Wozzeck as Expressionist/Symbolist Opera   

copyright © 2004 by Larry J Solomon


Alban Berg's (1885-1935) Wozzeck (1922) is considered by some scholars to be the greatest opera of the twentieth century. It is based upon 23 unordered, unfinished fragments of a play, Woyzeck (1837), written by the German writer, Georg Büchner (1813-1837). The play was laboriously and faithfully reconstructed by Karl Emil Franzos after Büchner died at the age of 23, and the scenes were later reordered by Paul Landau for the first published edition of 1909. The first production of the play did not occur until 1913 in Munich, 76 years after Büchner's death. Berg's opera, based upon the 1909 edition, was premiered by the Berlin State Opera in 1925, nearly a century after Büchner wrote the play.

Büchner's based his play upon an actual documented event. In 1821, Johann Christian Woyzeck, an ex-soldier and barber, murdered his mistress, Frau Woost, for cuckolding him. Apparently, his trial was the first in history at which a plea of insanity was entered. The plea failed because the appointed expert, a doctor Hofrat Clarus testified that Woyzeck could not have been insane during the murder. Woyzeck was publicly executed in the Leipzig market square on August 27, 1824. There was, however, considerable controversy about the trial. In 1825 Clarus published an account of his examination of Woyzeck in a medical journal to which Büchner's father subscribed. Büchner based much of the play on the actual words of Woyzeck in Clarus's account.

Büchner had already developed a politically activist philosophy even before writing Woyzeck. He became a leader of an underground political movement obsessed with overthrowing the autocratic governments of German states. Anticipating Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the originators of the Communist Manifesto (1848), Büchner was determined to expose and overthrow what he saw as the oppression of the poor by the rich and powerful. Thus, his play casts figures of authority (the Doctor and Captain) as evil, selfish, manipulative, and callous, while the poor, represented by Woyzeck, are exploited and have no control over their destiny.


The following is an excerpt from Douglas Jarman's book, Alban Berg: Wozzeck, which is a brilliant description of expressionism in art and music.

There had, of course, been 'earlier operas in which characters had gradually been driven insane, and, indeed, the 'mad scene' and the musical and dramatic conventions for handling such scenes had become something of an operatic tradition by the end of the nineteenth century. But no opera before Wozzeck had had a psychotic anti-hero as its central character, and no opera before Wozzeck (and, perhaps, none since) had depicted mental instability in such a way that the audience shared this instability, rather than simply observing its outward effects. The expressionist language of the first decades of the twentieth century was peculiarly well suited to deal with such extreme mental and emotional states.

Expressionism, an artistic movement in which reality or aspects of reality were deliberately distorted in order to express the artist's emotional response to a subject, dominated all the arts in Germany and Austria from about 1910 to the early 1920s. The movement had its origins in the last decades of the nineteenth century, in the work of painters such as Van Gogh, who, in the 1880s, described how he consciously exaggerated colours and forms in his paintings so as to express his feelings about, rather than simply record, what he saw. By the mid 1890s and the early 1900s many artists (such as Edvard Munch, Emil Nolde, Matisse, and the Fauves in France, and Die Brücke group of painters in Dresden) were painting works in which the shapes and colours of the natural world were subjected to violent distortions for expressive purposes. Although written some seventy years before German expressionism became an established movement, Büchner's Woyzeck had in it many elements which the expressionists regarded as anticipations of their own interests and concerns. Thus, in the Büchner play, as in the works of the expressionists themselves, reality seemed (as Wilhelm Worringer wrote in 1912 in one of the key documents in the development of German expressionism) to be "transformed into a spectrally heightened and distorted actuality. Everything becomes weird and fantastic. Behind the visible appearance of things lurks its caricature. . .and so all actual things become grotesque . . . ." {1}

