Wozzeck, Alban Berg, Handlung, Synopsis

Online opera guide & synopsis to Berg’s WOZZECK

Wozzeck is the most important opera of atonal music of the 21st century and the first full-length work of this style. Berg shows himself to be a great dramatist who continues to captivate audiences with this work to this day.


Act I 

Act II





Langsam, Wozzeck, langsam! 

Du, der Platz ist verflucht! 

Tschin Bum, Tschin Bum

Guten Tag, Franz

Ich hab’ ein Hemdlein an, das ist nicht mein

♪ Andres! Andres! ich kann nicht schlafen

Dort links geht’s in die Stadt Murder scene

Tanzt Alle; tanzt nur zu, springt, schwitzt und stinkt




Recording recommendation

♪ Recording recommendation




Atonality and Schönberg’s influence

The opera one-act “Erwartung”, the first atonal opera at all and thus a precursor of Wozzeck, was written by Arnold Schönberg in 1909. It is the story of a woman who wanders through the woods in search of her lover, encounters his corpse, and on this horror trip experiences all of the spiritual sensations. With atonal music Schönberg wanted to make the disturbing psychological states visible. The music for “Erwartung” was through-composed and none of the motifs were repeated, which meant a complete break with the tradition of opera music.
Berg was Schönberg’s student and Schönberg was Berg’s musical mentor and guide. However, Berg did not follow exactly the same path. Ten years later, he composed Wozzeck largely atonal, but he used musical forms with structure and repetitions. Berg even went so far as to use leitmotifs (see the section on the first picture of the first act) and thus bridged the gap from romantic Wagnerian drama to atonal music.



The work is based on Büchner’s unfinished drama “Woyzeck” from 1837. The literature-loving Berg saw the play in 1914 and decided to set the work to music. The path to this goal was rocky, however. Büchner left behind only a fragment. He was able to complete thirty handwritten scenes (“pictures”) before his early death, without page numbers and unclear stages of development. More than fifty years later, the Austrian writer Karl Emil Franzos was able to chemically make the now faded sketches readable again and to form a theater piece from them.
Berg took Franzos’ original and put together fifteen scenes from the thirty of Franzos’ version. He edited them partially, but without changing the language. Franzos erroneously did not use the original title “Woyzeck” and Berg adopted this misprint.

Berg was fascinated by the person and fate of Woyzeck, whose destiny was based on a real event. The son of a wigmaker stabbed a 46-year-old widow to death in 1780. He probably suffered from schizophrenia. The court was one of the first to order an examination of his insanity. The expert opinion judged him culpable and he was executed in 1824 on the market place of Leipzig. Büchner learned of this incident from a medical journal to which his father had subscribed. Büchner interweaves further stories of other bizarre cases from the Journal into the drama.


Biographical parallels

In this work about a soldier who murdered the mother of his illegitimate child out of jealousy and insanity, there are some surprising biographical parallels to Berg’s life.
The most obvious biographical is in the person of Marie. A maid of the Berg family’s summer house named Marie Scheuchl conceived a child from the 17-year-old Alban. The family wanted to keep this “misstep” a secret and paid her a compensation in exchange for secrecy. Even Berg’s later wife Helene only learned of it after Berg’s death. The parallels continued; in addition to the correspondence of names and the presence of an illegitimate child, the Marie of the drama is said to be a strikingly accurate portrait of the maid.
Berg was drafted in 1915 in the course of the First World War and was soon transferred to the War Ministry in Vienna because of his asthma. There he is said to have suffered from the bad treatment of his alcoholic superior. So he was able to draw from his experience of military service and he wrote in a letter: “There is a piece of me in his figure, since I have been just as dependent on hated people, bound, sickly, unfree, resigned, even humiliated, since I spent these war years. Without this military service I would be as healthy as I was before.



The Music I – the musical forms

The music and drama of this opera are highly structured. Each act has 5 scenes, which are arranged thematically.
In the first act Berg writes a character piece for each main character (with the exception of Wozzeck). In each scene the character appears in an encounter with the protagonist. In this way we get to know the characters and their relationship to Wozzeck. Each piece is based on its own musical form (1: Suite, 2: Rhapsody, 3: March/Lullaby, 4: Passacaglia, 5: Rondo).
The second act also follows this surprising structure. The five pictures were written in the sequence of a symphony (1: Sonata, 2: Fantasy/Fugue, 3: Largo, 4: Scherzo, 5: Rondo).
The last act, finally, is a sequence of 5 inventions.
Surprisingly, not a single one of these forms originates from music theater; they all originate from absolute music. Berg wanted to create a kind of alienation with the strict form in order to put a stop to the romantic exuberance of the conventional opera forms. Berg himself commented that he “did not place so much emphasis on being a musical bogeyman, but rather a natural continuation of correctly understood, good, old tradition!



