Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sunday Classics: "Wretches like us" -- class warfare and the tragic depths of Berg's "Wozzeck"


WOZZECK: What is to be poor! You see, sir, it's all a matter of money, money.
But if you haven't any, just try bringing children into the world in a moral fashion then.
We are flesh and blood as well.
Certainly, if I were a gentleman and owned a hat and a watch and a monocle and spoke in a genteel way, then I would be virtuous too.
It must be a fine thing to be virtuous, sir. But I'm only a poor fellow.
People like us are always unfortunate in this world and the next.
I believe that if we went to heaven, we should be set to work to help make the thunder.
-- Wozzeck, to the Captain, in Act I, Scene 1
(translation by Sarah E. Soulsby for Decca Records, 1988)
Mack Harrell (bs-b), Wozzeck; New York Philharmonic, Dimitri Mitropoulos, cond. Columbia/CBS/Sony, live recording of a concert performance, 1951

by Ken

"Wretches like us" isn't exactly what Wozzeck says when he finally expounds beyond "Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann" ("Yes indeed, Captain"). It's Richard Stokes's English rendering of the simpler phrase "Wir arme Leut'" -- "We poor people." But it's a rendering that's not only vivider but maybe even truer to the original, or anyway truer to the sense of the original.

I was kind of shocked when my friend Richard mentioned, in whichever season the Met last did Alban Berg's Wozzeck (based on the play be the tragically short-lived Georg Büchner, 1813-1837), that he had traded in his subscription tickets for it. I knew it couldn't be because of that awful "modern" music (can a piece first performed in 1925 still really be thought of as "modern"? perhaps so), because I know he loves Wozzeck. He's an old-fashioned romantic opera-lover, but that romantic operatic passion extends naturally to repertory that some people might find surprising, like the operas of Janáček -- and Wozzeck.

No, the problem was almost that he loves the opera too much, and takes it too seriously. He just wasn't prepared to face the horribleness of it, and he mentioned specifically the opera's final image: of the toddler who has just lost both his parents -- who up to that moment had hardly anything or anyone in the world and now has nothing and no one -- riding his hobby horse chanting, "Hop-hop, hop-hop, hop-hop."

BERG: Wozzeck, Op. 7: Act III, Scenes 4-5
WOZZECK, having murdered MARIE in a jealous rage by plunging a knife in her throat by a pond in the woods, has staggered his way back to the pond, realizing that he lost his grip on the knife. Overwhelmed with terror and guilt, he stumbles over the corpse, then actually finds the knife and throws it in the water, then decides it will be found and incriminate him. He staggers into the water after it, but is dragged into the water.

Who should happen by the pond then but
WOZZECK's old nemeses the CAPTAIN and the DOCTOR? They imagine they hear the voice of a drowning man and naturally hurry off.

The scene shifts to the street in front of
MARIE's dwelling, where her little son is riding a hobby horse. Word spreads among the neighborhood children of her murder. Before they rush off to the pond to see for themselves, one of them thoughtfully tells her son: "You! Your mother is dead!" The child is left riding the hobby horse, chanting, "Hop-hop, hop-hop, hop-hop."
Eberhard Wächter (b), Wozzeck; Heinz Zednik (t), the Captain; Alexander Malta (bs), the Doctor; Vienna Philharmonic, Christoph von Dohnányi, cond. Decca, recorded December 1979



(1) Friday night: Meet Marie (the Act I solo scene, including the lullaby)
(2) Saturday night: Meet Wozzeck -- "Wretches like us" (the scene with the Captain)

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At 3:31 PM, Blogger Philip Munger said...

I gave a talk Friday evening on "A Short History of Protest Classical Music." Wozzeck was center stage in the last half of the presentation.

I almost feel about Wozzeck the way you do about Gurrelieder - that it is beyond profound, on its own level. When I got my separation payment from the US Army in summer 1967, the first thing I did was order a ful score of Wozzeck from Universal editions. It is a tribute to the quality of that publisher's work that the dang thing held up, as I mercilessly walked fellow young musicians through every page, trying to share my illumination with people who weren't ready to cross that long, narrow bridge.

The Mitropoulos live recording maintains incredible resonance over the years, doesn't it?

At 5:54 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

You bet it does, Philip!

It's interesting how the performers who clung to the work back when it was a so much harder "sell" than it's become seemed to cherish and understand it better. The recordings I still go back to are the Mitropoulos and the Boehm/DG, neither perfect, obviously, but both keeping me riveted.

As for the rest of your comment -- well, that's pure gold. Thanks for sharing it.



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