The German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) was one of the few musicians to remain independent of various 20th-century musical doctrines and to establish an individual style of composition.
Bernd Alois Zimmermann was born in Bliesheim, near Cologne, just as World War I was ending in 1918. His Catholic, classical education was interrupted when he was conscripted into the German army during World War II. In a private, unpublished letter written during this period he stated that he had never actually discharged a weapon at another person all the time he was a soldier. Wounded early in the war, he was able to resume his education in 1942. While a student, Zimmermann supported himself by playing in dance bands. In Darmstadt in 1949-1950 he abandoned a musicological dissertation on the use of the fugue in modern music in order to pursue a career as a composer.
Throughout his adult career Zimmermann earned his livelihood as a professor of composition and wrote, in addition to his art music, many commercial scores for radio, film, and the stage. His academic employment afforded him the means to live but interfered with his creative work. Indeed, Zimmermann's most productive periods as a composer occurred when he was able to obtain sabbaticals from his academic appointments. His relative independence from such fashionable, avant-garde approaches to composition as serialism and aleatory music contributed to his inability to become independently established as a composer. In fact, Zimmermann's work was known only to musicians until after his death, when a larger general audience for his music began to grow.
Zimmermann's Catholic education and Christian faith were influential in his compositions and led to the use of ecclesiastical references and concepts in his music. Like St. Augustine, Zimmermann believed in the simultaneity of past, present, and future as an eternal moment in the mind of God. Therefore, he developed a technique of quoting past masters in his own modern compositions: his favorites included Bach, Mozart, and Debussy. These quotations are always notated in Zimmermann's scores but may not be noticeable to the listener because Zimmermann so changed both the quotations and the contexts in which they were used. These quotations were meant to register Zimmermann's participation in an eternally present music, even though the material from the past, a melody or rhythm or some other musical structure, might be seamlessly woven into Zimmermann's own more expressionistic or chromatic or atonal context. Zimmermann's methods of quotation developed into a form of collage, that technique used in the visual arts whereby a seemingly random group of images and objects is combined. The composer would put together elements from different periods in music history and from different musical cultures and make them a part of his own unified musical compositions.
Zimmermann's compositions are at once starkly original and profoundly involved with music history. He assimilated music of the past with music of the present and non-European musics of the past with Western art-music. His music can be very compressed: for example, in Stille und Umkehr (1970) only four or five instruments in a 42-piece ensemble ever play simultaneously. At other times his music can seem quite spontaneous. His associates saw these opposite tendencies as the expression of the composer's complex personality, which seemed to combine both monastic and Dionysian traits.
Despite his religious faith and his discipline, Zimmer-mann wrote music which expressed a deep unhappiness. His pacifism and view of the world wars characteristic of his times are reflected in his opera Die Soldaten, often considered ered to be the most significant German work in that genre since those by Alban Berg. In 1967-1969, troubled by poor eyesight and preoccupied with death, Zimmermann composed Requiem für einen jungen Dichter, which recapitulated European history during the composer's lifetime, incorporating excerpts from political speeches and the writings of poets who had committed suicide. Zimmermann himself committed suicide in Königsberg in 1970. Since that time a number of conductors and performers have presented his music to a general audience that continues to grow and to develop an interest in the composer's work.
Further Reading on Bernd Alois Zimmermann
Articles on Bernd Zimmermann appear in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London, 1980) and in Baker's Biographical Dictionary, 6th edition (1978). Zimmermann himself was the author of Intervall und Zeit (1974). The composer has been the subject of the following articles and books: A. Porter, "Musical events," The New Yorker (February 12, 1979); W. Gruhn, "Integrale Komposition: zu Bernd Alois Zimmermanns Pluralismus-Begriff," in Archiv für Musikwissenschaft (1983); The New Yorker (March 28, 1983); Andreas von Imhoff, Untersuchungen zum Klavierwerk Bernd Alois Zimmermanns (Regensburg, 1976); and Clemens Kühn, Die Orchesterwerke Bernd Alois Zimmermanns (Hamburg, 1978).