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Boult conducts ‘Wozzeck’

1949. Royal Albert Hall, London
This recording is of only the second performance of 'Wozzeck' in the UK, given at he Royal Albert Hall in 1949
Composer Alban Berg
Conductor Sir Adrian Boult
Singers Suzanne Danco, Heinrich Nillius
Ensemble BBC Symphony Orchestra
Genre Opera

“It seemed just as exciting and fresh as its first performance in Queen’s Hall….”

In his autobiography My Own Trumpet, Sir Adrian Boult was briefly recalling how Berg’s Wozzeck felt when he conducted its second ever United Kingdom performance on 16 March, 1949 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. As had been the case when he had conducted the UK premiere 15 years earlier, this was a concert performance, but in a glowing letter that Alban Berg had written to him after hearing the 1934 event on the radio the composer had said “What emerged here under your sovereign direction was a performance as if from the regular repertory of the greatest stage! And that is one accomplishment which – as I have cause to know from 2 or 3 dozen Wozzeck productions – appears very seldom”.2

“Very seldom” not least because the complexities of the technical, musical, and dramatic demands on the performers were colossal and unprecedented – and have remained gargantuan to this day, 98 years after the opera’s world premiere. Perhaps no other groundbreaking innovation in music has retained its modernism and its challenge for so long. Boult’s “exciting and fresh” description was his typically discreet way of recalling the intense psychological and theatrical impact that this monumental creation had once again made under his masterly direction, as we can now hear in the first ever release of the performance – which is also the first time that we can hear a recording of Sir Adrian conducting the entire opera, as only Act II of the 1934 performance exists.

On this occasion, in 1949, the cast featured the distinguished principals Heinrich Nillius and Suzanne Danco as the soldier Wozzeck and his mistress Marie, Danco subsequently becoming a celebrated interpreter of her role as an example of her much wider-ranging repertoire than was mainly recorded on disc. Among the other principals, Parry Jones and Otakar Kraus went on to sing their roles of the Captain and the Doctor to high praise at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Jones in the UK’s first staged performance in 1952 and Kraus in the production’s third revival there in 1960.

“We all worked hard at Wozzeck at the Albert Hall last night, performers and audience”, wrote the music critic of The Times on 17 March, 1949, and indeed Wozzeck at that time presented an especially taxing charge for the listeners in the Hall and also those who were tuned in to the radio broadcast in their homes, as in Britain, unlike in Europe, it was an unfamiliar work written in an avant-garde style, and there was not even yet a recording anywhere of the complete opera.

Although 23 and three-quarter years had passed since its premiere in Berlin, both its subject and musical language were still daringly confrontational in the graphically life-like evocation of a sordid and false society inducing derangement and ultimately tragedy in a violently disturbed but at root sensitive and deeply vulnerable man. Describing the effect on him of Georg Büchner’s revolutionary fragmentary texts of Woyzeck (1837), Berg wrote how the opera was inspired by “not only the fate of this poor man, exploited and tormented by all the world, that touches me so closely, but also the unheard-of intensity of mood of the individual scenes”.

Thereby lie the extreme exigencies for the singers, conductor and orchestra, and in the case of the conductor especially the responsibility to convey in the final analysis the deep pathos in Berg’s writing: for all its terror and shock, Wozzeck is a profoundly compassionate work in its emotional and social outcry. Linked to this was Berg’s careful pointing out that although the vocal style is often permeated by the heightened declamation of Sprechstimme, there also needs to be expressive melodic singing, at least in the roles of Wozzeck and Marie, and that is notably present here with Nillius and Danco. Boult himself was very aware of this, not least as in 1934 he had invited a coach who had assisted Berg’s singers at the 1925 premiere to come and work with the cast of the Queen’s Hall performance. As he recounted in My Own Trumpet: “Kurt Preraurer was his name, and he worked all day and every day with these singers, and also gave me most valuable help as he knew Berg’s mind to the smallest detail, having been recently immersed in the Berlin production”.