The Music II – the Orchestra

The forms described above are barely audible to the listener, the musical arrangement is too complex and a comprehension is only possible by using the score and with some expertise.
The use of the orchestral parts is equally demanding. The orchestra is of late romantic size and has a large color palette with the addition of guitar, xylophone, celesta, accordion and rod. The full orchestra can be heard mainly in the metamorphosis music (the transitions between the pictures). The pictures themselves are very sparingly orchestrated to increase text comprehensibility. In return, Berg varies the orchestral composition in each picture, which requires a tremendous amount of coordination and rehearsal, often the musicians even have to physically shift.



The Music III – “Don’t sing at all!”

Berg wanted to bring Büchner’s dialogues to the stage with high quality acting, so he refrained from using sung forms such as arias. Berg had a clear idea of how the singers should sing: “No singing! But nevertheless, the pitch must be indicated and recorded in the singing pitch (exactly after the notes); the latter, however, with speech resonance”. This corresponded to the use of the speaking voice as in Schönberg’s Pierrot-Lunaire ten years earlier, a technique between singing and speaking.



The playwright Berg – his influence on Hitchcock

Büchner’s dialogues were largely everyday dialogues and not very inspiring for soulful opera. For Berg this was no obstacle – on the contrary, Berg was a dramatist and he developed an unheard-of wealth of tonal language. The famous composer Bernard Herrmann, known for his film music for Hitchcock, was an avowed Berg fan. The famous scene of the murder in the shower with the dissonant high cries of the violins in “Psycho” was inspired by Berg’s music and became one of the greatest moments in film history. You can hear the screaming violins in the sound sample of the first picture of the first act.




It took a full 11 years from Berg’s first stage experience of Wozzeck in 1914 to the premiere. The General Music Director of the Berlin State Opera, Erich Kleiber, championed the work and conducted it himself at the premiere. Some experts considered the work unperformable. In order to do justice to the complexity and novelty of the work, Kleiber arranged for 137 rehearsals.
The audience’s reactions were divided. It was to be expected that a part of the audience and the press reacted with incomprehension. The avant-garde was enthusiastic, the importance of the work was recognized early on, and by the time Berg died in 1935, it had been performed over 160 times. When the Nazis seized power, the work disappeared from the theaters, but soon after the end of World War II, it found its way back into the repertoire, which it has retained to this day.








Synopsis: In the captain’s room Wozzeck shaves the officer early in the morning. The captain wants to chat with Wozzeck, who remains monosyllabic. When the superior officer refers to Wozzeck’s illegitimate child, who was born “without the blessing of the church,” Wozzeck points out that poor people cannot afford to act morally.

Without overture, only with a swirl in the drums, which is supposed to represent the military, the singing voice immediately begins in the 5th bar. The piece is written in the form of a suite (prelude, pavane, cadenza, gigue, cadenza, gavotte double I/II, air, prelude in crabwalk).

We soon hear the first leitmotif of the opera, it is the sequence of notes we hear repeatedly in Wozzeck’s “Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann” (“Yes, Captain”).

We hear Hitchcock’s cries of the violin in the recording below in the passage starting at 3:30.

One of the most important leitmotifs we encounter in Wozzeck’s “Wie arme Leut!” (“We poor people!”) It is surprisingly a C major triad. Berg wrote about it: “how could one make the objectivity of the money we are talking about more obvious!” The leitmotif appears again and again.

The role of the loquacious and simply minded captain is written in the voice fach of a tenor buffo, which expresses the caricature-like nature of the superior (see also above in the section “Biographical Information”).

Langsam, Wozzeck, langsam! (Slowly, Wozzeck, slowly! One by one!)  –  Grundheber



Synopsis: Wozzeck is commanded to the field, where he cuts together with Andres’ sticks. He tells his comrade about his dark visions that torment him.

