrete musical forms and the enabling of a new time-scale based on whole acts, freeing the composer to react without “purely musical” mediation to the shape of the drama.

Berg’s opera, in stark contrast, invokes a whole panoply of discrete (“closed”) musical forms and genres; and what is more, the forms and genres were those of instrumental music, seemingly alien and irrelevant to opera, some of them just as obsolescent as the ones Stravinsky was reviving in his piano and chamber music. The first scene of the opera, for example, in which Wozzeck is shown shaving the Captain and putting up with the latter’s self-absorbed and insensitive maunderings, is cast in the form of a grotesque orchestral suite, as follows:

mm. 1–29: “Präludium”

30–50: “Pavane”

51–64: “Cadenza” (solo viola)

65–108: “Gigue”

109–114: “Cadenza” (contrabassoon)

115–136: “Gavotte” (mm. 127–132 “Double I”; mm. 133–136 “Double II”)

136–153: “Air”

153–171: “Reprise” (Präludium in reverse)

“How” Vs. “What”“How” Vs. “What”

ex. 9-5 Alban Berg, Wozzeck, Act I, scene 1, “Air” (“Wir arme Leut”)

It has been pointed out time and again that, so far as the listener in the opera house is concerned, all of this information is altogether arcane and immaterial. One could go further and show that the designations do not even fit. A pavane was a sixteenth-century dance in duple meter and with three repeated strains. (Obsolete even in Bach’s day, it was the sort of esoteric item only musicologists were likely to know about in Berg’s day, except for a modish piano piece by Ravel that might conceivably have been Berg’s “source.”) Berg’s duple meter is disguised by triplets and is not consistently maintained. Instead of three strains there is something like a loose ternary form. The gigue and the gavotte, while conforming a little more to their prototypes, are still unrecognizable except to an analyst of the score who has been alerted to their presence. (The “doubles” of the gavotte, for example, do go through successive rhythmic diminutions — first to triplets, then to sixteenths and thirty-seconds — but without having recognized the gavotte one cannot know that the faster rhythms represent doubles, or even variations.) If we accept that these references to baroque dances are in-jokes, then we are back to Ortega’s ironically “jesting” art, quite at odds with the cathartic social tragedy that brought Wozzeck success in the opera house. Of course, the opening scene is largely satiric (at the expense of the idiotic Captain, who fancies himself a philosopher). But it has one very serious moment, Wozzeck’s speech about “us poor folk” (Ex. 9-5), and that moment is not exempted from the in-joke, being designated “Air” in apparent reference to Bach’s famously lyrical Air from the D-major orchestral suite with which it shares its time signature, and which was known separately to millions as the “Air on the G String,” after a famously sentimental concert transcription by the German violinist August Wilhelmj.

But if Wozzeck’s “Air” is part of the ironic or distanced substratum that haunts the scene, his actual music is treated virtually without irony, and has two moments of special poignancy. One is the setting of the first three words, which, as we know, became one of the opera’s chief leitmotifs. Characteristically for a composer in Schoenberg’s orbit, Berg treats the leitmotif (according to the principles of “emancipated dissonance”) both as a melody and as a harmony, the latter being the sum of all its notes played as a piquant and memorable “seventh chord” (minor triad plus major seventh) of a kind that never occurs in diatonic practice, hence has no classified status in “tonal” music (Ex. 9-6).

The other special moment comes slightly earlier, at the join between the first and second doubles of the “Gavotte” (Ex. 9-7). The Captain has reproached Wozzeck for having a child out of wedlock, and therefore unbaptized. Wozzeck reminds the Captain of Jesus’s charity, quoting his words from the Bible, “Suffer the little children to come unto Me.” The whole passage is set off at a slower tempo than the rest, which becomes Noch langsamer (“even slower”) at the biblical quote, followed by a veritable spotlight of a Molto rit. at the end of the measure. The harmony comes to rest, at the last beat, on a dominant-seventh chord that is prepared (through an augmented sixth) as if it were the actual dominant of C minor, and the violins corroborate its status with a throbbing, extended G—an unequivocally “tonal” moment of repose to coincide with, and underscore, a rare moment of unfeigned human warmth.

