Perforated time

WER 7340 2


B.A. Zimmermann: Sinfonie, Urfassung (1951)

Bernd Alois Zimmermann, born in 1918 in the small German town of Bliesheim, was strongly influenced by his time at a boarding school run by Salvatorian monks at Steinfeld Abbey. He began to study school music in Cologne a year before the Second World War began, but was drafted into the army in 1939. He served for three years, finally being discharged because of chronic skin problems as a result of exposure to poison. His humanistic Catholic background, as well as his involvement with the themes of war and time, combined to produce a body of work that developed in a startlingly short period of time – from his early composition studies after the war with Philipp Jarnach, through his adoption of twelve-tone and serial techniques, to the personal, “pluralistic” (as he called it) style of his final years. It is a body of work that at the time seemed unorthodox to many but continues to sound fresh today, with its balance of spirituality, expressive will, and stylistic freedom.

The works collected on this CD demonstrate in a richly varied manner Zimmermann’s conception of music as the ultimate “art of time,” in which different temporal layers permeate each other, preserving a sense of historical reference.


Sinfonie in einem Satz (First Version, 1951) 

“... [I] cannot see how it is my fault that the time we live in is shaken by an apocalyptic storm.” With this sentence in a letter to Hans Rosbaud – who had conducted the harshly criticized premiere of the Sinfonie in 1952 – Zimmermann defended the original expressive impulse of his work and promised to present himself as a “more experienced orchestrator” in the future. Immediately thereafter, he embarked on major revisions to the piece, changing the title to Sinfonie in einem Satz [Symphony in One Movement]. This is the work we know today; the original version was ignored for decades.

In his revision of the Sinfonie, Zimmermann shortened and tightened certain formal elements, much as earlier composers such as Bruckner had done with their own works. In a later commentary, Zimmermann said that “the strongly rhapsodic character ... was restrained in favor of a more compressed presentation.” In addition, the new and more mature orchestration creates the impression of an entirely different work. It is not simply a change of sound; a completely different paradigm is established. Unfortunately, many of the essential qualities of the original version are sacrificed to this paradigm shift: qualities of sound as well as structure that were apparently ahead of their time in 1952.

Looking back today, the independence of Sinfonie and Sinfonie in einem Satz is clear. We see the original version with different eyes and can recognize its Janus-like individuality; the “older” version points far into the future. In particular, certain seemingly redundant repetitions and moments of complete introspection – that supposedly disturbed the formal structure and were later deleted – give the work a mysterious and unfulfilled character that is lost in the second version, in spite of its more mature treatment of orchestration and structure. Today we can recognize the explosive power of compositional strategies that at the time were considered old-fashioned or obsolete. The rhapsodic character gives birth to its own open form, more searching than predetermined. The paradigm change created by Zimmermann’s revision of the instrumentation involved more than just the refinement and differentiation of the existing ensemble: Zimmermann completely deleted the organ part, which had caused considerable irritation at the premiere. The “collision” of the unbridled sound of the organ with the traditional orchestral sonority certainly contributed to a certain bulkiness and hypertrophy in the total sound; but it is the organ, an extraterritorial element as it were, that gives the original version a feeling of exaltation and depth of focus. The (apparent) incompatibility of the organ with the rest of the orchestra opens up the sound world of the piece in unforeseen ways, giving it space and transparency. The organ’s first entrance, right at the beginning of the work, is like the crash of a meteorite (an uncarved block remote from art) into this early masterpiece from some other future world – the world, for example, of Zimmermann’s later opera Die Soldaten, in which the organ is not only a symbol of the church but is also an emblem of chaos and collapse. The Sinfonie from 1951 already contains a premonition of this future, and its sound already has the spirit of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor that dominates Zimmermann’s final work, the Ekklesiastische Aktion of 1970.

Perhaps it was not excessive expression that so disturbed the symphony’s original listeners, but rather the excessive demands it made on them – the confrontation with what Zimmermann once called “musical reality.”


Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu (1966)

Zimmermann rightly referred to his Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu [Music for King Ubu’s Dinner], as a ballet noir. The piece was composed on the occasion of Zimmermann’s induction into Berlin’s Akademie der Künste in 1965 and remains one of the darkest, most provocative, and “politically incorrect” works of New Music ever written. Alfred Jarry’s King Ubu, a figure that inspired the Dadaists and Surrealists, is a grotesque vision of a member of the provincial bourgeoisie who rises to become a dictator – a mix of buffoon and serial killer, simpleton and monster. Zimmermann had already used the figure of Ubu in his 1961 trio, Présence, a work that also contains historical musical quotations, as do other major works by Zimmermann, such as Dialoge, Monologe, and Photoptosis. Although this collage technique is only one aspect of Zimmermann’s “pluralistic compositional method,” it is the one that has consistently provoked the most rabid criticism. Perhaps in response to his critics, Zimmermann took this technique to the limit with Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu, which was composed using nothing but musical quotations, even quotations from Zimmermann himself. The composer wrote, “It has to do with a ‘ballet noir’ performed on the occasion of a banquet at King Ubu’s court. Ubu commands the members of the Academy in the country where the piece is taking place to attend his banquet – and at the end, in the ‘Marche du décervellage’ [The Brainwashing March], he lets them fall through a trap door: a symbol of the fate of a free academy under the reign of a tyrant. To make clear our completely disproportionate intellectual and cultural situation, musical collages both humorous and harsh are employed. It is a piece made up entirely of collages, based on dances from the 16th and 17th centuries, and interspersed with quotations from historical and contemporary composers: a farce like Ubu himself – vulgar and seemingly jolly, fat and gluttonous – the piece may seem to be a practical joke, but for those able to listen more closely, it is a warning epigram, macabre and comic at the same time.

Before the actual ballet begins, there is an ‘Entrée’, where the members of the Berlin Academy – the President and Vice President, the Director of the Music Division and his colleagues – are introduced using musical quotations.”

It remains to be said that two of the movements – “Pile, Cotice et l‘ours” [Pile, Cotice, and the Bear] and “Berceuse des petits financiers qui ne peuvent pas s‘endormir” [Lullaby of the Little Financier, Unable to Sleep]– are taken from Zimmermann’s music for the radio play Die Mondvögel [The Moon Birds] or its later revision Un petit rien [A Little Nothing]. They seem to be arrangements of dances, perhaps from the 19th century, but were in fact written by Zimmermann himself – he quotes himself while seeming to quote others. The entire work is a giant puzzle consisting entirely of quotations. In addition to those from the Academy members themselves, we hear Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Bizet, Berlioz, Wagner, Stravinsky, and even the opening chord of Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX, which is repeated 283 times (separated only by short pauses) in the first 16 bars alone. Zimmermann again takes this to the limit in the final “Marche du décervellage”, where he “quotes” this chord (in various registers and densities) 631 times in breathtaking combination with Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries and the “March to the Scaffold” from Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.

The quotations are combined both horizontally and vertically into collages. Especially when stacked in many layers and heard simultaneously, they display only a tenuous sense of inner unity by virtue of certain rhythmic correspondences and similar harmonic fields. All of the works mentioned above that Zimmermann composed using his “pluralistic compositional method” have one remarkable thing in common: not one of the quotations seems eager to assimilate or integrate itself with the others. Each of them is sharply separated from its musical surroundings. There is no convergence and no blending. But strangely enough, the rigor of this separation – proof of the incongruousness of the quotations – leads to a sense of the inevitability of each quotation at the exact moment of its appearance. For the listener, there is a repeated and astonishing experience as surprise or irritation gives way to a feeling of necessity. In Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu, the intention of the composition is not solely to assemble mosaic-like fragments of different quotations into a musical puzzle; the composition actually comes to life at the moments of impact or collision. In the end, Zimmermann’s musical fragments – “certainly not composed for each other” – do not come together in some kind of surprisingly elegant fusion, but continue to actively repel each other. This repellence is not only carefully calculated, it reflects an astute musical imagination.