This piece is a rhapsody over three chords and a three-trophic hunter’s song. Berg has assigned an instrument to each figure, Wozzeck is accompanied by the trombone, which corresponds to his baritone’s pitch.

The piece fades away with Austrian military signals from afar, which Berg had internalized during his years of service.

Du, der Platz ist verflucht! (You, the place is cursed!)  –  Berry / Weikenmeier


Marie and their illegitimate child

Synopsis: In the room of Marie, the mother of Wozzeck’s child. She watches a military parade from the window. When she waves to the drum major, her neighbor Margarethe reviles her as a prostitute with an illegitimate child. Marie angrily closes the door and sings a lullaby to her son. Then there is a knock on the door, Wozzeck enters. He has no eyes for Marie and her child, but only speaks of his dark visions and leaves the room of the distraught woman.

The piece begins with a march that sounds in the distance. The conversation between Marie and Margarethe is purely spoken theater, Berg has not written down any notes.

This is followed by a lullaby, which, although written in the classic 6/8 time, does not meet expectations due to its rapid tempo. No wonder the child cannot fall asleep with the mother’s inner turmoil. Before Wozzeck arrives, the two find some peace, which Berg composed with the dreamlike sounds of the celesta.

Tschin Bum, Tschin Bum  –  Grundheber / Behrens



The manic doctor

Synopsis: In order to earn some money Wozzeck hired himself out for a medical experiment. For months he has been eating only beans. He goes to the doctor in charge for regular examinations and tells about his visions. The physician is not interested in Wozzeck as a human being, he is only a “case” for him. Namely the proof that unbalanced nutrition leads to insanity, which the doctor registers with the highest satisfaction. He hopes to become famous with this insight.

Berg wrote a Passacaglia based on a classical twelve-tone theme and varied it 21 times. With this merciless repetition, he shows the doctor as maniacally driven.

Was erleb’ ich, Wozzeck? (What do I experience, Wozzeck?)


Synopsis: Marie meets the Tambour-Major on the street, it doesn’t take long and they both go to Marie’s apartment.







The second act follows the structure of a symphony: 1: Sonata, 2: Fantasy/Fugue, 3: Largo, 4: Scherzo, 5: Rondo.


Synopsis: With the hand mirror, Marie marvels at the earrings that the drum major gave her and dreams of a better life. On her lap is her child, who doesn’t want to sleep and disturbs her. Surprisingly, Wozzeck steps in. He notices the earrings and suspects the truth when Marie claims to have found them. He gives her money and leaves the apartment.

Was die Steine glänzen? (What the stones shine?)  –  Behrens / Grundheber



Synopsis: Wozzeck’s doctor and his captain meet on the street. The captain bores the “Doktor Sargnagel” (“Doctor coffin nail”) with superficial philosophical remarks. As revenge, the doctor prophesies the shocked officer a stroke within the next four weeks. When Wozzeck crosses their path, the two take out their frustration on him. The captain hints Wozzeck that his wife is unfaithful to him. Deeply affected, Wozzeck leaves the two of them.

Berg wrote unusual performance indications in the score several times. With the Hauptmann, he repeatedly wrote “snapping voice” or “nasal voice” and with the Doktor even “like a donkey”.

Wohin so eilig, geehrtester Herr Sargnagel? (Where is the hurry, dearest Mr. Sargnagel?)  –  Dönch / Berry



Marie’s dispute with Wozzeck

Synopsis: Wozzecks hurries to Marie and confronts her. She dodges. Threatening, Wozzeck approaches her. She screams at him not to touch her, preferring a knife in her body rather than him hitting her. Marie returns to her apartment and leaves the desperate man behind.

This scene is a homage to Schönberg, the instrumentation corresponds to Schönberg’s Chamber Symphony op. 9. According to Berg’s instructions, the 15 musicians leave the orchestra pit and position themselves on the stage in a geometric form.

Guten Tag, Franz (Good day, Franz)  –  Berry / Strauss



The tavern scene

Synopsis: In an inn garden late in the evening. Boys, soldiers and maids are dancing. Among them are Marie and the drum major. Wozzeck watches them and is already drunk. Marie calls out provocative words to him. A jerk appears and prophesies a bloody deed.

The piece begins with a ländler played in tonal music. After the song of the craftsman, the piece turns into a waltz written in free tonality.

