Manfred Gurlitt

Anyone who knows Manfred Gurlitt (and how many really know him?) will be aware that he composed an opera based on Buechner's Wozzeck (1921-1925). In contrast to Alban Berg's setting of the same text, Gurlitt interprets the drama with little structural, harmonic or instrumental refinement not on account of any particular technical deficiencies, but rather because he approaches the subject from the standpoint of spoken theatre. To degrade his work to a "second" Wozzeck would be unjust. More appropriate would be to speak of the "other" Wozzeck. Gurlitt's handling of the source material is quite unlike Berg's and, from a dramaturgical standpoint, perhaps more progressive.

Where Berg kneads Buechner's amorphous fragment into a firm, malleable dough and transforms the text into a full-scale opera libretto, Gurlitt barely changes the ingredients at all. Instead he takes Buechner's fragments, dry and fragile as they are, and translates them directly into sound. Could the one have influenced the other? Even in the 1960s, Gurlitt still insisted that he had neither read nor heard Berg's score.

"The composition and orchestration is handled in a completely new way", he promised in a letter to the UE.  "A chamber orchestra with soloists (including a soprano voice) and a grand orchestra [...] the whole sequence of scenes run together without a break. A few orchestral interludes connect and expand on the themes" (letter to Emil Hertzka, 29 Mar 1921).

In the finished work, all that remains of the planned orchestral interludes is an epilogue, a "Lament for Wozzeck" following after the suicide of the title character, that functions, as in the equivalent section of Berg's score, as an epitaph: music of compassion and bewilderment, neither "modern" nor particularly original, but moving nonetheless.

For the rest, Gurlitt races through the plot in a breathless sequence of brief scenes. The climax, immediately before the murder of Marie, is reached with the narration of the Old Woman (omitted in Berg's setting), the gruesome tale of a "poor child", illuminated and punctuated by a lamenting, wordless soprano in the orchestra pit. Here as elsewhere, Gurlitt creates a dialogue between visible and invisible: off-stage choruses, distant trumpets, trombones below the stage and violins above it. These are explorations of the novel theatrical ideas delineated in an essay "On the Possibilities of Opera", written in 1921 by his mentor, Ferruccio Busoni.

Antony Beaumont
© Copyright 2009

Year / Artwork Title Importance Medium
1926 Wozzeck (Fragments) 3.50 out of 5 stars  3 CD
Berlin Deutsches Symphony Orchestra,
Berlin RIAS Chamber Choir
with Celina Lindsley, Gabriele Schreckenbach, Roland Hermann
cond. Gerd Albrecht