Even so, in any music of course but most notably with this score’s tremendously demanding technical challenges, depth of knowledge and awareness cannot on their own produce an outstanding performance, and Boult’s achievement in attaining a brilliant level of virtuosity, precision and dramatic characterisation from the BBC Symphony Orchestra while flexibly and cohesively accompanying the singers is strikingly impressive. Let us not forget that this was still very new music in 1949, and furthermore quite a number of players in the orchestra were seeing it for the first time, as there had been changes in the membership since 1934.

Jon Tolansky © 2023

Alban Berg (1885 – 1935)


“A truly timeless drama” – Alban Berg’s Wozzeck

Alban Berg made his own libretto for his opera Wozzeck, which he based on the play Woyzeck that Georg Büchner had written as incomplete fragments in 1836, several months before his death. Loosely based on a true story, Woyzeck had only reached the theatre stage in 1913, in Munich, in a version that had, after lengthy labyrinthine deciphering of faded and almost illegible manuscripts, been completed by Karl-Emil Franzos in 1879. Subsequently, a version with rearranged scene orders was made by Paul Landau in 1909, and although this was not the edition that was used in the theatre performance that stunned Berg when he saw the play in Vienna in 1914, he adapted it as the basis for his opera.

The premiere took place in Berlin in December 1925 and, as had been the case with the play, it bore its eponymous title as Wozzeck and not Woyzeck owing to a misreading by Franzos of the manuscript. The story describes the abuse and tragic deterioration of the soldier Wozzeck. Living in poverty, as does his mistress Marie and their child, in order to earn a pittance of extra money for them he shaves his Captain each morning and makes himself available to the army Doctor for dietary and psychological experiments.

Act I

    1. Scene 1: The Captain’s Room
    2. Scene 2: An Open Field Outside the Town
    3. Scene 3: Marie’s Room
    4. Scene 4: The Doctor’s Study
    5. Scene 5: Street Before Marie’s Door

Act II

  1. Scene 1: Marie’s Room
  2. Scene 2: Street in Town
  3. Scene 3: Street Before Marie’s Door
  4. Scene 4: Tavern Garden
  5. Scene 5: Guardroom in the Barracks


  1. Scene 1: Marie’s Room
  2. Scene 2: Forest Path by the Pool
  3. Scene 3: A Low Tavern
  4. Scene 4: Forest Path by a Pool
  5. Orchestral Interlude
  6. Scene 5: Street Before Marie’s Door


Act I

Scene I The Captain’s Room
Wozzeck shaves the Captain who mocks him and confuses him with pretentious philosophising. He taunts him about his child born without the Church’s blessing. Wozzeck responds that poor people cannot afford the morality of the wealthy.

Scene II An Open Field Outside the Town
Wozzeck and his friend Andres are cutting wood for the Captain. Wozzeck has severe traumatic hallucinations, warning Andres that a head rolls around at evening. As Andres tries to cheer him by singing, Wozzeck says the ground is opening up, the freemasons are there, a fire is rising up to the sky, and a raging turmoil is coming down to earth. Trying to comfort him, Andres takes him back to the barracks.

Scene III Marie’s Room
As soldiers march by, Marie waves admiringly to the Drum Major while her neighbour Margret goads her that she has a child and no husband. Slamming the window shut, Marie sings a lullaby to her child and then Wozzeck calls in just very briefly without even looking at his child. When he leaves, Marie remains alone and frightened, crying “what it is to be poor”.

Scene IV The Doctor’s Study
The Doctor has put Wozzeck on a diet of peas, and he castigates him for not controlling his urinating. He dismisses Wozzeck’s explanation that nature forced him to urinate, but he is pleased when Wozzeck tells him about his hallucinations. His experiments with this man and his “beautiful perversion” will bring him worldwide fame.

Scene V Street Before Marie’s Door
The Drum Major flirts with Marie and makes a pass at her. After resisting at first, she gives in as he takes her into her house and frenziedly makes love to her.

Act II

Scene I Marie’s Room
Marie sings her child to sleep, while she looks at herself in a broken mirror wearing the gold earrings the Drum Major gave her. When Wozzeck arrives and notices the earrings she tells him she found them. As he looks at their sleeping child he gives Marie some money and leaves. She is stricken with guilt.