It continues with a hunter’s choir, which reminds of the Freischütz (possibly a deliberate reminiscence of the lifetime of Woyzeck, who committed the murder at the time of the Freischütz’ creation).

The forms of the scherzo and the ländler return. The plot and the music increasingly turn into a nightmare scene.

Ich hab’ ein Hemdlein an, das ist nicht mein  (I’ve got a shirt on, that’s not mine)  –  Abbado



In Wozzeck the idea of revenge arises

Synopsis: At night in the barracks, Wozzeck lies on his bunk next to Andres. He can’t sleep, he is haunted by the vision of a knife, thoughts of murder stir him up. The drunk drum major enters the guardroom with a bottle of schnapps. He humiliates Wozzeck with his conquest of Marie. The two get into a scuffle, Wozzeck is defeated. Wozzeck’s dream of the knife turns into a decision.

A ghastly short ghost choir introduces the piece conceived as “Rondo martiale con Introduzione”. Visions plague Wozzeck and the ghost choir returns. The orchestra crackles, cracks and rings as the drum major makes his mischief.

Andres! Andres! ich kann nicht schlafen (Andres! I can not sleep)  –  Berry / Uhl











Berg describes each of the five pictures of this act as an invention. Each picture describes the obsession of a person, be it Marie’s feelings of guilt, Wozzeck’s murder, the bloody hands or the frenetic search for the knife.



Marie’s feelings of guilt

Synopsis: Marie lies awake at night and reads the story of the adulteress in the Bible. She has not seen Wozzeck for a long time and regrets what she did to him. She suspects that a misfortune will happen.

Right at the beginning we hear the theme, which Berg uses as a basis for 7 variations and a fugue.

Und ist kein Betrug in seinem Munde erfunden worden (And no deceit has been invented in his mouth) –  Lear



The murder

Synopsis: It is night, Wozzeck and Marie meet at the pond in the forest. Nostalgically, Wozzeck remembers better times and pushes the knife into her throat.

Berg wrote an invention about the tone H, which is omnipresent.

The piece begins quietly, threateningly, one hears the violin’s soft cries announcing the disaster. Wozzeck is quiet before the act, but threatens Marie blatantly (“He who is cold does not freeze any more! You will not freeze with the morning dew”). The moon rises pale over the scene. It is the music before the murder. Margarethe dies with a piercing scream and terrible chords sound in the orchestra. The passage ends with a tremendous crescendo.

Dort links geht’s in die Stadt (There on the left is the city)  –  Berry / Strauss



The second tavern scene

Synopsis: Wozzeck goes to the inn. He wants to dance to forget the murder. Margarethe discovers bloodstains on his shirt and confronts him in front of everyone. Wozzeck flees from the inn.

The piece begins with a polka played on an out-of-tune piano. Later, an inn orchestra with fiddles, accordion and the heavy sounds of a bombardon (a kind of tuba) is heard.

Tanzt Alle; tanzt nur zu, springt, schwitzt und stinkt (Dances All; just dance, jump, sweat and stink)  –  Berry / Lasser



Wozzeck returns to the pond

Synopsis: Wozzeck runs back to the pond and looks for the knife to hide the evidence. When he finds it, he goes deep into the pond to hide it there. While trying to wash off his bloodstains, he drowns. The doctor and the captain pass the pond and hear a drowning person, indifferently they decide not to do anything.

Berg describes this piece as an “invention about a sixth-chord”. The underlying notes comprise b, c, e, g sharp, e flat, f.

Das Messer? Wo ist das Messer? (The knife? Where is the knife?)  –  Berry



The interlude

The following interlude is written more or less tonally in the key of D minor. Once again, many of the opera’s motifs are audible and the interlude ends with a twelve-tone chord that was heard at Marie’s death.




Synopsis: In the morning children play in front of Marie’s house. Her child is also there and rides his hobbyhorse. They all run to the forest when they hear that Marie’s body was found. Only Marie’s son doesn’t understand what happened and is the only child left behind.

The opera ends with an invention about an eighth note movement.

Ringel, Ringel, Rosenkranz, Ringelreih’n!






Recording Recommendation


SONY, with Walter Berry, Isabel Strauss, Fritz Uhl, Carl Doench conducted by Pierre Boulez and the Orchestre du Theatre National de l’Opera de Paris



Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on “WOZZECK ” by Alban Berg.



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