Berg’s »Wozzeck« in concert

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Echoes of the BBC performance of Wozzeck as a concert piece [in March 1934] may still be heard: for some unsolved reason the opera drew the attention of thousands. Writers of all classes referred to the work according to their mood, and the humorists tried hard to get a laugh out of it, but failed. Schönberg’ Gurrelieder excited no such interest. Perhaps the very tragedy of Wozzeck compels our interest.

It has been described as melodrama: and so it is if King Lear, Macbeth and Boris Godunov are melodramas, for murder is in them all. Wozzeck is tormented to the murder of his wife and to his own destruction: and thus it is an affair of the underdog rather than of kings. The story is well known to most German speaking people, but they do not react to its horrors so violently as writers tell us English audiences will do. Berg’s opera embodying the story had great success in Germany, and was by the many regarded merely as propaganda to enlist sympathy for the submerged tenth and intellectually lowly. Thus I cannot understand why, under the present order, performances should be forbidden in Germany.

Listened to as music-drama, as one might to a sonata or a fugue or a passacaglia, I found Wozzeck very interesting. It has a grip which, on first acquaintance, seizes one as does Boris or Elektra. That Wozzeck, shorn of its theatrical setting, can create such an impression is a tribute to the mastery of Berg in the art of characterisation.

Richard Bitterauf, the only German in the cast, impersonated Wozzeck. The work would have made but a feeble impression without him, for, like Chaliapin, he is a fine character actor. But, when all is said and done, I do not hesitate to say that the production as a concert piece was a mistake. Wozzeck by every line in the story and every note in the score, belongs to the theatre.

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, May 1934, p. 624