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Levels of Organization in Berg’s Wozzeck, Act III, Scene I
(please note: the accompanying musical examples are not included.)


December 16, 1999 | Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (1921) is arguably the seminal opera of the twentieth century. This opera proved to the musical world that atonality, which heretofore had been confined to smaller works, is strong enough to retain its musical significance on the larger operatic scale. Beyond musical academia, Wozzeck contributed to western arts by showing that atonality is a capable tool to extend opera’s relevance to life and the world of ideas (Perle xiv). In Act III, Scene I, Berg combines atonality and traditional tonality within the theme/variations structure to underscore the religious fear and guilt of Wozzeck’s mistress, Marie.

To achieve unity within this scene and within the entire opera without extensive use of tonality, Berg needed to find a new harmonic guide. Like Schöenberg and Webern, Berg faced a challenge every time he wrote a non-tonal piece: in avoiding tonality, he was forfeiting the best-proven "means of building small- and large-scale formal structures" (Berg 154). Berg decided to use existing musical forms–character sketches, the symphony, and the variation of a theme–to aid in accomplishing musical cohesion. The antecedent-consequent format of this scene’s text (Marie reads from the Bible, Marie responds to the reading) dictated to Berg that the appropriate structure for this scene would be a two-part theme with variations.

In this scene, Berg focuses intensely on the number seven. For instance, the theme has seven bars. There are seven variations, with the number of beats in each variation being a multiple of seven. The fugue has seven notes. All the metronome markings are multiples of seven. The entire scene consists of seventy bars (not including the first two silent bars). One reason for such prevalence of the number seven is Berg’s superstitious preoccupation with numerology (Jarman 67). Another reason is that the hyper-extensive use of one number gave an additional level of clarity to the creation process. In his extreme use of the number seven, Berg seemed to be following a form of Stravinsky’s advice to find freedom through limited means (Perle 129).

The seven-bar Theme can be divided into a four-bar antecedent section (mm. 3-6) and a three-bar consequent section (mm. 7-9). Of the two sections, the antecedent section is more tonal, with all of its notes in the g-minor harmonic scale. The opening of this scene recalls Act I, Scene 3, where one of the major issues involved evolution between the perfect fourth and both forms (major and minor) of the third interval. Though Act III, Scene 1 is not as concerned with the relations between these intervals, there is a small ascending canon in the violas, cellos, violins, and clarinets (m. 3-6) that moves through a descending perfect fourth to an ascending major third [Example 1]. The antecedent section ends (on the first beat of m. 7) with a "Summary" chord, a combination of a VI6 and V# in g-minor [Example 2]. As written, this chord emphasizes the third interval, but the notes of this chord can be restructured to emphasize the perfect fourth [Example 3]. The Summary chord, which is referenced throughout the scene, is another instance of the emphasis on the fourth and the third. This chord is also an example of how this section’s melody harmonization is more concerned (than the Theme’s consequent section) with vertical relations between notes: all of the notes in this section fit into the Summary chord, and the antecedent is much more triadic than the consequent.

The Theme’s consequent makes use of two atonal motives and one 12-tone melody. The first motive is a series of chromatically descending major seconds (m. 7, trumpets), called the "knife" motive [Example 4] since it is always present when a knife figures significantly in the drama (Schmalfeldt 136-137). The second motive opens with an arpeggiating figure (m. 8, clarinets) based on a quartal stack [Example 5]. This is the "waiting" motive that conveys Marie’s aimless waiting (a result of her poverty, despair, and guilt) that "finds resolution only in her death" (Berg 161). Both motives are underscored by a 12-tone component (m. 7-9) in the lower strings [Example 6]. Instead of the vertical Summary chord in the antecedent section, Marie’s horizontal (mm. 7-9) melody is a summarization device that takes linear segments from accompanying elements. The first part of the melody [Example 7] is a transposition of the first four notes of the 12-tone component. The second part of the melody [Example 8] is a rhythmically extended version of the "knife" motive (Schmalfeldt 140). The last four notes of Marie’s melody imply the two most significant tonal centers of this scene, f-minor and g-minor. the f, c, and bb are the tonic, dominant, and subdominant in f-minor, a key which comes to musical and dramatic prominence in Variations 5 and 6. The f# and bb are the leading tone and mediant in the key of g-minor, the implied key of the antecedent sections that begin and end this scene.