Scene II Street in Town
The Doctor and the Captain meet in the street. While the Captain remonstrates with the Doctor for being in a hurry, the Doctor predicts that the Captain won’t have a long life. Wozzeck passes by and they both poke fun at him with insinuations about Marie and the Drum Major. The trajectory of Wozzeck’s collapse is taking shape.

Scene III Street Before Marie’s Door
Wozzeck rails at Marie, accusing her of having an affair with the Drum Major. When he raises his hand to strike her she wards him off and goes inside her house. “Man is an abyss” Wozzeck woefully laments.

Scene IV Tavern Garden
As men and women dance to music played by a small band, Wozzeck sees Marie dancing with the Drum Major and is enraged. Two drunks philosophise about God’s invention of mankind, and Andres tries to give Wozzeck some cheer – but when a simple fool tells him that he can smell blood, it sends his head spinning into a vision of everyone bathing in red.

Scene V Guardroom in the Barracks

The soldiers are sleeping and snoring, but Wozzeck cannot sleep. He cannot stop seeing the dancing in the inn, and flashes like the blade of a large knife keep appearing to him. He prays to God: “lead us not into temptation”. Suddenly the Drum Major bursts in extremely drunk and brags how he has a woman with breasts, thighs, and eyes like smouldering coals, implying that she is Marie. Waking the soldiers up, he attacks and bruises Wozzeck violently before staggering out. “One after the other” murmurs Wozzeck.


Scene I Marie’s Room
Full of remorse, Marie reads aloud the biblical story of Mary Magdalene and adultery and then reads to her little son a story of a child who had no parents left alive. She breaks off, realising that Wozzeck has not visited her for two days, and, returning to the Bible for solace, she prays for forgiveness.

Scene II Forest Path by a Pool
Wozzeck has arranged to meet Marie. He asks her if she can remember how long they have known each other – and how long she thinks they will continue to be together. As Marie remarks how red the rising moon is, Wozzeck replies “Like blood-stained steel”, and drawing a knife he cuts her throat, then runs away.

Scene III A Low Tavern
Wozzeck has gone to a tavern to try and forget everything. Trying to seduce Margret, when she tells him she sees blood on his hand and arm, a crowd gathers to look and he quickly leaves.

Scene IV Forest Path by a Pool
Wozzeck has returned to the scene of the crime and finds the knife by Marie’s body. He throws it into the pond but then fearing that the “blood-stained” moon will betray him, he wades into the water to try and push the knife further into the pond. Crying out “but I must wash myself – Oh God, I am washing in blood, the water is blood”, he drowns. The Captain and the Doctor pass by, and as they hear the groans of a drowning man the Captain wants to leave but the Doctor makes him stay to listen until there is no more sound. Terrified, the Captain then runs away, pulling the Doctor along with him.

Scene V Street Before Marie’s Door
Children are playing “ring-a-ring-a-roses” while
Marie’s and Wozzeck’s child is riding a hobby-horse.
Suddenly more children run in and break the news
about Marie’s murder. One of them says to her little
son “Hey you! Your mother’s dead”. All the children except him run off to the pond to have a look. He continues to ride his hobby-horse – “Hop hop! Hop hop! Hop hop!” – but then rides off on it to join the other children.

This recording was made of a performance at the Royal Albert Hall, London in 1949.

This recording is from the Harewood Collection at Music Preserved.

Sound restoration and Mastering is by Paul Baily.

It has been released on CD by SOMM Recordings as part of their album devoted to Boult conducting works by Berg, Stravinsky and Vaughan Williams (ARIADNE 5024-2).  Full details from

We are very grateful to SOMM Recordings and to Jon Tolansky for allowing us to use their material.



  • Heinrich Nillius
  • Suzanne Danco
  • Parry Jones
  • Frans Vroons
  • Otakar Kraus
  • Margaret Godley
    Marie's child
  • Mary Jarred
  • Walter Widdopp
    Drum Major
  • John Kentish
    The Idiot/Soldier
  • Gordon Clinton
    First Apprentice
  • Fabian Smith
    Second Apprentice
  • BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
  • Sir Adrian Boult

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