“How” Vs. “What”

ex. 9-6 Alban Berg, Wozzeck, “Wir arme Leut” leitmotif

“How” Vs. “What”

ex. 9-7 Alban Berg, Wozzeck, Act I, scene 1, “Quasi Gavotte,” transition from “Double I” to “Double II”

Both the musical effect and the attendant mood are broken by the next words from the infuriatingly obtuse Captain, accompanied by the usual busily “motivic” atonal web. But that atonal web has now been characterized, through contrast, as representing the inhumane, uncaring world that “Wir arme Leut” are forced to inhabit, as it is perceived by the opera’s tortured protagonist. Berg has turned his irony on his own “normal” musical language, which is now paradoxically branded as abnormal or subnormal in its distance from true human feeling. This brief ironic byplay, contrasting the “tonal” with the “atonal,” is redeemed at the other end of the opera with a wrenching cathartic force that must account for much of the opera’s success with audiences who could not care less about gavottes, let alone “atonality.”

That cathartic moment depends for its effect on the audience’s enduring the ugliness of the central dramatic intrigue, Marie’s infidelity with the Drum Major. It is developed over the whole course of act II, the five scenes of which are cast, according to Berg’s arcanely jesting scheme, as a five-movement symphony:

Scene 1: “Sonata,” in which Marie, preening herself after her night with the Drum Major, nevertheless accepts money from Wozzeck to care for their child, and experiences a moment of bad conscience; Scene 2: “Fantasia and fugue,” in which the Captain and the Doctor, taunting Wozzeck, plant the first inkling in his mind that Marie has been unfaithful; Scene 3: “Largo,” in which Wozzeck confronts Marie, who is cold and defiant; Scene 4: “Scherzo,” in which Wozzeck sees Marie dancing in the arms of the Drum Major; Scene 5: “Introduction and Rondo,” in which the Drum Major beats Wozzeck and gloats over him.

Having experienced the ultimate humiliation, the formerly passive Wozzeck is now ready for the retaliatory action that is displayed in act III. The relationship of the music to the action is still mediated through a scrim of ingenious technical studies, but no longer does the composer invoke arcane or “classic” genres. Rather, each scene is designated an “Invention,” concerned with some elemental musical particle. Their “abstract” musical procedures are vivid and readily apprehended along with the drama. Where in the earlier acts there had been harsh raillery and satire, there is nothing now but a headlong dash to catastrophe.

  • Scene 1, in which Marie reads from the Bible and repents, is called an “Invention on a Theme,” and takes the form of a theme, six brief variations, and a concluding “fugue” (actually just a fugal exposition), all of them duly marked off in the score, but just as easily followed by ear. The last two variations, in which Marie reads with mounting emotion, “lapse” into the key of F minor, repeating the effect already encountered in Wozzeck’s colloquy with the Captain, whereby tonal harmony underscores the moments of particular emotional warmth, as if to convey its pressure.

  • Scene 2, the most famous tour de force in the opera, is called an “Invention on a Note,” and depicts the murder, by the side of a lake. It is haunted from beginning to end by the note B, sometimes (as at the beginning) held out as a bass pedal; sometimes reiterated in a high register in a weird tone-color like string flageolets (artificial harmonics) or xylophone; or sometimes sustained in a tremolo. At the climactic moment (Ex. 9-8), when the moon rises blood-red and Wozzeck comes after Marie with a knife, the B is simultaneously sustained by the strings as a pedal in six octaves, pervading the whole range of the orchestra, and also beaten as a tattoo by the kettledrum that crescendos to the moment of the lethal deed and decrescendos to the end of the scene. Twice the note is prominently sung: first by Wozzeck, unaccompanied by the orchestra, to the word “Nothing,” when the nervous Marie asks what’s on his mind; then by Marie, screaming “Help!” as Wozzeck plunges the dagger into her throat. (This moment will resonate with the same cry in Schoenberg’s Erwartung—Ex. 6-16—in the memory of anyone who has heard it.) The entr’acte following this scene consists of two unison Bs played by the orchestra in deafening crescendos (Ex. 9-9), leading into

  • Scene 3, in which Wozzeck’s deed is suspected by the denizens of a tavern to which he has repaired. It is called “Invention on a Rhythm,” and consists of myriad repetitions of the eight-note rhythm first heard in the thundering bass drum during the entr’acte and then hacked out as the curtain goes up on “an out-of-tune upright piano on stage,” as the score specifies. The rhythm is derived from the start of Wozzeck’s shout at the climax of scene 2, Ich nicht, Marie! und kein Andrer auch nicht! (“Not I, Marie, and no one else either,” in Ex. 9-8). Probably the most arcanely “irrelevant” and inaudible musical jest in the score is the fact that the series of instrumental entrances that take place during, and contribute to, the first big crescendo in the entr’acte are spaced out according to this rhythm, something that can be discovered only by analyzing the score. As the scene progresses, the rhythm is set against itself at many different rates of speed over a basso ostinato that also consists of repetitions of it, all symbolizing Wozzeck’s mounting fear and guilt.

