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Wozzeck and Otto Dix

©  copyright Laura E. Thompson, 2011 

Expressionism Assignment 3


Wozzeck and Otto Dix


Part I: Representations of Agony

The graphic illustrations of tormented, downtrodden soldiers made by Otto Dix share a great deal in common with Berg’s portrayal of agony in his seminal opera Wozzeck. Both Berg and Dix reveal the utter dehumanization of their characters, and frame their works not in exactly literal representations of events, but seek to dramatize the psychological experiences that their principle characters undergo. But they do so necessarily through vastly disparate means, because of significant differences inherent within and between their respective artistic mediums.

In his etching with aquatint entitled Gesehen am Steilhang von Clery-sur-Somme, Otto Dix creates a dense visual representation of dead and dying soldiers on a slope in France during the First World War. On the left side of the image, a soldier lies in the foreground with his face contorted in an expression of incredible pain. He reaches a hand towards his head and also shuts one eye as he appears to cry out with an open mouth. It is significant that Otto Dix does not shrink away from portraying the full measure of the horror that he perceives. Large spots of black ink seep from the jaw and torso of the soldier, and immediately, it becomes clear that these tortured moments are going to be this soldier’s last experiences of life. By obscuring the intricate and wildly twisting lines of the etching, the aquatint adds another layer of meaning to the etching. In such a medium where color was limited to dark, light, and shades of gray in between, the aquatint became an important expressive tool through which Dix literally wipes out anything he has created underneath. This creates a visual metaphor for the ravages of war and the destruction of the lives who partake in it.

One of the biggest differences between Wozzeck and the etchings of Otto Dix is the different nature of musical and visual works. Music exists not on a canvass, but in time, and so it changes almost continuously as it is played. An idea of the cohesive whole can only be gotten after listening to a piece in real time. Visual art, however long it may have taken to create, exists all together on something like a canvass, and all elements of the picture are present at every moment, unchanging with time, but waiting to be noticed as contributing elements of a whole. This prompts unique challenges for musicians as well as for visual artists.

Otto Dix confronts the challenge of stationary visual art by imbuing his etchings with a sense of motion and emotional urgency. Whereas Berg has ninety minutes to develop the pathos of Wozzeck and Marie through music, text, acting, and visual staging decisions through a dramatic arc, Dix only has the frame of his picture and his etching tools with which to fill it. By simultaneously showing the pain of the aforementioned dying soldier and the inaction of the dead soldier lying on the slope off to the other side of the etching, Dix captures an ominous moment and elicits a visceral reaction among his viewers. By using enormous contrasts in shading, a skewed and uneven perspective (with some objects much larger than others, giving the impression of the picture varying degrees of distance or weight), and through his etching lines, Dix tries to emulate the possibilities of dramatic narrative to which the performing arts more easily lend themselves.

Another element that the etchings of Otto Dix share in common with the music of Wozzeck is the sense that each is pushing the boundaries of traditional methods in their art work to elicit responses from an audience that are as intuitive and emotional as possible. Like other thinkers of the so-called expressionist movements of their day, it seems that Dix and Berg were interested in subconscious feelings that could liberated from the organizing influence of rational thinking. At the same time, it is clear that the work of both artistic figures is deeply rooted in the artistic traditions of their fields. Berg seems to try to emphasize the relationship of his music to the works of the past by including movement titles that harken back to earlier styles and times. While his music is outwardly different from those historical works which preceded him, he seems to suggest that his music includes similar organizing principles as those whose titles he employs. It is also important to note that by and large, Berg does not challenge the conventions of opera itself, and is contributing to a repertoire that is already in existence.

Similarly, Otto Dix is not the first artist to make etchings, and clearly builds upon European drawing traditions. But it is his subject material of pathos and despair that is shocking and somewhat revolutionary, as are the ways in which he physically contorts the portraits of soldiers to make their plight more haunting to viewers. Through his means of manipulating the technical details of lines, shading, and perspective of his material, Dix presents not simply literal representations of soldiers, but portraits that are couched in the psychological reaction that Dix hopes to convey to his audience. With a skewed perspective, Dix subconsciously indicates that the situation of his soldiers is also nonsensical.