Beyond the constant shuffling of different levels of time and awareness, one important element of the internal structure of the piece is certainly the correspondence of the “dies irae” quote at the beginning – from Cantiones sacrae by the Berlin organist and Academy member Joseph Ahrens – with an equivalent quotation from the Symphonie fantastique in the final movement. It is also certainly no coincidence that at the end of the “Entrée” the two Academy members Zimmermann and Dallapiccola meet, represented by quotations from Die Soldaten and Il Prigioniero. The two composers shared a bond of mutual admiration, so for once this encounter does not involve confrontation and repellence, but is instead a symbol of understanding and shared protest.


Giostra Genovese (1962)

In Italian, “giostra” means carousel, and also in a more general sense maelstrom or vortex. Zimmermann’s title can hardly be a coincidence. The English term “vortex” recalls Ezra Pound, one of the authors Zimmermann repeatedly cited as sources for his idea of the “spherical form of time.” Pound, oscillating between symbolism and faith in scientific progress, defined “vortex” – and the related concept of “vorticism” – as the “point of maximum energy,” a “cluster of fused ideas,” and, not least, the place where “all the past that is capable of living into the future” can be found. Zimmermann’s own introductory text reinforces this association: “The old dances that were brought together to form the ballet suite Giostra Genovese come from various 16th and 17th century masters.... The composer has little interest in achieving a ... dubious historical authenticity. He is interested in this or that work, and the way he views the work should determine the understanding of his relationship to it.

The principle of this arrangement is that of a deliberate anachronism (with the retention of the key and duration of the original, as far as possible) with a full awareness of the present as a unified state also including the past and future. Seen in this way, the ‘inconceivable’ but nevertheless effective conception of time as a sphere is reduced to a ball in the hand of a child. The ball flies back and forth between Now and Then, and many allusions accompany this bouncing to and fro: presence and representation, a ‘banchetto musicale’ taking place simultaneously today and the day before yesterday.”

There has never been a better – or more beautiful – description of the sounding anachronism of this piece. In a letter to the Southwest German Radio, Zimmermann wrote, “Only for gourmets.” His experiences with the piece convinced him, however, “that the method of collage and décollage as I used it went over people’s heads.” He therefore asked his publisher to allow no more performances until he could complete “a new version of the work” – but it became much more than that. What began as a simple revision grew and expanded into Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu. The child grew up, the ball was no longer a toy, and the game became deadly serious.


Konzert für Streichorchester (1948)

According to Zimmermann, this Concerto for String Orchestra is an arrangement of his Trio for Violin, Viola, and Violoncello, which he had written between 1942 and 1944. We have no record of Zimmermann’s state of mind when he composed the trio, still in the middle of the war. If one compares the trio and the concerto, however, it soon becomes clear that we must speak of a fundamental reworking or even a new composition. In particular, the first two movements – “Introduktion” and “Aria” – are significantly altered. Frequent chromatic deviations from the original, which was influenced by Neoclassicism and fourth-based harmonies, change more than just the melodic progressions. There are new contrapuntal elements as well as new melodic lines and fields (especially in the middle register) that give rise to a completely new sense of harmony. While it is obvious – as Zimmermann later wrote to Karl Amadeus Hartmann – that this work still belongs to the “period before my engagement with the principles of twelve-tone composition,” one repeatedly finds motivic groups or relationships involving nine, eleven, or even twelve pitches – often within a single measure. We can see that while remaining true to his youthful work – composed with his “heart’s blood”, as he said – Zimmermann also altered and condensed the expressive character of the piece in such a way that one immediately senses that this revision dates from 1948, a time of intense artistic and intellectual turmoil for Zimmermann. The alterations in the finale – “dominated by powerful rhythmic forces” – are relatively minor. The motoric rhythms, reminiscent of Bartók, are sharpened, and seem more insistent in their new environment. The change of perspective toward the lower range of the large string ensemble also plays a significant role. Is this then an early transitional work? That would probably be claiming too much, but this piece certainly bears witness to Zimmermann’s struggle for a more individual and specific means of expression, for a personal and unique answer to Schoenberg’s questions regarding “style and idea.”

English translation by John Patrick Thomas and W. Richard Rieves