Bernd Alois Zimmermann


Bernd Alois Zimmermann was a loner. As a young man in Nazi Germany, he was cut off from the developments in New Music; after the Second World War, he distrusted the doctrines of the younger generation of composers around Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez and Luigi Nono. As the “oldest of these young composers”, as he described himself, Zimmermann did not share the radical criticism of the musical past, which is why his success came only at a time when the influence of the Darmstadt avant-garde had waned.

Born in Bliesheim near Cologne in 1918, Zimmermann was drafted into the German army after two semesters of music teacher training. He composed nevertheless: “As a 22-year-old, I wrote [Alagoana], for example, in the lulls between the various campaigns from 1940 to 43; the orchestration could only be done after the war.” As a result of severe poisoning, the composer was discharged in 1942 as unfit for service, after which he resumed his studies, although he was not able to complete them until after the end of the war. From 1946 Zimmermann worked as a freelance composer for various radio stations and later took on a teaching position at the Cologne Musikhochschule for radio play and film music. While on a scholarship at the Villa Massimo in 1957, he arrived at the foundations of his philosophically based, collage-like compositional method, which he exemplified in the opera [Die Soldaten] (1958/64) after Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz – a harrowing work marked by traumatic wartime experience and which hurtles inexorably towards catastrophe. Although Zimmermann received much-deserved recognition after the successful premiere, he suffered from severe depression. On 10 August 1970, immediately after completing the cantata “Ich wandte mich und sah an alles Unrecht, das da geschah unter der Sonne” (I turned and saw all the injustice there was under the sun), he took his own life.


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