Berg's opera presents us with such a "heightened and distorted" actuality rather than with a documentary realism. There is no attempt in Wozzeck, as there is in Britten's Peter Grimes for example, to depict the title figure as a misfit in an otherwise 'normal' society in which people are going about their everyday business and leading their recognizably ordinary lives. The picture with which Berg presents us is that of a society in which the underprivileged are at the mercy of an unfeeling, selfish and sadistic ruling class, a class that keeps the less fortunate in their place through its financial domination and its appeals to vacuous moral ideals. It is a society that is so inhuman and so grotesque that the simple but good Wozzeck is inevitably driven to his crime by his poverty, his suffering and his very simplicity. Only in the final orchestral interlude, when Wozzeck is dead and the action of the opera is ended -- and even then, only when the curtain is down and the music removed from the characters and events on stage -- does the composer's own sympathy for his chief character introduce an element of humanity into the work.{2}

A direct parallel to the intense expression is seen in Ex 1, a reproduction of Edvard Munch's The Scream, or The Shriek (1893)Edvard Munch: Scream 1893. We don't see a naturalistic rendering of a person, sky, water, etc. Instead, Munch depicts the actual scream, externalizing the inner anguish of the character visually. This shriek penetrates and transforms not only the person screaming, but the entire landscape surrounding the individual. Concentric waves of forms and color radiate violently from the anguished individual, engulfing the scene with a visual analog of the scream in unnatural blood reds and stark blacks and blues (symbolic of the bruised soul). There is no attempt to portray a realistic or photographic image of the person or the environment. Neither is there any attempt to portray the external impression of the scene, as in one by an impressionist artist. Instead the observer sees a world distorted by the intense inner emotion of the scream. The world is subjective rather than objective. This subjectivity is the perspective of Berg's opera -- a world transformed by the perception of its primary subject, the oppressed under-class, as represented in the character of Wozzeck.

One remarkable example of this inner perspective occurs at the end of Act III, scene 4, where Wozzeck drowns in a blood-red pool while searching for the murder weapon. The music expresses this scene in an unusual way. Traditionally, the action would be cast in descending musical figures, perhaps glissandi, as Wozzeck sinks deeper and deeper into the pool. Instead, we hear ascending scales of parallel seconds, fourths, and triads. This surprising reversal of perspective can only be Wozzeck's view of the water rising around him as he drowns, a clear example of expressionist subjectivity.

Another example of subjectivity is found in the preceding scene, when Wozzeck, fleeing from his horrific act, wanders into a local tavern where people are drinking, singing, and dancing a bizarre polka. It is not a normal dance, but one highly distorted by atonal harmonies. It is reminiscent of the distorted waltz heard in Act II scene 4, when Wozzeck discovered Marie dancing lustfully with the Drum Major. Now he tries to appease his misery by drinking and carousing with a bar maid. He grabs her and prods her to sing to him, but as she grants his wish, we hear not a normal Ländler or waltz, but a lullaby in Common Time. The song is a strange one about dresses too lovely for a servant girl (these things seem to have nothing to do with one another but everything to do with Wozzeck). Although diatonic, it is surrounded by atonal harmonies, which function to distort any resemblance of key.

The bar maid, Margret, queries him about a spot of blood on his hand. His reaction is not rational, but emotional: "Ich? ich?" (Me? Me?) The music stops except for some ghostly col legno major sevenths in the Contrabasses. "Rot! Blut!" (Red! Blood!) prods Margret. "Blut? Blut?" retorts Wozzeck, as the pitch of the major seventh rises into the bassoon and contrabassoon, signaling increased anxiety. In a brief moment of rationalism, Wozzeck replies "I think I must have cut myself". But as the music rises in pitch again, this time the dynamics increase from piano to forte, and Margret asks why there's blood on his elbow as well. "Well," he says, "I must have wiped it there." Spectators suddenly surround Wozzeck, and one interjects, "Your right hand on your right elbow?" The dynamics increase to fortissimo, portraying Wozzeck's rising anxiety, as he exclaims, "Am I a murderer?" At this point, the entire crowd begins to shriek "Blut, blut, blut ..." Now this is not a realistic picture of what would actually happen in such a scene -- rather, it is Wozzeck's vision of the people around him, shrieking about a bit of blood on his hand. The blood has become a paranoid obsession. Margret's pitch rises (hence Wozzeck's anxiety about her) as she shrieks "It reeks of human blood!", and Wozzeck rushes out of the tavern in terror of being discovered. This is not a normal portrayal of such a scene, but one in which a speck of blood explodes into a torrent of screams and Wozzeck's mental anguish escalates into paranoia.

