The Libretto and Source of Berg's Wozzeck

Berg’s opera is based on Georg Büchner’s 1836 play, Woyzeck [VOY-tzek].­ The play is a dramatic re-telling of an actual event. Johann Christian Woyzeck was a soldier who was put to death in 1824 for the murder of his mistress. What captured Büchner’s imagination was a psychological study that was commissioned by the court to determine whether Woyzeckwas insane at the time of the murder. The legal concept of diminished capacity was something quite new at the time. Although Woyzeck was eventually convicted and executed, the case was crucial in establishing the insanity defense in German law.

The playwright’s father possessed a copy of the psychological history of the real Woyzeck. Büchner most likely read it and it inspired the writing of the play. But Büchner believed that no outside authority could make judgments about what goes on inside someone’s mind. And in his play he sought to expose that interior world while at the same time showing the effects of a harsh, insensitive society on the actions of a mentally unstable individual.

Many people wonder about the one-letter difference in spelling between Büchner’s Woyzeck and Berg’s Wozzeck. The playwright’s handwriting was the culprit. The late nineteenth century editor of his works misread Büchner’s ‘y’ for a ‘z’, resulting in the double ‘z’ that appeared in the publication of the first edition. Berg was halfway through the composition of the opera by the time he became aware of the mistake. He decided that changing the name back to Woyzeck would adversely affect those two powerful syllables that he had already set to music.

One of Berg’s models for the structure of his opera was Debussy’s opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. Debussy’s use of short scenes joined together by suggestive orchestral interludes seemed a perfect form upon which to hang the compact scenes of Büchner’s play. Berg selected fifteen of Büchner’s original twenty-eight scenes, setting them nearly word for word in order to preserve its dramatic impact.  It is rare in the history of opera that a composer sets a work almost entirely on the original text upon which his opera is based. This season, San Diego Opera is presenting two such operas: Wozzeck and Boris Godunov, which Mussorgsky based on Pushkin’s verse play of the same name. Both composers looked to the original language of these respective plays and did their own ‘editing’ in order to come up with a libretto. They were both incredibly successful in ‘cobbling’ together their own libretti from the original sources and their appearance in our 2007 season will give audiences a wonderful opportunity to see composers at work who had a serious literary side to their activities.