Let me begin this post with a deliberately provocative statement: You know, when I look back on the 20th century, I feel like there were some highs and some lows. Whew. I said it. From the ups (civil rights for African-Americans, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Michael Bolton singing “When a Man Loves a Woman”) to the downs (Nazism, the Great Depression, the films of Dennis Quaid), the 1900’s were not for the faint of heart. The role of the artist in this tumultuous context took on an entirely new dimension, and art and politics intersected in a way that we will almost assuredly never see again (sorry Sean Penn!). Artists reflected their time and place in amazing ways, from the poetry of Anna Akhmatova to the art of Diego Rivera, from the novels of Kurt Vonnegut to the music of N.W.A. In the realm of classical music, the most famous example of this is surely Dmitri Shostakovich, whose roller-coaster ride with Stalin is well known. But perhaps no composer exemplified the turbulence of the century more than Bernhard Alois Zimmermann.
Zimmermann was born in Bliesheim, Germany, the son of a German Imperial Railway worker. He was a devout Catholic who attended Catholic schools before moving on the University of Cologne to study music. He was drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1940, but was released two years later because of illness. He composed music for radio in the mid-1940’s, and eventually wound up studying with Leibowitz at Darmstadt. Unlike many of his fellow Darmstadt-ers, Zimmermann never fully bought in to the hardline compositional approaches that were propagated by the likes of Boulez, Maderna, Nono, et al. Zimmermann employed a huge variety of styles, including jazz, serialism, avant-garde, folk, pop, and more, establishing a compositional approach known as “klangkomposition.”
The artistic trajectory of his compositions mirrors that of his life; his early works, like the Symphony in One Movement or the Rhenish Carnival Dances, are lighter in character and come from a time when Zimmermann was actively involved in arranging light music for the radio. It would be less than 20 years, however, before Zimmermann was composing Die Soldaten, Phototopsis, and the Requiem for a Young Poet. His final masterpiece has quite probably the saddest title in music history: Ich wandte mich um und sah alles Unrecht das geschah unter der Sonne (taken from Ecclesiastes 4:1, “Then I returned and saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun.”). Having battled depression for years, Zimmermann took his own life 5 days after completing Ich wandte mich.
The Rhenish Carnival Dances were composed in 1950 and orchestrated for 13 winds in 1962. This music has the same off-kilter feel that makes people scared of clowns, but it is incredibly delightful to listen to. Firmly entrenched in tonality, this is Zimmermann at his wittiest, which admittedly is the functional equivalent of Tom Cruise at his least Scientologist, but still. You couldn’t be more folksy than this if you were eating schnitzel and playing “O Tannenbaum” on an organ grinder. Enjoy the stellar contra-bassoon playing and the eminently whistlable piccolo action. This performance features the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and conductor Christian Zacharias.
The Trumpet Concerto “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See” is a near perfect microcosm of Zimmermann’s musical style. From the negro spiritual of the title and jazz elements to traditional serial techniques, it is an ideal demonstration of the search for musical balance that he was seeking, especially in the 1950’s. The inclusion of the spiritual was in part motivated as a response to what Zimmermann viewed as “racial hatred” pervading society. It is most certainly a dramatic effect, and in spite of the jazzy big-band sounds and the always cool-as-hell- Hammond organ, this is an incredibly desolate and bleak work. The soloist in this recording is Jeroen Berwaerts (who sounds like a champion), accompanied by the NDR Sinfonieorchester and conductor Peter Rundel.
One of the final works Zimmermann completed was Stille und Umkehr (Silence and Return), a remarkably gripping study in color and shade. It is essentially a 9-minute iteration on the note D; there are other notes, but they only underscore the obsessiveness of the one. There are rumblings from the percussion section, as if the prospect of a dance lies just out of reach. At the risk of sounding creepy, this would be perfect music to accompany yourself holding someone against their will in your basement. It is an apt summation of Zimmermann’s conception of spherical time, a long psychological journey without physically going anywhere. Heinz Holliger, whose performance of Zimmermann’s Oboe Concerto (and a lot of other oboe repertoire for that matter) is the gold standard, conducts the WDR Sinfonieorchester of Cologne.
Zimmermann is a composer whose music I’ve only recently begin to discover, but much like my initial encounters with Varese, I am gripped in the same way I am by a Coen Brothers movie or a venereal disease. The diversity of styles and sounds is incredibly appealing, and the craft is masterful. With the world spiraling ever more towards utter chaos each passing day, Zimmermann’s compositions stand like a beacon on the horizon. Only instead of signalling safe harbor, they spell out “I told you so” in Technicolor.