The greatest example of heightened expressionism occurs in the drowning scene of Act III, scene 4. Escaping from the tavern, Wozzeck is fearfully paranoid of being discovered. As he frantically searches for the knife (the murder weapon), he begins to hallucinate. "Alles still und tot" (All is still and dead), he exclaims in sprechstimme. At the top of his range, at fortissimo, he shouts "Murder! Murder!" He asks "Who cried?", then suddenly realizes that it was his own voice. He views Marie's bloody body prostrate on the ground and sings softly and tenderly, "Marie! What is that crimson necklace you're wearing? Was that well earned, or sinful, just like the earrings?" (The earrings were given to Marie by the Drum Major, Wozzeck's rival.) He seems to alternately remember and forget his deed. "Why is your black hair so unruly?", then screams fortissimo, "Murder! Murder!" He returns to his search for the knife, he finds it and throws it into the pool. Suddenly he notices the moon rising bloody red. "The moon betrays me," he exclaims. "Must the whole world be blabbing it?" He grows more paranoid, fearful that he didn't throw the knife far enough into the pool. As he wades in deeper to retrieve the knife, the water appears bloody from the moon's reflection. "The water is blood! -- Blood . . .", his voice plunges as he drowns and the water rises. This scene seems to be a direct parallel with Munch's The Shriek, complete with blood red sky, the anguished individual, the clear anti-naturalism, and the screaming visual expression.

Berg mixes the languages of tonality and atonality in Wozzeck, and each is used within a distinctive context. Atonality is used to refer to the subjective, existentialist perception of the world, in this case through the eyes of Wozzeck himself. Psychology and psychiatry were hot topics in Vienna during Berg's life. Berg even sought treatment for his own malady from Sigmund Freud, through Alfred Adler (Freud's pupil at the time). The subconscious, neuroses, and psychoses, were subjects debated by the intelligentsia in the famed Viennese coffee houses. The newly developed psychologies of Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, and Carl Jung were quickly incorporated and adopted by artists, especially those of expressionist tendencies. According to Willi Reich, a student of Berg's, Berg emphasized in his teaching that music should relate and use Freudian "depth-psychology", that it should express and illuminate the subconscious {3}. Although Berg did seek Freud's help and accepted Freud's concept of the subconscious, he rejected Freud's theory that the root of mental problems was sexual.

Berg uses atonality for the expression of Wozzeck's hallucinations, psychosis, and alienation. Additionally, he uses atonality as a way to distort and magnify madness and abnormality, which Büchner apparently believed was the result of the way that the rich and powerful controlled and exploited the poor. The authority figures of the Captain and the Doctor are cast as musically abnormal, obsessed, and evil. For example, the tritone, the conventional diabolus in musica, is used to form the leitmotifs of the Doctor.

Tonal music is used to refer to traditional contexts and objective ideas in the drama. Berg himself explained in a lecture on Wozzeck, that he used the C major triad as a symbol of the "objectivity of money". Tonal music, usually juxtaposed on an atonal background, is heard in the folk songs, the hunting songs, tavern music, waltzes, that are heard in the opera. These are all references to the traditional, objective, naive, outer view of life.

Another aspect of expressionism in Wozzeck is the way that it embraces the psychology of alienation. Throughout the opera, in scenes where the characters are supposedly communicating with each other, they are musically cast in ways that alienate them. For example, in Act I, scene 2 we find Wozzeck and his friend Andres in the open countryside submissively picking up sticks to fuel the Major's fire. Wozzeck begins to hallucinate. While Andres, oblivious to Wozzeck's anguish, dreams of a carefree life and sings the jovial song of a huntsman, Wozzeck hallucinates visions and hears voices from underground. His music is dark, disturbed and anxious. These two characters and their music are clearly not in harmony as in a traditional duet. Each tries to convince the other of his fantasy, without success; thus, they communicate nothing at all to each other. Andres' folk song is quasi-tonal and in a separate musical realm from Wozzeck's atonal, spooky sprechstimme. Andres' music bounces with joy and frivolity. When Wozzeck hears voices calling from under the ground, trombones crackle like sinister laughter, and drums thunder like an earthquake. But Andres is clearly oblivious to these sounds. His frivolity goes on undisturbed. The only connection between them is one of expressed incredulity. Andres exclaims, "Hey, are you mad?", and his reaction to Wozzeck's desperate cries is an incredulous "Was?" (What?). The surrounding music ceases motion with these statements; i.e., they are solos and thereby become highlighted moments in the drama.

