A Composer of Dark Explosions at 100

It is a truth well acknowledged that great composers lead tragic lives. We are all, in that sense, Romantics: We want, even need, our artists to suffer and to express that suffering in their work.

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, New York Times

It is a truth well acknowledged that great composers lead tragic lives. We are all, in that sense, Romantics: We want, even need, our artists to suffer and to express that suffering in their work.

However nonsensical this rule, it is almost impossible not to think Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s biography and music indeed tragic, and tragically intertwined. Everything, it can seem to us looking back, led to his suicide, at 52. Family notwithstanding, his life had been lonely, and became lonelier; his work dark, and became darker.

The composer of “Die Soldaten,” one of the most important and least performed of 20th-century operatic masterpieces, Zimmermann was born 100 years ago, on March 20, 1918 — perhaps significantly, a few years earlier than the “official” post-World War II avant-garde of Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio. He was raised (in the small village of Bliesheim, Germany) a Roman Catholic, and remained so. The “Dies Irae” plainchant that runs throughout his work, as if he were a darker Rachmaninoff, is sincere and no mere colorful grotesquerie (as it is in, say, Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique”).

No, whereas Catholic ritual and mysticism provided enduring if somewhat generalized inspiration for the younger Stockhausen, Zimmermann was more traditionally observant — unfashionably so, for a modernist composer — and more traditionally inspired, both on and beneath the musical surface. He was old enough to have served in the army of Nazi Germanyon both the Western and Eastern fronts. Although he took the opportunity to resume musical studies in Cologne in 1943, he never fully demilitarized. Once the war was over, he reacted angrily to the Allied process of denazification — what he saw as persecution of his fellow former soldiers — and he fell prey, time and again, to severe depression. He remained semidetached from his fellow composers, finding them, not entirely without reason, cliquish.

But some of his earliest works, such as a “Sinfonia Prosodica” (1945) and Concerto for Orchestra (1946-48), garnered significant critical attention. They remind us that those years of the German new-music scene were far from dominated by the serialism of the Second Viennese School and its successors. That scene was far more pluralistic — a crucial concept for Zimmermann — than legions of anti-Schoenberg postmodernists later claimed. Zimmermann’s early studies of Stravinsky and Milhaud were supplemented, yes, by Schoenberg, but also by Hindemith, Bartok and others; and this range of influence was also the case more generally at the influential Darmstadt Summer School, which Zimmermann attended for the first time in 1948, two years after its founding.

The history, not just the chronology, is more confused (or, rather, more complicated, contested and interesting) than ideologues of any stripe will admit. Boulez, for instance, sometimes conducted Zimmermann’s work and spoke admiringly of it. Wind and percussion sonorities — vocal writing, too — in Zimmermann’s 1957 “Omnia Tempus Habent” suggest influence from, or at least affinity with, Boulez’s “Le Marteau Sans Maître.” And the influence in later Zimmermann of the ultra-distilled expressivism of Webern, another serious Catholic, did not spring from nowhere. We hear it also in the two-piano, serial “Perspektiven” (1955-56), written for Darmstadt’s 10th anniversary.

The 1950 Violin Concerto, like Schoenberg’s, has a broadly traditional, overarching three-movement structure, drawing upon what might still be salvaged from old forms and yet far from being hidebound by them. The generative role played in the second movement by the “Dies Irae” chant speaks neither for the first nor the last time of liturgy. So brazen a variety of stylistic flirtations would have been alien to Schoenberg — or, indeed, even to Stravinsky, for whom different masks tended to be donned for different works, or at least reconciled when they appeared within a single one.

“We live in harmony with a huge diversity of culture from the most varied periods,” Zimmermann later wrote, adding: “We exist simultaneously on many different levels of time and experience, most of which neither are connected with one another, nor seemingly derived from one another.” And, yet, we soon “feel at home in this network of countless threads.”

If that sounds like liberal multiculturalism, even postmodernism, it is not; Anything does not go. When Zimmermann spoke of pluralism and the “sphericity of time,” he was making a claim about the essential simultaneity of experience, not about doing whatever one liked. For him there was no question that an overarching form — to musical composition and experience, to the world and our experience of it — remained, even if we could never truly approach it.

