Chapter Twenty Three of Keeping Score in America: Alban Berg, The Prophet
By Michael Moriarty
Nothing like Alban Berg's String Quartet, Op. 3 to to really "get you down", depress you, begin to make you think that suicide might not be a bad alternative to the nightmare that the shell-shocked of early 20th Century Europe were headed for.
Berg's only string quartet that I know of, composed 1909-11, with a "Langsam" first movement, but with a dynamic intensity that clearly imbeds an infinity of grave and actually dire premonitions
All come true in not merely one but two, 20th Century world wars.
Impressive actually to think that the heart of the 20th Century with all of its record-breaking agonies was literally prophesied in the music of Alban Berg. I know of no better emotional pathway to the 20th Century reality of an almost century-long nightmare than the music of Alban Berg.
The Second Part of this String Quartet is described as "Massige Viertel" or "massive quarter notes" … possibly.
All of it would sound like a joke or the film score to screenplays by Strindberg or Gorky … but … the, indeed, perverse intellects that did create not only Nazism and Fascism but the genocidal greed of both Stalinism and Maoism?
It is all in the music of Alban Berg.
Who could possibly enjoy these nightmares?
Tragically, the agony within the music – and there is an infinite store of pain to all of Berg's work – is a reality-to-come. Berg himself experienced it in World War I and prophesied it for the endless number of victims in World War II.
Wozzeck was first performed in a 1925 Berlin production directed by Eric Kleiber. It has become a keystone of 20th Century Opera, receiving regular productions by all of the major opera companies worldwide.His violin concerto, performed here by Leonid Kogan, was composed at remarkable speed near the end of his life, and is as successful as his two operas, Wozzeck and Lulu.
He began studying music relatively late in life since literature had seem to be his first great interest.
Despite its occasional diatonic sanity, the pain within the Violin Concerto's harmonic tensions is as piercing as anything in his string quartets or operas. Perhaps the contrasting and more traditional harmonies scattered throughout make the reappearance of Twelve Tone clusters all the more effective.
The second movement of the Violin Concerto has an intensely dramatic opening. Despite being divided into four parts on the You Tube video recordings, I do believe this concerto is actually in three movements. It is a very, perversely inviting world, the tonalities and atonalities of Alban Berg.
What holds the listener is indeed the consistent architecture, all based upon Berg's rule of an identifying or key phrase at the very beginning, steadily repeated but with obligatory transformations, rising, yes, like a flower, out of the composer's heart and mind.
In this way, Berg never loses our attention. We subliminally sense this architecture and accept it.
I'm attempting to sit through Wozzeck but can only stomach the first scene which I, for some predestined reason, know very well.
"Wozzeck, ist ein gutemench!"
With the Captain in falsetto.
The economic and power pecking order is almost exactly a replica of the human voice, with the low, Wozzeck bass/baritone a lowly barber … and the Captain?
Well, in a moral swamp, as the one Wozzeck appears to be forced into, if only for economic reasons?
I suspect that Berg may not have become a willing Nazi operative of any sort, although he was, for the sake of his career, obliged to appease the Nazi's. I sense, from the ethics or rather the "revelations" within Wozzeck, that Berg would have willingly been a Communist.
For ten minutes.
Berg's inevitable falling-out with his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg? Berg was not a group-think kind-a-guy. Merely a hunch.
I am now into the second scene of the second act of Wozzeck. Hmmm … the author of Danton's Death … didn't he also write Woyzeck?
Let's see … EXACTLY … Georg Buchner.
Anecdote: The word "communism" was coined by Goodwyn Barmby in a conversation with those he described as the "disciples of Babeuf".
Now … SCIENCE and the SCIENTIST are prophetically the greatest of the villains in Wozzeck.
Captain Hauptmann: "Only a cur has courage!"
Act two, Scene Four: drunkards … the drunkards' duet.
"My soul reeks of brandy!"
"I smell blood!" is the observation of the town idiot.
When the Social Network in its entirety is finally owned by nothing but the Devil, then the tragedy of Wozzeck is inevitable.
Not even Marie's prayers can help her.
Wozzeck has, by "The System", been so brutalized and driven mad that he cannot do other than murder the source of his greatest pain but also the object of his greatest dependency.
The murder is simultaneously a suicide of sorts.
Is Wozzeck a true tragedy, however?
Conductor Mark Elder of the Royal Opera House http://www.roh.org.uk/news/watch-insights-into-wozzeck would say so.
He gives you and prospective audience members a quick glimpse of 20th Century Genius, not only Alban Berg's but that of the original author, Georg Buchner, as well.
Wozzeck is one of if not THE tragedy of the human race.
Particularly the Mankind that eventually culminated into those decades-long nightmares of the Twentieth Century.
The ending, the final scene, final image of Wozzeck and Marie's child alone on stage, except for the dead body of Wozzeck himself, skipping on his skinny little hobbyhorse, intoning "Hip-hop, hip-hop, hip-hop … "
Would a World War III, the one I personally sense as inevitability, even leave us hearing "Hip-hop, hip-hop, hip-hop…"?
We'd be divinely lucky to hear anything.
Or would we?
Oh, the child of "Hip-hop, hip-hop"?
He's the illegitimate son of Wozzeck who, after killing the child's mother, drowns himself… as if by accident.
The vision could be post-thermo-nuclear… yet written and composed in the 1920's.
Only the genius of both Buchner and Berg could explain such increasingly disturbing prophecy.
Michael Moriarty is a Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actor who starred in the landmark television series Law and Order from 1990 to 1994. His recent film and TV credits include The Yellow Wallpaper, 12 Hours to Live, Santa Baby and Deadly Skies. Contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be found on Twitter at https://twitter.com/@MGMoriarty.