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“Wir Arme Leut”: Undignified Death and Madness in Berg’s Wozzeck

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Images in Western art of the tragic hero meeting his end typically conjure Romantic topics of honour, stoicism, and transcendence, yet it is questionable whether these projections of artistic death translate to the lived experiences of the dying. The titular protagonist of Alban Berg’s 1922 opera, Wozzeck, experiences death in a way that starkly contrasts Romantic ideals. Wozzeck does not die the honourable, ‘masculine’ death that might be expected from a tragic hero; rather, he capitulates to madness, misery, and poverty. Spurned by those who socially outrank him, Wozzeck is condemned to a shameful death, his fate sealed by his destitution and the sanctimonious prejudice against his ‘immoral’ life. These considerations provide a fascinating starting point for an examination of Berg’s poignant representation of Wozzeck’s death — a death that reflects early twentieth century attitudes that shaped and stigmatized the death experience. In this article I will frame my discussion of Wozzeck by considering the history of death in Western society, particularly the stigmas surrounding the gender and class of the dying individual. This history will inform my analysis of the symbolism in Berg’s music. Detailed analysis of Wozzeck sheds a critical light on the social stigma and class structure mapped onto the suffering, madness, and death of Wozzeck and his lover Marie.


Alban Berg, Wozzeck, twentieth-century opera, Death, Second Viennese School

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