Berg’s Premieres in Berlin Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck demonstrated that it was possible to write an effective opera that utilized both a modern story and nontraditional compositional techniques.

Summary of Event

The beginning of the twentieth century was a time of tremendous upheaval in politics, science, technology, philosophy, and the arts. The first two decades of the century would see, among many dramatic events, the horrifying carnage of World War I; the fall of the Russian czars and the birth of the Soviet Union; Albert Einstein’s development of the special theory of relativity, which would change the way humanity viewed the universe; and the work of Sigmund Freud, which would change the way humanity viewed itself. [kw]Berg’s Wozzeck Premieres in Berlin (Dec. 14, 1925)[Bergs Wozzeck Premieres in Berlin (Dec. 14, 1925)] [kw]Wozzeck Premieres in Berlin, Berg’s (Dec. 14, 1925) [kw]Berlin, Berg’s Wozzeck Premieres in (Dec. 14, 1925)[Berlin, Bergs Wozzeck Premieres in (Dec. 14, 1925)] Wozzeck (Berg) Opera;Wozzeck (Berg) Music;opera Theater;opera [g]Germany;Dec. 14, 1925: Berg’s Wozzeck Premieres in Berlin[06570] [c]Music;Dec. 14, 1925: Berg’s Wozzeck Premieres in Berlin[06570] [c]Theater;Dec. 14, 1925: Berg’s Wozzeck Premieres in Berlin[06570] Berg, Alban Schoenberg, Arnold Büchner, Georg

In the arts, the work of such masters as Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Franz Kafka, and Sergei Diaghilev was challenging artistic traditions. Not even Vienna, a city that had long been known both as a center of the arts and as a bastion of conservatism, was immune to the changes sweeping the world. Indeed, it was a brilliant, self-taught Viennese composer, Arnold Schoenberg, who would develop a compositional approach that would change music forever.

Schoenberg’s primary contribution to composition was his championship of atonality, Music;atonality a compositional style that does not adhere to a single musical key, or tonal center. (The commonly used term “atonality” implies the rejection of tonality, but Schoenberg actually preferred the term “pantonality,” which implies the acceptance of all tonalities.) Ultimately, Schoenberg developed the “twelve-tone system,” Twelve-tone system[Twelve tone system] also called serialism, Serialism which involved using all twelve tones of the chromatic scale (that is, all the notes in the Western system of music) in a single predetermined order as the basis for composition.

It is ironic that, although Schoenberg was the architect of a new style of composition, his compositions in that style would never be as artistically successful as those of his two greatest students, the Viennese composers Anton von Webern Webern, Anton von and Alban Berg. Both Webern and Berg developed their remarkable musical gifts rapidly under the stern tutelage of Schoenberg, who was intolerant of those who did not agree with him in all things. To his credit, however, he insisted from the very beginning that his pupils express their own personalities in their music, and their later achievements testify to his ability as a teacher.

In spite of the ability of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, the infrequent performances of their works in Vienna met with little success; in fact, whenever their works were performed, they met with furious reactions from conservative musicians, critics, and listeners who could not understand or appreciate what they were doing musically. It was not until 1925, when Berg’s opera Wozzeck premiered, that an atonal work met with a significant measure of acceptance and success.

On May 5, 1914, Berg attended the premiere in Vienna of Woyzeck, a play written in 1836 by Georg Büchner, a German dramatist who had died in 1837. (Because Büchner’s manuscript was extremely difficult to decipher, the name Woyzeck was misread by the compiler of Büchner’s collected works, and the play was first published as Wozzeck, the title that Berg gave to his opera.) In spite of the fact that the play had been written more than seventy years earlier, its undiluted, bitter realism had a powerful effect on the audiences of Berg’s time.

Woyzeck, which was based on an actual event, tells the story of a soldier who is destroyed by his times and by his station in life. Taunted by his superior officer and victimized by a sadistic doctor who pays him a small amount of money to adhere to a series of extreme and unhealthy diets, Woyzeck, the protagonist, drifts further and further into madness. Ultimately, he murders his mistress, Marie, after she is seduced by a drum major, and then drowns while trying to wash off the blood in which he imagines he is covered. The unrelenting horror of the story and the work’s condemnation of an unjust society were a tonic to audiences who were accustomed to stylized, genteel works. Berg was overwhelmed by the power of the play, and he determined at once to use it as the basis for an opera.

