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A dark story of madness and murder, Wozzeck is an adaptation of Büchner’s groundbreaking and highly influential work, which was in progress at the author’s death in 1837 and was not performed until 1913. After seeing the play’s Vienna premiere, Berg determined to base an opera on it, but his progress on the work was slowed by the advent of World War I and military service. He completed the opera in 1922 and published the vocal score privately in 1922. He presented orchestral excerpts from the opera in concert in 1924. When Berg’s work came to the stage at the Berlin Staatsoper a year later, it was an immediate hit. Its success dismayed Berg, who felt that the work should have been too modern for wide acceptance, and he began to question whether he had fallen short of his overall intention.
Berg tells the tale of Wozzeck’s madness with rhythmic and melodic fragments that carry moods from one scene to the next. As his mentor Arnold Schoenberg had taught him, Berg underlaid his music with compositional patterns going back hundreds of years. His harmonic structures sometimes verge into atonality, leaving the listener with no clear sense of the direction in which the music might move next. Atonality was an idea then in vogue among the Schoenberg circle, and it seemed ideally suited to reflect the protagonist’s precarious mental state and his descent into madness.