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Lyrical Tension, Collective Voices: Masculinity in Alban Berg's Wozzeck

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020


The voice of Berg's Wozzeck has been characterized by his Sprechgesang, heard as manifestation of his abnormality or even ‘hysteria’. However, Wozzeck often sounds more lyrical and emotive in relation to his oppressors, whose sense of authority is undermined by their caricatured vocal lines and vocal types. Rather than representing a ‘broken’ voice, Wozzeck's Sprechgesang is reserved for moments shared with his fellow low-ranking comrades, suggesting that it served as a voice of solidarity and empathy. In this article, I historicize the première of the opera at the Berlin State Opera; indeed, a glance at the singers who played the central roles suggests how the characters were perceived. It reveals an intertextual web of suffering shared between Berg's traumatized soldiers, and the perverse exercise of authority. Wozzeck therefore opens up questions about the expression of ideals in post-First World War Germany: the ideal of a stoic man demanded by the army, and the ideal of a voice.

Research Article
Copyright © 2019 The Royal Musical Association

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42 ‘Seine dunkle, dabei ungewöhnlich bewegliche Stimme mit der Feinheit ihrer Charakterisierung und seine glanzvolle Schauspielkunst bewährten sich auf der Bühne im seriösen, namentlich aber im Buffo-Repertoire.’ Kutsch and Riemens, Großes Sängerlexikon, 3rd edn, iv: Muffo–Seidel (1997), 3164.Google Scholar

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47 After all, Sprechgesang as a technique was not completely new. See discussions in, for instance, Edward Kravitt, The Lied: Mirror of Late Romanticism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996); Reinhart Meyer-Kalkus, Stimme und Sprechkünste im 20. Jahrhundert (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2001), 213–50 (for a history of Sprechgesang from at least the early 1800s); Matthias Nöther, Als Bürger leben, als Halbgott sprechen: Melodrama, Deklamation und Sprechgesang im wilhelminischen Reich (Cologne, Weimar and Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 2008), 114–18 (for Cosima Wagner's promotion of Sprechgesang in Bayreuth); and Martin Knust, ‘Music, Drama, and Sprechgesang: About Richard Wagner's Creative Process’, Nineteenth-Century Music, 38 (2014–15), 219–42.Google Scholar

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49 As the First Apprentice opens the scene, he mocks – using the ‘deep bass' voice that Berg has assigned to him – the buffo bass Doctor by alluding to his preposterous scientific ambition to be immortal. He strains his voice in climbing to the top of each of the ascending phrases as he sings ‘For my soul, for my immortal soul stinketh of brandy wine … ’ (bars 455ff.), until he pushes his bass voice to a falsetto f ′and e′ (bar 462), on the edge of a bass's normal comfort zone. The First Apprentice makes clear here that this omnipotent figure of the Doctor is intoxicated with his own fantasy and can barely maintain his composure. Moreover, just before Marie and the Drum Major make their entrance onto the dance floor (bar 479), the First Apprentice's drawn-out ‘That is dreary, dreary, dreary … ’ at the end of this scene's opening segment can be heard as his comforting of a distressed Wozzeck witnessing Marie's infidelity (bars 474–80).Google Scholar

50 Jelavich, Peter, Berlin Cabaret (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1993), 1.Google Scholar

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55 Franz Köppen's review of Wozzeck's Berlin première captured the sentiment against technicality well when he wrote: ‘There is too much technique, endlessly too much […] But technique is no heart-substitute. And no blood-substitute’ (‘Technik ist viel, unendlich viel […] Aber Technik kann kein Herz-Ersatz sein. Und kein Blut-Ersatz’). Köppen, ‘Wozzeck von Alban Berg: Uraufführung in der Staatsoper’, Berliner Börsen-Zeitung, 15 December 1925, 3. Translations of newspaper reviews are mine, but I am grateful to Mirjam Frank for her advice.Google Scholar

56 Hall, Berg's Wozzeck, 63–4.Google Scholar

57 Except for Walter Schrenk, the critics whom I cite in this article, for instance, all commented negatively on the question of form.Google Scholar

58 Perle, George, The Operas of Alban Berg, 2 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, and London: University of California Press, 1980–5), i: Wozzeck; Janet Schmalfeldt, Berg's Wozzeck: Harmonic Language and Dramatic Design (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983); Hall, Berg's Wozzeck.Google Scholar

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68 ‘Es ist kein Zufall, dass ihre Musik tödlich langweilig wird, sobald sie nicht etwa Groteskes, Abwegiges, Krankhaftes, Fratzenhaftes, schildert. Jede Würde ist ihr verloren gegangen, sie erniedrigt sich zu widernatürlichen Diensten und frönt oft nur den Bedürfnissen rohester Instinkte und elementarster Empfindungen.’ Ibid.Google Scholar

