Bernd Alois Zimmermann

Born 20 March 1918. Died 10 August 1970.


Bernd Alois Zimmermann, born near Cologne in 1918, stands apart from many of his contemporaries for his pluralistic musical outlook. While younger avant-gardists such as Boulez, Nono and Stockhausen turned their backs on the past, Zimmermann attempted to embrace the whole body of music as a unified entity, bringing together past, present and future.

Moving away from the initial influences of Hindemith and Stravinsky, he developed his own artistic vision, one where the organisational devices typical of modernist composition, such as serialism, shared space with everything from plainchant to jazz in a kind of musical collage.

One of his first major works along these lines was a Trumpet Concerto (1954), where the African-American spiritual‘ Nobody knows de trouble I see’ coexists with 12-note rows. Zimmermann’s most significant legacy was the opera Die Soldaten (‘The Soldiers’, 1958–64), based on the play by Jakob Lenz and a compassionate, anti-militarist successor to Büchner’s and Berg’s Wozzeck in structure as much as subject matter. Here Zimmermann took his pluralism to an extreme, often having several scenes playing simultaneously – no surprise, then, that it took a number of years (and revisions) to see the light of day on stage.

This kind of temporal multi-layering came to dominate Zimmermann’s music in the 1960s, finding its extreme form in Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu (1962–6), a neo-Dadaist ‘ballet noir’ composed entirely of quotations from other composers’ music and climaxing in a mêlée of Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, Berlioz’s ‘March to the Scaffold’ and a Stockhausen Klavierstück. The vertical layering of sound was countered by what he described as ‘Zeitausdehnung’, or ‘expansion of time’, where metre seems to stand still, as exemplified in the dark-to-light progression of Photoptosis (1968).

His last major work brings the layering idea together with the humanism of Soldaten: Requiem für einen jungen Dichter (‘Requiem for a young poet’, 1967–9) tells a moving history of much of the 20th century using texts from writers as various as Joyce and Hitler, Camus and Mao, and, with typical extravagance, calls for narrator, vocal soloists, three choruses, orchestra, jazz group, organ and tape. But the humanism expressed here came alongside a profound pessimism and a year after completing the Requiem, Zimmermann committed suicide.

The huge complexity of Zimmermann’s writing was seen as a barrier to performances in his lifetime, but posthumously his reputation has grown and he has come to be seen as on a par with such individualists as Ligeti and Berio.

Profile © Matthew Rye

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