In some circles, Berg's Wozzeck and Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten are considered the most important or significant operas of the 20th century. The outstanding recent Wergo release of the 1965 world premiere production of Die Soldaten prompted some thoughts about the relationships between the operas that go beyond their musical similarities and the subject matter -- the brutalizing effects of military culture -- that they share. Those connections in turn trigger a branchlike configuration of further associations....
The authors of the plays on which the two operas are based are curiously connected. In 1836, Georg BÃ¼chner (1813-1837), the author of Woyzeck, wrote a short story (based on fact) about the precarious mental condition of Jacob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751-1792), author of Die Soldaten. In another musical twist, Wolfgang Rihm wrote an opera, Jakob Lenz, in 1978, based on BÃ¼chnerâ€™s story, adding to the growing numbers of Operas About Librettists (and Playwrights Whose Work Became Operatic Librettos), but that would be the subject of another feature. The BÃ¼chner story concerns Lenzâ€™s visit with the Alsatian pastor, Johann Friedrich Oberlin, for whom Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music was named. As of this writing, the Oberlin Conservatory Opera Theater has not yet produced either Bergâ€™s Wozzeck (too demanding on student singers, but the Theatre Department has staged BÃ¼chnerâ€™s Woyzeck) or Zimmermannâ€™s Die Soldaten (nearly impossible in even the biggest international opera houses) or Rihmâ€™s Jakob Lenz (which they could and should do, based on its subject matter -- you can bet that if there were operas about Augustus D. Juilliard or Mary Louise Curtis Bok, those schools would snap them right up.)
The Berg and Zimmermann operas also have a more recent, and sadder, connection. The unfortunate also-ran composer Manfred Gurlitt (1890-1972) wrote operas on both plays -- Wozzeck in 1926 and Die Soldaten in 1929. He's probably better known as the composer who wrote forgotten operas on the same subject as two of the greatest operas of the century than for his music itself. His Wozzeck was the victim of bad timing -- it came out just a year after Bergâ€™s Wozzeck had dazzled the opera world. Gurlittâ€™s version isnâ€™t bad; in fact, itâ€™s pretty good, but it doesnâ€™t hold a candle to Bergâ€™s masterpiece. His Soldaten is pretty much a misfire; itâ€™s a perfectly respectable post-Romantic opera, but it doesnâ€™t come anywhere near capturing the ferocity and rawness of Lenzâ€™s play. The Gurlitt operas only point up the brilliance of those by Berg and Zimmermann, which continue to leave audiences shaken and moved.
Gurlitt: Wozzeck - Scene 2 "Du, der Platz ist verflucht!"
Gurlitt: Wozzeck - Scene 11 "Andres! Andres! Ich kann nicht schlafen!"
Berg: Wozzeck - Act 1, scene 2 "Du, der Platz ist verflucht!"
Berg: Wozzeck - Act 2, scene 5 "Andres! Andres! Ich kann nicht schlafen!"
Berg: Wozzeck - Act 2, Interlude (Adagio)
Gurlitt: Soldaten - Act 1, scene 7
Zimmermann: Die Soldaten - Preludio
Zimmermann: Die Soldaten - Act 2, scene 1 (Toccata 2)
Zimmermann: Die Soldaten - Act 4, scene 1 (Toccata 3)