Music for the (Un)faint of Heart: Bernd Alois Zimmermann at 100

by Michael Schell

People ill-disposed toward modern music often claim that it sounds like the work of tormented souls. It’s a philistine argument, but there’s one case where the old cliché might ring true: the German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918–1970), whose centenary has just arrived.

Born and raised in a small Catholic town near Köln (Cologne), Zimmermann spent most of his life in Western Germany. Readers attuned to historical details will have already done the math—Zimmermann’s youth encompassed the Nazi period, and he was eventually drafted into the Wehrmacht, spending over a year on the Eastern Front and in France before receiving a medical discharge in 1942. Germany’s collective shame over the Holocaust—amplified by a generous dose of Catholic guilt and Cold War apprehension—weighed heavily on Zimmermann, and he struggled with depression and anxiety for the rest of his life.

After the War, Zimmermann started writing neoclassical music in the tradition of Hindemith. His Fairy Tale Suite from 1950 displays his formidable sense of rhythm and his ease working with large orchestras. The Epilog from the suite seems to be one of the models for what became a standard Hollywood genre of triumphalist marches.

After becoming acquainted with modern composers such as Schoenberg, whose music had been suppressed under Nazism, Zimmermann wrote increasingly experimental music until by the end of his career he had fully embraced the aesthetics and techniques of the postmodern avant-garde. Like other German composers, he also became interested in African-American music, both because of its anti-authoritarian associations and because the flexible swing beat of jazz offered an alternative to the regular beat associated with the martial music that the Nazis had relentlessly broadcast to “tune in” their populace. An early convergence of these interests is the 1954 trumpet concerto Nobody knows de trouble I see, a kind of funky 12-tone fantasy on that famous spiritual.

The stylistic eclecticism on display in this concerto became a trademark in Zimmermann’s music. He called it pluralism: mixing disparate elements and influences within the same composition. His 1962 viola concerto Antiphonen is another example of this. The fourth movement begins innocuously enough with a cadenza for the soloist, but then we start hearing the voices of several musicians reading passages aloud from Dostoevsky, Camus, Dante, the Bible, and most prominently of all, the ending of Joyce’s Ulysses. Post-Webernian pointillism continues to alternate with text readings, leading to the final movement, which features slow, overlapping F♮-G♮ trills on several instruments until a soft ride rhythm emerges on the snare drum to close out the piece. Within a few years, this kind of eclecticism would burst out all over Europe and North America, often described using terms such as totalism or polystylism.

Besides quoting literary texts, Zimmermann also grew obsessed with musical references. He often quoted the Dies irae hymn (like many other composers before and since). And his ballet Music for the Suppers of King Ubu is made up almost entirely of quoted material, both old and new (even Stockhausen gets cited), creating an atmosphere of prickly levity, befitting the self-indulgent title character of Alfred Jarry’s absurdist play Ubu Roi.

But the burdens of the past never left Zimmermann, and his music took a particularly dark turn during the 1960s. His Requiem for a Young Poet (finished in 1969) is kind of an evil twin to the contemporaneous Mass (1971) by that other 2018 centenarian, Leonard Bernstein. Both works appropriate liturgical and modern texts, employ singing and speaking, mix live music with prerecorded material, move musicians around in the concert space, and blend contemporary composed styles with vernacular idioms (jazz in Zimmermann’s case, folk and rock in Bernstein’s). But Zimmermann’s Requiem has none of the manufactured optimism that prevails in Bernstein’s offering. Even the title is despairing, referring to the death by suicide of three of the poets whose texts Zimmermann set. And whereas Bernstein’s work is a pastiche, Zimmermann’s quotes actual music—from Wagner to the Beatles. It’s interesting that the greatest Requiem settings of the 20th century (including those by Britten, Stravinskyand Ligeti) all came from the 1960s, amid social turmoil in the West, the specter of nuclear annihilation, and the still fresh memories of WW2 and the Holocaust.