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70 ‘Dergleichen kommt in der Aufführung natürlich nur so ungefähr heraus, wie es überhaupt mit der ganzen “Melodik”, die sich bald dem Sprechton nähert, bald durch ihn ersetzt wird, nicht eben genau genommen werden soll noch kann. Das aber ist das tief Bedauerliche, dass es der Sänger da kaum noch bedarf. Naturalisten täten es auch. Ob einer falsch singt oder spielt, ist bei einem musikalisch so unsauberen Darstellungsstil schlechterdings gleichgültig.’ Ibid.Google Scholar

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72 ‘Solche “Atavismen”, zumal aus lyrischem Gebiet, zeigen aber die schwache Erfindungskraft des Komponisten […] Auch Gesang kennt diese Musik kaum noch. Der Text wird meist – ähnlich Schönbergs Pierrot lunaire – rhythmisch gesprochen, auf bestimmte Tonhöhen festgelegt und geht im Affekt wohl auch in melodische Linien über. Streng sind dabei der natürliche Tonfall der Sprache und ihre Akzente gewahrt. Aber all diese Überlegungen und Ausdrucksformen lösen das Problem der Oper nicht.’ Ibid. (emphasis added).Google Scholar

73 ‘Geht doch auch die Singstimme mit meist weniger vokal als instrumental chromatischen, verkrausten, verzackten, weitsprüngigen (und daher auch instrumental notierten) Intervallen auf Tonfälle und Akzente aus, die wie in einem verzerrenden Jargon die Alltagsrede nachahmen.’ Julius Korngold, ‘Feuilleton: Operntheater: “Wozzeck”, Oper nach Georg Büchers Drama von Alban Berg’, Die neue freie Presse, 1 April 1930, 1–4 (p. 3).Google Scholar

74 ‘Der Komponist unterscheidet in einem Vorwort zu seinem Werke zwischen Gesungenem und Gesprochenem […] Aber auch das Gesungene ist eigentlich nur ein Singgesprochenes oder im Affekt erregt Singgeschrienes, oft geistvoll in der Akzentuierung, aber selten natürlich, meist allen gesanglichen Notwendigkeiten der Menschenstimme entgegen. […] Durch seine Methode auch horizontal verpflichtet, gelangt eben der atonale Komponist von selbst dazu, die Singstimme ins Singsprechen geraten zu lassen, nicht weil er will, sondern weil er muss. So dass die “Oper” sich ins Melodram verwandelt.’ Ibid. Google Scholar

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85 Ibid., 141.Google Scholar

86 Ibid., 143.Google Scholar

87 Ibid., 151.Google Scholar

88 Ibid., 178–80.Google Scholar

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107 Berg, Alban, ‘What is Atonal? A Dialogue’ (1930), in Pro mundo–pro domo, ed. and trans. Simms, 219–27 (p. 223). Berg's original typescript, entitled ‘Was ist atonal? Ein Dialog’, is preserved in Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Musiksammlung, F21.Berg.105, 1–10.Google Scholar

108 Kutsch and Riemens, Großes Sängerlexikon, iv, 3164.Google Scholar

110 The matter of Sprechgesang has received increasing scholarly attention in recent years. Pertinent to my discussion of Schützendorf as a cabaret performer, Jessica Payette writes, for instance, that Sprechgesang has its origins in melodrama and cabaret, that is, in both ‘high-’ and ‘low-brow’ practices in both France and Germany. Its promiscuous roots also allowed Berg later to emphasize the German lineage of his music. Payette, ‘Dismembering “Expectations”: The Modernization of Monodrama in Fin-de-siècle Theatrical Arts’, Melodramatic Voices: Understanding Music Drama, ed. Sarah Hibberd (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), 137–58.Google Scholar

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115 Indeed, if one appeared ‘whole’, then one should work. The discourse of (bodily as well as psychological) ‘wholeness' was firmly rooted in the idea of work as rehabilitation. Dr. H. Fr. Ziegler, for instance, wrote about this in 1919, just after the war. Deborah Cohen, ‘Will to Work: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany after the First World War’, Disabled Veterans in History, ed. David A. Gerber (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 295–321 (p. 301).Google Scholar

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117 Ibid., 295, 300.Google Scholar

118 Ibid., 295–6.Google Scholar

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120 Ibid., 311.Google Scholar

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123 I borrow these criteria from Lee (ibid., 665) and, in turn, Lennard Davis, Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions (New York: New York University Press, 2003), 57.Google Scholar

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