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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Alban Berg, "Wozzeck"

Alban Berg
EMI (1999)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

As a music fan (or just a young person in general) I often hear about how the "kids these days" "just don't make things like they used to," to combine a couple of old-people cliches. For some reason, modern rock just doesn't live up to the classic rock of the '60s and '70s (my dad's view) and rock in general doesn't live up to Enrico Caruso (my grandfather's view). I can only imagine the reaction when Alban Berg's "Wozzeck" debuted in 1925. From the Baroque movement on, classical music had changed and gone through multiple eras, as music is wont to do. Each new era was met with early resistance, but Berg and his mentor Arnold Schoenberg dealt with a tad more stubborn criticism than most.

"Wozzeck" takes an atonal approach to opera. In other words, Berg composed the music so that it wouldn't establish a key. Key is something that casual listeners don't think about very often, generally because all music we listen do has one. Therefore when we're hit with something like "Wozzeck," we instantly notice that something isn't right. The good news about this 1999 recording from the Hamburg State Philharmonic is that it isn't as offsetting as I just made it out to be. I'm at best a casual opera listener, and for the most part I had to really look beyond the vocals to recognize the atonality. Those of you more well-versed in this style of music will probably notice what's up within a few seconds.

Even if the atonality does strike you (or bother you), it's not going to hurt your ears. This music lacks a key, but it's not out of tune. Berg wasn't an idiot either. He came up with musical themes that he uses throughout the performance, so if you listen closely enough you can tell that this isn't free jazz; there's a plan. Berg employs leitmotifs (or "guiding motifs") to associate his compositions with characters and moods. Wozzeck, the protagonist, is most often featured with one of two motifs: one representing his madness (more on this later) and one on his hopelessness. Other characters such as the drum major, the doctor, and Wozzeck's wife Marie have their own subtle themes that help the listener connect them with the music.

As for the plot of the opera, it's a tragedy. Wozzeck is one of those guys who can't catch a break. His boss in the military looks down upon him, his wife is cheating on him and, in a more curious twist that never actually gets explained, his doctor is performing secret experiments on him. The narrative, which had already been developed by another playwright, worked perfectly for Berg. His use of atonality served as an appropriate indicator for Wozzeck's mental state: unsettled. I would recommend finding an English translation of the lyrics for following along with the plot; if you can understand what's happening vocally, it's that much easier to link it with the backing music.

"Wozzeck" created an uproar when it debuted, but it has since been recognized as one of the best operas of the 20th Century. If there's one reason why you, not normally an opera fan, should give this one a shot, it's because the whole thing is only 1.5 hours, not a three-hour slog like "Norma" was. The real reason you should check it out? Bo Skovhus's powerhouse performance as the mentally crumbling title character.

INTERESTING FACT: Berg died as a result of blood poisoning at age 50. How did his blood get poisoned, you ask? Well, he had a carbuncle on his back from a bee-sting and had fallen on hard times, so he couldn't get it treated at a hospital. Thus his wife attempted an operation using scissors. Surprisingly, further infection followed.

Tanzt Alle by Alban Berg on Grooveshark

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