  • “How” Vs. “What”“How” Vs. “What”

    ex. 9-8 Alban Berg, Wozzeck, Act III, scene 2, the murder

    “How” Vs. “What”

    ex. 9-9 Alban Berg, Wozzeck, Act III, Entr’acte between scenes 2 and 3

  • Scene 4 is an “Invention on a Six-Note Chord.” The chord that pervades it would once again have felt right at home in Erwartung: it can be construed as consisting of an “atonal triad” plus a stack of perfect fourths (Ex. 9-10). The reference may well have been intentional, since Wozzeck is depicted in this scene as gripped, like the mad protagonist of Schoenberg’s “monodrama,” by anxious forebodings. He returns to the scene of the crime, where he has left incriminating evidence behind. He finds the murder weapon and throws it into the lake, but, fearing it is too near the shore, wades out and drowns. (This climactic event was contributed by the editor who prepared Büchner’s unfinished play for posthumous publication; it could not have been Büchner’s intention, because it departs from the historical events to which the playwright was otherwise faithful, and Büchner has his Woyzeck reappear in a later scene.) The Doctor and the Captain happen by, hear ominous sounds arising from the lake, and flee. The sounds made by the waters closing in on Wozzeck are another reminiscence of Erwartung: they consist of overlapping chromatic scales at different tempos, like the final “dissolve” in Schoenberg's opera.

  • “How” Vs. “What”

    ex. 9-10 “Leitharmony” in Alban Berg, Wozzeck, Act III, scene 4

  • Scene 5, designated “Invention on an Eighth-Note Motion” depicts Wozzeck’s and Marie’s little son on his hobbyhorse, uncomprehending when cruelly taunted by a group of children with his mother’s death (Ex. 9-11). It is cast in meter, and the eighth notes, which represent the children at play, never let up. The harmony at the end of the scene (and the opera) is poignant: the eighth-note ostinato begins to oscillate between two chords that together contain five notes of a whole-tone scale. The remaining note, G, is played by the strings together with its fifth, D, which is not part of the whole-tone scale, but by consonantly supporting the G gives it the weight of a tonic root whose third, B, is found within the whole-tone ostinato—thus bringing the whole wretched and violent action to rest on what is to all intents and purposes an unconventionally prepared but esthetically conventional, and even placid, tonic triad. That incongruous “unearned” placidity, distilling the perspective of the dopey little boy who is left alone onstage at the end, casts an ironic pall over everything that preceded it.

The ostensibly “abstract” inventions through which Berg shaped the scenes of act III are less overtly ironic, less obviously a jest in their relationship to the starkly naturalistic action, than those of the preceding acts. In every case, the inventive play unfolds through pressing ostinatos that symbolize through analogy the obsessions that now drive the maddened title character. By turns we are bombarded with obsessively repeated pitches, rhythms, and chords as the opera runs its obsessive, bloody course. The famous entr’acte between scenes 2 and 3—the unison crescendos on the symbolically fraught B—returns us frankly to the world of expressionism, allowing us momentarily to inhabit the mind of the deranged antihero whose head is throbbing with the memory of his crime. And surely no art was ever less ironical than expressionism.

“How” Vs. “What”“How” Vs. “What”

ex. 9-11 Alban Berg, Wozzeck, Act III, scene 5, end

Yet the separation of elements—now pitches, now rhythms, now chords—is even here supremely “artful” and showy. The moment we notice the technical tours de force that constitute the portrayal (and here we can hardly help noticing them) we are put at a distance from the events portrayed in a manner that Ortega y Gasset, in his famous tract of 1925 (the year of Wozzeck’s premiere), equated purely and simply, and very approvingly, with the nature of art itself. Despite all the vividly “veristic” and “expressionistic” aspects that Berg inherited from his immediate predecessors, and even maximalized, there is also, in ironic contradiction, the same refusal (or inability) to make his art “transparent” that characterizes virtually all of postwar modernism, and that completely contradicts the aims of verismo or expressionism—and, behind them, of romanticism.


(5) Alban Berg, lecture on Wozzeck (1929); Hans Redlich, Alban Berg: Versuch einer Würdigung (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1957), p. 327.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Lost—or Rejected—Illusions." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-009004.xml