This is the first great atonal opera. Its story is a grim one -- a poverty-stricken soldier struggles to support his illegitimate son and the boy's mother while enduring victimization and humiliation from virtually everyone he encounters, until finally he discovers that his girlfriend has been unfaithful. He murders her, and then, crazed with guilt and apprehension, he drowns while trying to recover the murder weapon from a lake. The final scene is chilling: we see tragedy beginning anew as the orphaned toddler, still unaware of what has happened, hops off innocently to where the older children have found the mother's corpse.
Berg saw the Vienna premiere of Georg Büchner's play Woyzeck in May 1914 and decided immediately to set it to music. It was three years, though, before he was able to begin work on the opera due to required military service; the experience heightened Berg's identification with the story's main character, the soldier Wozzeck. A family crisis and two serious intervals of bronchial asthma further delayed composition, but the work was finally completed in the spring of 1922. By 1923, the vocal score (published at Berg's own expense) had received critical praise, prompting Universal Edition to accept the publication of the full score. Wozzeck was premiered on December 14, 1925; despite opposition from right-wing factions in Berlin, it immediately became an unqualified critical and popular success.
Preliminary sketches of Büchner's play were recovered, faded and nearly indecipherable, 38 years after Büchner's death (at the age of 23) in 1837; the novelist K.E. Franzos painstakingly reconstructed them, and finally arranged for the drama's performance on November 8, 1913. The story centered around a true incident in which a poverty-stricken soldier, Woyzeck (Franzos misread the name in the poorly preserved manuscript), stabbed his mistress and was later executed. Büchner gathered the specific details and even some of Woyzeck's explicit verbal phrases from a report by the court-appointed physician who concluded that Woyzeck could stand trial.
Berg used the second edition of the play for his libretto, reducing the number of scenes from 26 to 15 but otherwise preserving most of the original dialogue. This reduction involved a reordering of the scenes into a coherent structure of three acts of five scenes each. Act One is expository, showing Wozzeck in a relationship to various environments and people in his life. In the developmental second act, Wozzeck gradually becomes aware of Marie's infidelity, and in Act Three comes the catastrophe of Marie's murder, Wozzeck's drowning, and the epilogue.
Musically, Wozzeck is in the same freely atonal style Berg had developed in the Three Orchestral Pieces, Op. 6, although there are many pseudo-tonal and tonal passages interspersed, almost always for dramatic effect. In order to reflect the unique character of the scenes, Berg felt it necessary to construct a separate, musically closed form for each one. This device does not seem to evoke the number operas of the past, but rather lends the work a very modern cohesion and concision that focus its grim, violent subject matter. Each scene is part of a larger multi-movement form that covers an entire act.
Act One, with its focus on the divergent aspects of Wozzeck's personality, needed a loosely constructed form. Its five scenes are set as five character pieces -- Suite, Rhapsody, Military March and Lullaby, Passacaglia, and Quasi-Rondo. The developmental Act Two called for a more dramatic and organic form; hence its Symphony-Sonata, Fantasy and Fugue, Largo, Scherzo, and Rondo con introduzione movements. In Act Three, the inevitability of the catastrophe and epilogue is characterized musically by six inventions on ostinato ideas -- inventions, respectively, on a theme, a note, a rhythm, a hexachord, a key, and on a regular eighth note figure. The fourth and fifth scenes are separated by an important interlude, which receives its own invention (thus there are six inventions rather than five).
Berg himself thought the opera to be very successful; the listener could be completely unaware of the complex web of musical and dramatic form while being completely absorbed by the human and social elements. Indeed, this has proven Wozzeck's most enduring quality; it stands as a landmark achievement in both music and music drama, and is one of the elite few among twentieth century operas to enjoy repertory status.