Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (first premiered in 1925) tells the story of a man who is slowly breaking due to insanity. Let us draw our attention to Act III Scene IV of the opera. In this late scene, extreme musical conventions accelerate the story and seem to lead the deranged titular character to his death. The depth of emotion and intelligence of musical convention combine to make this one of the most memorable scenes in opera. Here is an English-subtitled performance of the scene:
Many of these musical conventions are obvious. For example, in this scene, the voice is instructed to sing nearly every note with Sprechstimme.
During the scene just prior, when Wozzeck murders his wife Marie, he does not speak-sing in this style at all. Sprechstimme is abrasive, slightly on pitch, and indecisive—a musical reminder that Wozzeck can no longer fit into the conventions of society or even the natural world but must find his own path—a path of death.
There is only one point upon which he is clear, and this is highlighted by the only bel canto phrase in the scene: measure 245, where Wozzeck sings “the price of sinning.” No matter how messed up Wozzeck has become, he is tragically clear on one point: the thing that has been his undoing is the unfaithfulness of the very people who should have helped him.
Two other musical conventions that go to the extremes in this scene of insanity are vocal and dynamic range. The extremely wide vocal range encompasses high G above the staff to an E below the staff for a complete range of almost two-and-a-half octaves (for contrast, the standard vocal range is only about two octaves). For most of the scene, the highest pitch intoned by Wozzeck is an F, a note that is found quite often, but he reaches the G with one of his last breaths, wailing “Woe” in measure 280.
For a baritone such as Wozzeck, this is very high. The lowest note is found mainly at key text-painting moments; for example, in measure 260, it is the “stein” which sinks into the deep dark water. For most of the scene, however, the pitches sit high in the range.
Dynamic contrast is found not only in the voice but in the instrumentation. Perhaps the most visually obvious is the ffp’s found in the brass in measure 252. More interestingly, pianiss-iss-issimos (pppp) of the strings in measure 230 that are quickly followed by fortississimos (fff) in the harp in measure 234 while the strings are directed “semper pp.” The dynamics not only encompass a wide range, they are extreme and imbalanced in their nature, just as Wozzeck himself has been imbalanced by the events in his life.
One of the most aurally striking conventions used to realize the extreme agony and imbalance of Wozzeck’s mind is the way in which phrases end. These “phrases” in such a modern work are necessarily less regular and much shorter than their common-practice counterparts, and there is truly no better place for them than Wozzeck’s insanity!
For example, one of Wozzeck’s first declamations “Wo ist das Messer?…Naeher” begins with a longer note (eighth on “Wo”) which fits idiomatically with the sequence of words. However, every word after in the phrase does not receive the same treatment, but is given a sixteenth note per syllable, with the exception of “noch” in measure 225. In measure 267, the “phrase” is confused and set off balance by a tied note in the middle of the declaration: “der Mond ist blutig.” Wozzeck cannot seem to make up his mind, and he has even lost the ability to communicate in the manner of men.
At Wozzeck’s death, however, order is not restored. Neither does the music reflect the stereotypical death or dirge characteristics, like the chromatic step-wise descent of Dido’s famous Lament:
Instead, every instrument in the orchestra persists in climbing upwards chromatically. At the entrance of the Doctor and the Captain, the speed of these chromatic ascensions slows slightly, but persists until measure 300, when it becomes obvious that the two men, like the priest and the Levite of the parable, will not act to save the dying Wozzeck.
The lonely, deranged, injured Wozzeck can find no Good Samaritan even in death, and in response, the orchestration begins sinking down in the classic, overpowering attitude of death (measure 301- chromatic descent in the harp, winds, and brass). Such imbalance could not continue for long, and both the music and the man find rest and even a kind of peace in the last long tied notes of the scene.
Republished with gracious permission from The Saint Constantine School (2017).
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