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Artistic Expressions and the Great War, A Hundred Years On


Edited By Sally Debra Charnow

The Great War set in motion all of the subsequent violence of the twentieth century. The war took millions of lives, led to the fall of four empires, established new nations, and negatively affected others. During and after the war, individuals and communities struggled to find expression for their wartime encounters and communal as well as individual mourning. Throughout this time of enormous upheaval, many artists redefined their role in society, among them writers, performers, painters, and composers. Some sought to renew or re-establish their place in the postwar climate, while others longed for an irretrievable past, and still others tried to break with the past entirely.

This volume offers a significant interdisciplinary contribution to the study of modern war, exploring the ways that artists contributed to wartime culture – both representing and shaping it – as well as the ways in which wartime culture influenced artistic expressions. Artists’ places within and against reconstruction efforts illuminate the struggles of the day. The essays included represent a transnational perspective and seek to examine how artists dealt with the experience of conflict and mourning and their role in (re-)establishing creative practices in the changing climate of the interwar years.

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10. Has Wozzeck Got the Blues? (Chandler Carter)



Has Wozzeck Got the Blues?


Alban Berg was immediately drawn to set Georg Büchner’s newly discovered Woyzeck (misread as Wozzeck) as an opera when he first saw the play in 1914. This tragic story of an abused, lowly soldier who murders his estranged lover remains a defining expression of the Great War’s collective horror. In the penultimate scene (Act 3, scene 4), the insane protagonist drowns trying to wash away imagined blood. To anchor his challenging atonal music, Berg structured Wozzeck’s mad scene as an invention upon a chord that corresponds with the ‘blues’ scale. Could that be a coincidence? Besides the issues of cultural influence and musical structure that a music scholar must address in answering this question, I consider the larger question of how we interact with music simply through the act of listening.

Perhaps the greatest modernist musical work associated with the Great War, Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck (1914–1922) dramatizes the de-humanization, mental breakdown, and murderous transformation of its lowly title character. ‘In a way that virtually no other piece of the musical theatre had attempted’, observes Glenn Watkins, ‘Wozzeck placed the spotlight on the returning soldier who could no longer function and who struggled helplessly for an identity in a post-war world’.1

Berg based the opera on Georg Büchner’s play, Woyceck, the Viennese premier of which he attended in May 1914. The performance made such an impression on the young...

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