Part II: Berg’s Compassion for his Characters

I found Alban Berg’s portrayal of Wozzeck and Marie to be very sympathetic indeed. Berg stops just short of justifying Berg’s murder of Marie, but he does include psychological and dramatic explanations for Wozzeck’s behavior. So while we, as an audience, do not agree (hopefully) with Wozzeck’s decision to murder Marie, we do get a strong sense of how he came to such a point of absolute despair and how, in his own eyes, such an action might seem to follow from the pain of his own experiences. Throughout the opera, we witness the physical, mental, and emotional abuses that Wozzeck endures at the hands of almost every single person he encounters, and it seems that his only logical reaction to such dehumanizing experiences is to inflict pain back at those who hurt him. However, almost everyone in the opera is more powerful than him, and so it is only when he discovers Marie’s betrayal that he is able to respond in some way to the negative things he experiences, and he does so in a rather extreme way perhaps partly because of his inability to act in response to the things he suffered at the hands of others. At the same time, Berg makes it very clear that Wozzeck has lost his grip on reality, and so his paranoia and feelings of hopelessness are not simply a reaction to Marie’s affair with the drum major, but part of a larger madness which has overtaken Wozzeck.

Berg portrays Marie as a victim, albeit a foolish one who made some grievous errors in judgment. Though I think Berg portrays Wozzeck as a more sympathetic character than Marie by framing most of the action around his sufferings and debasement, we are also given glimpses of Marie in which we, as an audience, can also relate to her. In Act I, Scene 3, Marie is seen standing by her window as companies of soldiers march by. She is accused of being a hussy for her flirtatious comments about the soldiers, but when Wozzeck visits her window, she seems to desperately long for his presence in both her own and their young son’s life. At this moment in the drama, it is Wozzeck who seems totally detached from them emotionally, though he does bring them his hard earned pennies. It almost seems that his lack of presence in their lives is what leads Marie to her affair with the drum major. After all, she and Wozzeck are not married, and both are experiencing the hardships of poverty. It is easy to see that she is tempted by the jewelry that the drum major offers her, and predictably, this temptation may be interpreted as a further elaboration upon the pronouncement that Wozzeck made in the opera’s opening scene, “It is more difficult for poor people to be virtuous.”

The music of the opera has a very prominent role in expressing the psychological subtext of the drama. In the first scene of the opera, it is the contrast between the captain’s wild musical meanderings and Wozzeck’s simple and low replies of “Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann” that create the first impression of Wozzeck as a man oppressed.

In the second scene of Act I, the radical contrast between his happy partner’s joyful tune and his own feelings of paranoia are manifest in the music that both characters sing. As Wozzeck presses his ear to the ground and proclaims that they are being followed, the music in the orchestra swells to a crescendo to express his incredible angst. The music is extremely dramatic even though nothing is actually following them, and so is revealed to be an inner window into the interior lives of the characters. The music also shows how alone Wozzeck is in his feelings of fear. The lullaby that Marie sings to her young son in Scene 3 makes clear both the beauty and depression present in her character, and I think that it also serves to show what she is like when she is not trying to impress anyone around her. Such an unguarded view of her helps the audience gain a better understanding of her character and to begin to sympathize with her plight as well.

One scene that is very significant in tipping the scales of sympathy towards Wozzeck’s favor is Act II, Scene 3, when Wozzeck asks Marie about her affair with the drum major. His music is spiraling out of control, and it is possible to imagine that he is on the brink of both insanity and despair. Meanwhile, her music is light and deceiving, as she tries to avoid admitting any sort of wrongdoing. Her music is evasive while his is penetrating, and the discord between them is present in Berg’s compositional framework.

Alban Berg’s music is an enormous expressive tool through which he can manipulate the sympathies of his audiences towards his characters. Like other expressionists of his time, Berg used his music to explore complex characters that are neither good nor evil, or are perhaps both at the same time. For example, when Marie and Wozzeck dissemble, it is somewhat uncertain whether they do so out of fear or out of selfishness. By couching the seemingly morally repugnant actions of his characters in terms of the hardships and dehumanization that they incessantly endure, Berg shows that they are just as human and fallible as anyone else in the world. And this would not be possible to the same extent without his music.