Another example of Wozzeck's alienation is in Act I, scene 4, where Wozzeck subjects himself to the Doctor's sadistic experiments. Wozzeck again hallucinates, while the Doctor's ego swells, cast in increasingly augmented and louder proclamations. The Doctor raves like a maniac about Wozzeck's "wonderful obsessions" and especially about his theories-- "Oh, meine Theorie!" he repeats as a swelling mantra. Even when the Doctor pretends to concern himself with Wozzeck's condition, he grotesquely takes his own pulse to assure himself of his health and tries to impress himself with the use of words like "oxyaldehydanhydride".

The very first scene in the opera between Wozzeck and the Captain is similarly cast in ways which alienate, rather than relate, the characters. Here, the Captain goes on and on about his superior position, about Wozzeck's stupidity, and of abstract ideas of time and morality. Wozzeck responds like a robot: "Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann!". When Wozzeck can no longer stand to nod to the Captain's harangue, he breaks into an impassioned outpouring of the "We Poor Folk" motive and "Ach, Marie -- Marie!" When Wozzeck tries to defend his bastard son with a religious parable, the Captain retorts "What are you saying?! What kind of weird answer is that?" There is clearly no communication taking place in this scene. Significantly, most of the scenes throughout the opera reflect this alienation as typical of the society.


Berg uses the Wagnerian principle of the leitmotif throughout the opera. These are short musical fragments that serve as musical symbols of the characters, actions, moods, and ideas that occur and recur in the drama (Ex's 30, 34).

A second group even includes motives of a single note.

These motifs are constructed in special ways that reflect the meaning or connected meaning of the symbols. For example, the musical shape of The Knife (19) reflects the shape of a knife blade, specifically the wedge shape of two lines converging in contrary motion. The use of static rising, open fifths of the motive of Marie's Aimless Waiting (14) suggests the motionless quality of waiting. The thundering force of the Murder Rhythm (36) portrays the brutality of murder. Wozzeck's Exit motive (18) is the Retrograde-Inversion of his Entrance motive (17). The Military March (11) and Drum Major (12) motives contain rhythms commonly found in military music. These also have a diatonic construction that is connected with the construction of tonal music in marches. Similarly tonal motives begin with the perfect fourth "pickup" that often begins traditional folk tunes, hence the quasi-tonal music of the simple folk -- the Cradle Song (8) and the Hunter's Songs (10) connote normalcy. These motives contrast sharply with most of the others, which are constructed atonally. Of course, the tritone is not new as a symbol of evil or doom, but the way it is cleverly incorporated into the structure of other motifs, e.g., the Doctor, The Captain, Marie's Waiting, and Tavern Song, to suggest their sinister aspects or doom is hardly fortuitous. The Hallucinations motive (28) contains wildly leaping intervals to suggest visions that are out of control. The descending lines and evenly trudging rhythms of the Tragedy of the Poor motif (4) and Wozzeck's Misery (25) suggest the laborious motions and hopelessness of the working poor. The regularly swaying rhythms of Marie's Earring motif (24) suggest the pleasure she takes in the earrings. The rising Fanfare (5) and Seduction (6) motifs are constructed similarly to the beginning motive of Marie's Desire (20), pointing to the related meanings of these motifs.

Symbolism in Wozzeck, however, goes beyond those suggested only by leitmotifs. Number symbolism is well documented in Berg's music. Another category of symbols may be described as onomatopoeia. These are sounds that are composed to imitate or portray an actual emotion, event, feeling, or vision. In Act I/30 (Act I, m30), for example, when the Captain uses the word "angst" we hear a trembling tremolo in the cellos and timpani. The same tremolo appears with the word "shudder" in measure 41. When the Captain sings that his shudder is caused by the thought of the earth revolving like a wheel, rotating figures are heard in the harp, which then begin to tumble through the strings (mm43-46). When the Captain directs Wozzeck to slow down, the music actually slows down with metric modulations (m160f).