Variation I has 28 (or 7 x 4) beats, divided, like the theme, into 4+3 bars (mm. 10-13, 14-16). It opens (mm. 10-13, violin, cello, clarinet, tuba) with a variation on the perfect fourth/major third canon. This time the canon descends. Once again, Marie’s antecedent melody fits into the Summary chord. In measure 14, the "knife" motive, a chromatic descent from bb to f#, sounds in the violin and the cello. The "waiting" motive sounds in the flute, while the 12-tone component is found in the horns, tuba, and viola [Example 9].

Variation II has 7 beats, divided into a 4-4 measure and a 3-4 measure. In the antecedent (m. 17), a telescoped version of the canon [Example 10] is found in the oboe (Perle 160). This section also begins to foreshadow f-minor as the established key in Variations V and VI: an ab (lowered mediant in f-minor) is added in the melody. In the consequent (m. 18), there is a registral switch between the 12-tone component and the motives [Example 11]. The 12-tone component soars into the violin’s range, while the motives move into the lower winds and the cellos. The 3-4 time signature of the consequent not only fits the 4+3 (beats or measures) scheme of the antecedent/consequent, it is a transitional time signature from 4/4 in the preceding measures to 3/8 in Variations III and IV.

Variation III has 21 (7 x 3) beats, divided into 4+3 bars (mm. 19-22, 23-25). This variation is only 21 beats since it is entirely in a 3/8 time signature. The antecedent continues to move away from g-minor and begin to flirt with f-minor as ab, db, and eb notes are added, then taken away. This section signifies the entrance of Marie’s child, indicated musically by the "child rebuffed" motive (Perle 112). This motive, consisting of repeated semitone pairs that rise by perfect fourths [Example 12], occurs throughout the opera as an indication of the child’s entrance. It is also an aural reminder to Marie of her frustration with poverty, and her guilt at using infidelity as an escape. In the consequent section of this variation, Marie reacts to this guilt, pushing the child away since he "stabs her in the heart." For the first time, all of the elements of the consequent occur simultaneously, emphasizing Marie’s despair. The "knife" motive in the flutes, the "waiting" motive in the trumpets, and the 12-tone component in the cellos are all vertically stacked in mm. 23-25 [Example 13]. Berg’s orchestration of the "knife" motive in the flutter-tonguing flutes further accentuates "the fact that Marie’s very small child can only ‘stab’ Marie to the extent that his silent presence is a constant reminder of her breach of responsibility toward Wozzeck" (Schmalfeldt 139).

Variation IV is structured like Variation III, with 21 (7 x 3) beats divided into 4+3 bars (mm. 19-22, 23-25). Variation IV functions less in the harmonic mold set by the Theme and earlier variations. It is more of transitional period to f-minor. As a result, the motives and the 12-tone component are absent from the consequent section. Instead, the section prepares for the new key by adding db and ab notes, and ending on a V7# of i in f-minor [Example 14].

Variation V marks a return to the 4/4 key signature, with 28 (7 x 4) beats divided into 4+3 (mm. 33-36, 37-39) bars. By opening on I in f-minor, this variation resolves the closing dominant chord of Variation IV. Though the antecedent section is hardly traditional, the pedal notes in the lower strings make this section as close as Berg comes to conventional tonality in the entire opera. All of the pedal notes in the antecedent are surround the tonic (eb, e, f, f#). The consequent strays slightly from the key signature as it re-introduces the "waiting" motive and the 12-tone component [Example 15].

