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In January 1923 Berg sent a note to potential subscribers announcing the publication of the piano reduction of his opera Wozzeck. The cost of printing this score had been largely funded by Alma Mahler (to whom the opera is dedicated) and Berg hoped with its publication not only to recoup some of the costs but also to attract the attention of opera companies, conductors and critics to some of whom he also sent complimentary copies.
At about the same time a short article on Berg and Webern by Berg’s fellow Schoenberg student Erwin Stein appeared in Universal Edition’s house magazine Anbruch and in April an enthusiastic article about the opera by Ernst Viebig was published in the Berlin periodical Die Musik.
Although the uproar occasioned by the performance of two of the Altenberg-lieder at the famous ‘Skandalkonzert’ in 1913 had brought him a certain unwelcome notoriety, Berg’s music was little known outside the tiny Viennese elite around the Schoenberg School and the ‘Society for Private Musical Performances’, and there seemed little hope of an opera company taking on so difficult and complex a work by a young unknown composer. Things were to change, however. On 5 June 1923 Webern conducted the premiere of the first two of the Drei Orchesterstucke op. 6 in Berlin and on 2 August the Havemann Quartet played the String Quartet op. 3 at the ‘Salzburger Kammermusikfest’. According to Berg himself the performance was ‘fantastic’ and the work was warmly received.
Amongst the audience at the performance was Hermann Scherchen who suggested to Berg that it might be possible to perform some excerpts from the opera in a concert performance. Berg sent a copy of the piano score of Wozzeck a few weeks later and in March 1924 Scherchen wrote to say that, while it was not possible to perform the whole opera, the committee of the ‘Allgemeiner Deutscher Musikverein’ had agreed to include the excerpts in a concert at the International Music Festival in Frankfurt that June.
Scherchen was still, at this stage, unsure what the ‘Fragments’ would consist of: ‘Please tell me once again where the scenes should begin and end’, he wrote. Berg replied giving him the exact bar numbers in the piano score (the only score available at that point) of the Drei Bruchstücke as we know them but also asking ‘Is it possible to arrange for a tenor? [...] in which case it would be possible to perform the last scene of Act I as well’. Berg also asked for there to be a small group of ten children and a solo child to sing in the final piece.
The preparations for the performance raised a number of difficulties. Berg had ‘terrible worries’ that the soprano would not have time to learn her part properly; Scherchen was worried about the military band in the first piece: ‘We have to do it in the orchestra: an extra orchestra of 20 is too costly and one can’t simply let a concert orchestra, all of whom are in full view, go off.’ But the chief problem was obtaining the material at such short notice. The Drei Bruchstücke had not yet been printed and there was very little time to make the handwritten parts and score that Scherchen and the orchestral musicians seem to have had to use: ‘Unfortunately there are many mistakes: I’ve found 50 (!) in the score alone’, wrote Scherchen after the second rehearsal a day before the premiere, but ‘the orchestra enjoys it despite our recently having spent three hours on the 1st and 3rd piece and yesterday two hours on the second and first piece’.
The first performance took place in Frankfurt on 11 June 1924 with Beatrice Sutter-Kottlar of the Frankfurt Opera as soloist in a programme that included three other premieres; Ferruccio Busoni’s Faust Suite (presumably the Two Studies from Doktor Faust), a work by Ernst Wolf and a symphony by Erhard Ematinger. The Drei Bruchstücke were one of the great successes of the Festival and Berg was delighted: ‘Everything was splendid’, he wrote to Webern, ‘the performance itself, the singer who improved with every rehearsal, and the public performances [the final rehearsal and the concert] were a triumph – with the public, the musicians and the press.’
By that time, however, Erich Kleiber had already declared his intention of staging the whole opera. Kleiber had seen the piano score in the autumn of 1923 and, when in Vienna for a few days in January 1924, had arranged that the work should be played for him by the pianist Ernst Bachrich. By the time that the first two scenes had been played Kleiber had already decided to do the piece in Berlin and Wozzeck received its world premiere at the Staatsoper on 14 December 1925.
The Drei Bruchstücke centre on the figure of Marie, Wozzeck’s mistress and mother of his child. The first starts with the orchestral interlude that closes act 1, scene 2, as night falls and the sound of military fanfares call Wozzeck and Andres back to the barracks, and continues into scene 3 in which Marie watches the Drum Major marching at the head of the military band that passes her house and then, slamming the window shut to escape the lewd remarks of her neighbour, sings a lullaby to the child. The second piece comprises the whole of act 3, scene 1 and the following orchestral interlude in which, overcome by guilt because of her infidelity, Marie reads the biblical story of Christ forgiving the woman taken in adultery. Like all the other scenes in the opera the scene has a strict ‘abstract’ formal design – in this case as a set of seven variations and a fugue. The final fragment opens with the music that depicts Wozzeck’s drowning at the end of act 3, scene 4. This leads into the great D minor interlude which forms the expressive climax of the whole work, followed by the final scene of the opera in which, playing in the street with other children, Wozzeck and Marie’s child (now an orphan) hears of the death of his mother. The music, marked ‘senza rit.’, fades to ppp and, rather than ending, simply stops – suggesting that the whole tragedy could start again with the child taking his father’s place.
Douglas Jarman, July 2012