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Composition of the work was protracted. Büchner's play had a first Viennese performance in 1914, when Berg decided to set it. Then came the war, Berg's conscription to the War Ministry, appalling asthma attacks, and at last some sick leave in August 1917. It was then Berg wrote to his erstwhile teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, that he had resumed composition of Wozzeck. But it was with a heavy heart, as he explained in his letter of 13 August. Four of his students had suffered notably: one was already a year in Russian captivity; two had been killed that year; and a fourth had leg wounds and frostbite that could incapacitate him for life.

Marie (Kristine Ciesinski) and her child. DVD screenshot © 1996 ZDF
Marie (Kristine Ciesinski) and her child. DVD screenshot © 1996 ZDF

Büchner's post-1830 revolutionary sympathy for the underdog was now combined with the agony of Berg's wartime experience to produce a searing drama perfectly matched in music both manically chromatic and of pathological precision. Peter Mussbach, who designed the sets for this Arthaus Musik DVD and directed on stage, combines also the disciplines of psychiatry, neurology and sociology. Wozzeck and Marie as victims could not be in safer hands. There is no attempt at realism. Wozzeck's home first appears as a toy red house, a prophetic skull surveys the work's rare attempts at jollification, and all the children, including Marie's little lad, wear masks of non-identity.

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Copyright © 26 July 2006 Robert Anderson, London UK


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