Although he was ultimately rejected as unfit for active military duty because of his chronic asthma and general poor health, Berg was called into military service in 1914, when World War I broke out, and it was not until 1922 that he completed Wozzeck. Berg not only wrote the music but also composed the libretto, which was quite faithful to Büchner’s play.

Berg took the twenty-six scenes in Büchner’s play and reduced them to fifteen. He was able to use much of the material in the deleted scenes in the scenes that he retained. In that way, he was able to use most of Büchner’s material without producing a dramatic structure that would have been too long to function as an effective opera. The final form of Wozzeck consisted of three acts of five scenes each.

Although Wozzeck is an atonal work, Berg was extremely conscious of tradition—particularly the musical tradition of his beloved Vienna—and it is characteristic of Berg’s approach to composition that he used traditional musical structures as vehicles for his extremely modern music. In addition, Berg sometimes used atonality in ways that suggested tonality, which occasionally led Schoenberg to criticize him but also enabled him to combine the best aspects of tonality and atonality in a way that Schoenberg himself was never able to achieve.

Wozzeck was not performed immediately after Berg completed it, but one of Berg’s friends suggested that Berg take selections from the opera and create a concert cycle that could be performed more easily than could the entire opera. Berg did so, and on June 15, 1924, the Wozzeck cycle was performed at a festival in Frankfurt, Germany. Berg was pleased with the performance, and the cycle became the hit of the festival. Meanwhile, Berg had asked a pianist he knew to play the score of the opera for Erich Kleiber, Kleiber, Erich who was the conductor of the Berlin State Opera. Kleiber was impressed by the work, and he is reported to have said: “It’s settled! I am going to do the opera in Berlin, even if it costs me my job!”

Kleiber’s willingness to perform the opera was a stroke of luck for Berg, particularly because Kleiber made every effort to ensure that the work would be exhaustively rehearsed and well performed. In fact, the rehearsal schedule consisted of an unheard-of thirty-four full orchestral rehearsals and fourteen ensemble rehearsals—far more rehearsals than are customary for even the longest and most complicated works.

When Wozzeck received its premiere performance on December 14, 1925, it became an immediate sensation. Although, as everyone had expected, some critics attacked the exceedingly modern opera in the most virulent way, many others recognized the work for the tremendous achievement that it was. In spite of its unusual compositional techniques, Wozzeck won over audiences and critics with its emotional power and with the effective way in which the music not only reflected but also enhanced the physical and psychological action of the play. Subsequent performances of the opera in Prague and Leningrad were also extremely successful, although they, too, were marked by attacks on the modern style of Wozzeck. With the success of his atonal opera, Berg achieved international renown.


It is remarkable that Berg broke completely with the traditional approach to opera—both dramatically, in his choice of story, and musically, in his use of atonality—and still produced an effective dramatic work that has been accepted as part of the operatic tradition. Wozzeck is regularly performed as part of the operatic repertoire, in spite of its avant-garde nature, and it is one of the few twentieth century operas that are regularly performed. It is interesting to note that other modern operas, such as Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron (begun in 1930 but never completed), are rarely staged. Berg’s Wozzeck is simply a particularly effective work that has found favor with musicians, audiences, and critics alike.

Structurally, Wozzeck is unlike any opera that preceded it. After Berg had settled on the dramatic structure of his work—three acts of five scenes each—he sought out particular musical forms that he believed would best express the essence of each scene. He found the forms he needed in the traditional forms of music, but the forms he chose were not, traditionally, part of opera.

The first act of Wozzeck consists of five scenes that introduce the opera’s primary characters and indicate the kind of relationship that Wozzeck has with each of them. Berg selected musical forms that would serve those functions for each scene: a suite (a form made up of a number of separate movements), a rhapsody (a kind of fantasy), a military march and a lullaby, a passacaglia (a baroque form in a triple, or waltz, meter), and an andante affetuoso (a slow form played warmly, or affectionately).

The second act is, strangely enough, cast in the form of a symphony in five movements. The first scene is in the classic sonata form, the second scene consists of a fantasia (fantasy) and fugue (a form in which a theme is played at different times by different instruments), the third scene is a largo (slow) movement, the fourth scene is a scherzo (a fast, rhythmic movement), and the fifth scene utilizes a rondo (a strictly organized form often used to end symphonies).