Before moving to the next variation, note that the presence of a key signature and the corresponding tonicization of f-minor are significant for two reasons. First, f-minor is a whole-step transposition of the scene’s implied opening key, g-minor (Perle 140). More importantly, its use shows a significant level of tonality to accent an important change in dramatic structure. For the beginning and the end of this scene, the antecedent sections imply the key of g-minor. Since the beginning and end variations are instances of Marie reading from the Bible, g-minor dramatically underscores these events. However, Variation V marks a change in the antecedent/consequent form dictated by Marie’s reading and reactions. In this variation, Marie draws her child closer and tells him what seems to be a "fairy story." However, this story is really a prophecy that the child will be orphaned upon the deaths of his parents. Just as Berg effectively uses g-minor to emphasize the distant feeling of the Bible readings, he uses f-minor to more explicitly emphasize the eerie calm of Marie’s prophecy. In contrast to the tonally-oriented sections, the atonality of Marie’s personal reactions (most consequent sections) now seem even more emotional and expressionistic.

Variation VI, containing 14 (7 x 2) beats, structures the antecedent/consequent within a new rhythmic scheme. Berg sets the antecedent (mm. 40-41) within two bars and the consequent (mm. 42-44) within a new key signature, 2/4. As the antecedent ends, so does Marie’s prophecy. As a result, Berg retracts the f-minor key signature in the consequent. He also returns the "knife" motive so that all of the consequent’s original elements, the two motives and the 12-tone component, are present [Example 16]. The "waiting" motive (m. 43-44, trumpets and horns) is placed specifically to coincide with Marie’s explicit statement of waiting: "But Franz has not come yet, yesterday, this day..."

Variation VII contains 7 beats in seven bars, each beat in one bar. The antecedent is four bars (mm. 45-48), and the consequent is three bars (mm. 49-51). The antecedent does not mark a return to g-minor; its bass line and accidentals seem to put this section more in the key of E-major. However, the first chord of this section is a quartal stack with g as its top note [Example 17]. In the consequent, Marie sings the "waiting" motive as she asks of Mary Magdelene’s fate [Example 18]. The bassoons and cellos contain the 12-tone component [Example 19].

The two-part fugue follows the antecedent/consequent mold. There is a seven-note theme [Example 20] in the antecedent (mm. 52-56) and an eight-note theme [Example 21] in the consequent (mm. 56-61). Marie also sings the "waiting" motive in m. 66 [Example 22]. This two-part exposition is followed by a stretto in mm. 62-70 that combines the two themes. The scene closes with a codetta in mm. 71-72. The fugue marks a return to the significance of g-minor and of the referential chord. First, the antecedent’s theme is set in g-minor. On a larger level, each entering thematic voice in the antecedent and consequent starts on a pitch of the Summary chord [Example 23, chart].

The stretto combines and develops entering voices that play the antecedent’s theme (usually marked N as the secondary voice) and the consequent’s theme (usually marked H as the primary voice). The codetta involves a register exchange as the celesta and strings ascend through a D-major tonic while the flutes, piccolos, and harp descend through an E-flat-major tonic. The scene ends with the two chords combined in the harp and celesta to make the Summary chord [Example 24].

From the opening canon of the Theme to the final chord of the codetta, it is apparent that even without the conventional use of tonality, this scene is logically and acutely organized on many levels. The logic of this scene extends to the high-ordered system of the entire opera. However, a miraculous aspect of this opera is that its extensive organization does not make it feel any less organic. Instead, Berg’s attention to large-scale structures and small-scale detail serves to musically sharpen the opera’s points of emotional and social impact. Like with every good dramatist, this impact is what mattered most to Berg, and in the end, this impact is what he hoped audiences would most remember: "I would like to ask a favour of you–that you forget everything that I’ve tried to explain about musical theory and aesthetics when you come... to see a performance of Wozzeck on the stage of this theater" (Berg 170).



Works Cited

Berg, Alban. "A word about ‘Wozzeck.’" Alban Berg, Wozzeck. New York:

Cambridge University Press, 1999. pp. 154-170.



Berg, Alban. Wozzeck (Piano Reduction). Wien: Universal Edition, 1958.



Berg, Alban. Wozzeck (Full Score). Wien: Universal Edition, 1955.



Jarman, Douglas. Alban Berg, Wozzeck. London: Cambridge University Press,




Perle, George. The Operas of Alban Berg: Wozzeck. Berkeley: University of California

Press, 1980.



Schmalfeldt, Janet. Berg’s Wozzeck: Harmonic Language and Dramatic Design. New

Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.

KAON NA @arlduc.org > WORD