When Wozzeck describes the weather as windy, Berg uses a rapid planing of 6-3 chords rushing like the wind through the flutes (m70), and when the Captain says the wind makes him feel like a "mouse", his voice ascends to his highest A and sustains it with a trill, making his voice squeal (m78). Then as he describes the wind direction as South-to-North "Sud - nord", he sings a straight line portamento from a high G# , plunging more than an octave to an F (m86), while the bass clarinet and bassoon shoot upwards in contrary motion and the flutes fall precipitously three octaves (m97f). All these musical sounds imitate the straight line of a compass needle as an auditory image.

When the Captain sings about Wozzeck's child unblessed by the Church, he sings lines that are reminiscent of sacred chant (m123f). During Wozzeck's complains that if he and his kind should ever reach heaven they would still have to make the thunder, we hear drums thunder under his exclamation. These sound effects all occur in just the first scene, but similar onomatopoeia occur throughout the opera.

Some other examples of onomatopoeia in other parts of the opera are as follows: I/275f, Berg creates ghostly sounds to accompany Wozzeck's hallucinations by the use of the special techniques of col legno (with the wood of the bow) and tremolo am steg (on the bridge) in the strings. When Wozzeck's bizarre hallucinations seem to overwhelm him in the second scene (I/285f), the trombones cackle sinisterly, and the orchestra tumbles down in a tumult of sound as Wozzeck

describes a fire that rises up to the sky and then falls "in a tumult, like trombones". The drums thunder away as he then exclaims, "How it thunders!" (I/296). But then the noise quickly abates and we are left with a thin, sustained ppp chord in sudden contrast as Andres changes the subject and declares that "Alles still" (All is calm). In Act III/2, where Wozzeck murders Marie, the murder note B sounds throughout as an ominous pedal. In measure 94, Wozzeck replies to Marie's suspicion with "Nix!" (Nothing). This solo exclamation is followed by a long silence, symbolizing the "nothing". This is followed by a slowly rising tritone-riddled arpeggio depicting the rising blood-red moon and the ominous B pedal of death.

The murderous B tonal symbol becomes Berg's famous "crescendo on a single note" at the end of the murder scene.

In Act I, scene 4, mm 561f (var12), Wozzeck anxiously hallucinates in the presence of the Doctor. As he exclaims "Haven't you seen the circles of toadstools out there on the ground? Lines and circles, strange figures. If only I could read them!", we hear circling figures in the music which are visually apparent in the score.

At the very end of the opera, both Wozzeck and Marie are dead, leaving their child an orphan. At this point we hear the two cadential "quaver" chords oscillating back and forth.

These Quaver Chords, which also occur at the end of each act, serve as a cadence for the whole opera, with the first being analogous to tonic and the second analogous to dominant, thus, ending on the dominant. But they are functionally weak, and as they oscillate, they impart a feeling of aimlessness, which is exactly what the action portrays as the orphan child, unable to understand that his mother is dead and gone, pathetically hops around on his hobby horse. These chords are on one harmonic plane, while an empty open fifth (symbol of emptiness) on G hovers suspensefully above and below them on a separate plane. These two alienated yet motionless and aimless planes of harmony, therefore, end the drama with the theme of alienation.


  1. Worringer, quoted in Read, p 52
  2. Jarman, pp 3-4
  3. Reich, pp. 177-118


  1. Jarman, Douglas. Alban Berg Wozzeck, a Cambridge Opera Handbook (1989)
  2. Worringer, Wilhelm. Formprobleme der Gothik, Piper, Munich, 1912
  3. Read, Herbert. A Concise History of Modern Painting, Thames and Hudson, London, 1959
  4. Reich, Willi. The Life and Work of Alban Berg, London: Thames & Hudson, 1965


Alban Berg's Lecture on Wozzeck (1929)