The third act is made up of five inventions, which consist of creative explorations of counterpoint (counterpoint consists of multiple melodic lines played simultaneously). These five are an invention on a melodic theme, an invention on a note, an invention on a rhythm, an invention on a chord, and an invention on a movement in eighth notes. It is interesting that, between the fourth and fifth inventions in this atonal piece, Berg inserted an orchestral interlude that is an invention on a tonality.

It should also be mentioned that Berg provided, in all three acts, connecting music that heightened the drama of the opera and united the individual scenes into a coherent whole. Berg also ended all three acts on the same chord, thereby enhancing the unity of the three acts.

The structure of the opera is noted both to demonstrate its complexity and to emphasize the care that Berg took in selecting the forms that he thought would best express the nature of the action that took place in each scene. The danger of using such a complex structure is that it is difficult to write moving music in so many forms. In the hands of a lesser artist, this structure might have been nothing more than a fascinating exercise. The fact that the complex and unusual musical structure of the opera is not apparent when Wozzeck is performed but is instead seamlessly merged with the dramatic action is evidence of Berg’s tremendous talent and skill.

It is even more significant that the music of Wozzeck explores the psychological aspect of the action that takes place on the stage. The music not only supports the action that takes place but also extends the range of meaning of that action. It is the combined effect of the drama and the music that gives the opera its undeniable power. At a time when Sigmund Freud was becoming famous for opening up the field of psychology, Berg—like Freud, a Viennese—scored an unprecedented success for atonal music by demonstrating the power of music to explore the psychological realm of operatic drama.

Berg was, to some extent, gratified by the success of Wozzeck, particularly because it earned for him a measure of respect throughout the world that was never extended to him in his native Vienna. He was never quite comfortable with the acclaim, however, because he doubted the good judgment of the listening public. In fact, he wondered at times whether he had failed in composing Wozzeck, whether he had unconsciously pandered to the public in his most accepted work.

Berg went on to compose another superb opera, Lulu (1937), which used the twelve-tone system devised by Schoenberg, and a violin concerto that is one of the most beautiful works composed in the twentieth century. Berg’s primary goal was to create music of great beauty, and he demonstrated conclusively that atonality could be used to achieve that goal. Wozzeck (Berg) Opera;Wozzeck (Berg) Music;opera Theater;opera

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carner, Mosco. Alban Berg: The Man and the Work. London: Duckworth, 1975. An excellent examination of Berg’s life and music. Perhaps the best place to begin a study of Berg.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Headlam, Dave. The Music of Alban Berg. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. Examines the development of Berg’s music from late Romantic tonality to atonality. Includes notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jarman, Douglas. Alban Berg: “Wozzeck.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. In-depth analysis of Berg’s first opera includes background information about Büchner and his play Woyzeck, musical analysis, information about the opera’s premiere and subsequent performances, reviews (both favorable and unfavorable), and writings by Berg himself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perle, George. Wozzeck. Vol. 1 in The Operas of Alban Berg. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. Excellent, detailed study includes much useful background information. Also presents a careful musical analysis intended for readers with background in music.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Redlich, H. F. Alban Berg: The Man and His Music. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1957. Fine volume on Berg is divided into four parts: The first discusses the Second Viennese School and “the problem of tonality,” the second examines Berg’s music in detail, the third presents a brief biography of Berg, and the fourth consists of appendixes that include Berg’s lecture on Wozzeck and Schoenberg’s brief reminiscences of Berg.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reich, Willi. Alban Berg. 1965. Reprint. New York: Vienna House, 1974. An insightful biographical and musical study that is all the more interesting for having been written by a man who knew Berg well. Personal reminiscences and insights make this book extremely useful.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simms, Bryan R., ed. Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern: A Companion to the Second Viennese School. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Examines the works of these composers in the context of earlier Viennese musical developments and compares the modernism in their music with that in the nonmusical arts in Vienna during the same period. Includes bibliography and index.

Schoenberg Breaks with Tonality

Webern’s Six Pieces for Large Orchestra Premieres

Schoenberg Develops His Twelve-Tone System

Berg’s Lulu Opens in Zurich

Categories: History