The 1960 Cello Sonata was one of the works that marked a turning point toward the expressionistic extremes of Zimmermann’s final decade. “I’ve played his (1967) ‘Intercomunicazione’ and solo sonata a number of times and think they are extraordinarily powerful works,” cellist Robin Michael said in an interview. “I don’t know why his music isn’t more widely played. There is such immediacy underneath the complexity. It’s visceral, very human — qualities associated with Beethoven.”

The unremitting darkness of “Intercomunicazione” is no bar to extraordinary variety of expression. If its frenetic, sepulchral rumbling on the cello’s lowest string — or the riotous, frankly impossible cacophony of massed, warring trumpets in “Die Soldaten,” his sole opera — is not representative of growling hounds of hell, no music ever will be. The cello’s darkly expressive riches seem to have especially appealed to Zimmermann; he also wrote two concertos for the instrument, one relatively early, and revised as “Canto di Speranza,” with formal inspiration derived from Ezra Pound’s cantos, and a second in the mid-1960s.

Stylistic pluralism went hand-in-hand with expressionism — one heightening the other — nowhere more so than in “Die Soldaten” (“The Soldiers”), for which Zimmermann wrote a libretto closely built (at least to begin with) on an 18th-century play by Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz drawing upon his military service. Zimmermann extended Lenz’s multilayered plotlines in every direction, eventually including a vision of the atomic bomb whose return so many in the ‘60s feared. Multiple ensembles, languages, stages, film projections, loudspeakers, musical styles and so on were intended to surround the audience — originally meant to be seated on swivel chairs in the center of a vast performing space — to tell in multiple ways the story of a girl’s destruction by a brutal society.

Zimmermann’s final version was a simplification of the initial conception, which had been rejected by the Cologne Opera. The libretto and score maintained different levels of staged action, yet could conceivably be performed (abortive first attempts notwithstanding) by traditional opera companies in traditional theaters. Michael Gielen, who conducted the 1965 premiere in Cologne, would later say that Zimmermann’s “imagination was always several stages ahead of current standards of performing practice, and he could never understand why, precisely for that reason, we performers could offer only an approximation of his vision at the first performance.” We know, Gielen added, “that, from Beethoven onward, so-called ‘unplayable’ pieces become playable with time,” and “Die Soldaten” has seen memorable performances in recent years, including at the 2012 Salzburg Festival and at the Zurich Opera, in 2013, directed by Calixto Bieito. A production that originated at the Ruhrtriennale festival in Germany and came to the Park Avenue Armory in New York in 2008 put the audience on moving risers.

Funeral rites for the classical tradition — including Wagner, Beethoven’s Ninth and “The Nutcracker” — are read in “Photoptosis” (1968). The feeling is one of terror, not irony, for who wishes to be buried alive?

“Requiem for a Young Poet” (1967-69) goes further, connecting pluralism and death. Quotations from Aeschylus, Hitler and “Hey Jude” come in Joycean stream of consciousness. Three choruses, jazz band, a small symphony orchestra, two speakers, soprano and baritone soloists and eight loudspeakers are positioned around the hall — the ensemble’s shape approaching Zimmermann’s utopian idea of a spherical performing space.

His final work, an “ecclesiastical action,” took its title from the Book of Ecclesiastes: “I turned and saw all the injustice there was under the sun.” It melds words from Ecclesiastes and Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor; a Bach chorale that Zimmermann, following Alban Berg’s precedent, had employed in his 1950 Violin Concerto, sounds: “It is enough: Lord, if it please You, then release me.” By this time, he had an inoperable eye condition, in addition to long-standing mental health problems.

Five days after completing the score, in early August 1970, Zimmermann took his life. Are his final works requiems for art, for life, for the possibility of redemption that is the very point of a requiem? Almost certainly — and yet, not entirely so. His last hymns of earthly despair continued to speak in, and bear witness to, the multiplicity of human experience.

He signed off his final work as he almost always did: “OAMDG,” the Jesuit “All to the glory of God.” Spherical time rolled on.

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