Alban Berg’s Wozzeck narrates the story of a tormented creature that is beset by visions and fears, is laughed at and tormented by society, and ultimately gets driven out of his own existence. Before the final catastrophe takes place, the desperate man murders his beloved and finds death under the waters. Berg’s benchmark opera is based on the fragment of a drama by Georg Büchner (1836/37) in which he describes this hopelessness of man in the face of those who determine his circumstances: a common soldier becomes a victim of the pathological malice of his fellow men, he must submit because of social need and poverty, is lost into madness, and also breaks down as a result of the infidelity of the mother of his child.
After Berg experienced the play at a theater performance performed in Vienna in 1914, he quickly made the decision to set the oppressive material to music. The work – interrupted also because of the First World War – unfortunately dragged on slowly. Only in 1925 was Wozzeck premiered in Berlin under the expertise of Erich Kleiber, and five years later the first performance took place at the Vienna State Opera under Clemens Krauss. The work quickly became part of the standard repertoire (up until the ban by the Nazis). That Wozzeck was included in the premiere cycle at the re-opening of the Vienna State Opera in 1955 underlines the exceptional character of this work. Or as the contemporary composer Wolfgang Rihm once said: "An opera of the century!"
Wozzeck is considered to be the first great completely atonal opera. Written during a time of great musical upheaval, it can be understood as a ground breaking work of musical theater, that challenges the performers and entices the audience into a new way of hearing and understanding. Berg spans in his Wozzeck a close-knit network of historical references and formal models from the baroque to the late romantic, it is filled with nuanced chamber music subtleties, utilizes an extremely differentiated treatment of singing and voices, all in the context of a highly expressionistic sound language that is as immediately gripping as it is disturbing. All of this is used to explore not new methods for the sake of being new, but rather to make Büchner's drama as precise as possible musically. Wozzeck is a symbiosis of psychological analysis, a social outcry, and a highly personal artistic expression - and as Adorno put it, “the first model of a music of real humanism.”