But it’s Zimmermann’s most famous work that really sets the bar for unmitigated cynicism: his opera Die Soldaten. Seemingly tailored for people who find Berg’s Wozzeck too soft-hearted, this magnum opus, premiered in 1965, is an angry denunciation of military power, greed and authoritarianism. In some ways it’s comparable to Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, a landmark of early opera that’s likewise set in a police state with an array of (mostly) morally compromised characters. But few music theater works mete out the pessimism quite as brutally as Zimmermann’s. As it reaches its climax, the middle-class protagonist Marie is sexually assaulted, whereupon her estranged lover Stolzius fatally poisons the aristocratic perpetrator and then himself. In the last scene, Marie is shown as a vagabond begging alms from her passing father, who does not recognize her.

Not surprisingly, Zimmermann’s music is loud, ruthless and discordant. It opens with a succession of drumbeats over shrieks and flurries in the rest of the orchestra that seem to depict a phalanx of storm troopers despoiling a city whose residents scream and flee chaotically in horror. Even the opera’s love scenes have an angular dissonance to them, implying that the participants are ultimately two-faced manipulators. Though Jakob Lenz’s original 1776 play sets the action in 18th century Lille, Zimmermann makes his intentions clear by changing the timeframe to “yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”

The absolute apogee of musical expressionism, Die Soldaten is not for the squeamish, and the sadistic violence is difficult to watch (Zimmerman saw the rape of Marie not just as a depiction of society’s pervasive misogyny, but also as a metaphor for how totalitarianism penetrates the psyche of everyone living under it). Despite this, and despite the incredible technical and financial challenges that the work presents (among other things it requires an enormous orchestra, with organ, jazz band and more than a dozen percussionists), its power and sheer audacity continues to intrigue audiences, and to attract the attention of leading singers, directorsand opera companies. As current events remind us of the brittleness of democracy and civic society, the themes of Die Soldaten are looking more ominously relevant.

If Die Soldaten overwhelms with its scale and ambition, then Stille und Umkehr (Stillness and Return), Zimmermann’s last orchestral piece, astonishes with its fragility and single-mindedness. It’s basically a ten minute essay on the note D, sustained softly and passed gently among groups of instruments to the accompaniment of a snare drum tapping out one of Zimmermann’s beloved ride rhythms, now devolved into a kind of faltering heartbeat. Above this background rise fleeting splashes of color, such as the heterophonic flute murmurings that open the piece. The heartbeat, played with bare fingers, is the only trace of a distinct pulse, and it has enough rests in it that you generally lose the beat when it isn’t playing. It’s as though we’re inside the mind of a deathbed patient whose fragmentary memories are playing out one last time.

After a few minutes, a musical saw adds a somewhat sinister buzzing sonority to the mix. Bass instruments start to be heard, and the heartbeat shifts to a deeper tenor drum played with brushes. But the mood of the opening returns, the color splashes dissipate, and the impact of this gripping soundscape lingers long after the music stops.

Stille und Umkehr is a remarkable departure for such a normally maximalist composer, and deserves to be counted among postmodernism’s masterpieces. Zimmermann wrote it in 1970 during a psychiatric hospitalization—perhaps subconsciously prefiguring his own demise. Later that year, haunted by the demons made so visceral in his music, and by deteriorating physical health, Zimmermann took his own life at the age of 52. His last work was a theatricalized setting of Ecclesiastes which he titled Ich wandte mich und sah an alles Unrecht das geschah unter der Sonne (“I turned and saw all the injustice there was under the sun”).

Few composers in any era have felt so impelled to confront the uncomfortable things around and inside them, and articulate them in a way that is musical, contemporary and provocative. In exchange for this expressive honesty, Zimmermann demands a commitment from his listeners to receive the music with patience and integrity. To engage with his work is to explore a deeply intense and personal idiom. In the end, one wonders whether the lens it offers into the composer’s psyche is also a mirror.

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