Requiem for a Young Poet

Dark Victory

by Robert Hilferty

Excerpted from an article appearing in the April issue of Carnegie Hall Stagebill.

  Bernd Alois Zimmermann

Bern Alois Zimmermann Bernd Alois Zimmermann's massive Requiem for a Young Poet received its world premiere in Düsseldorf 30 years ago. A kaleidoscopic cry of despair, the Requiem focuses on three poets who took their own lives: Sergei Esenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Konrad Bayer. Michael Gielen, who led the world premiere and conducts the U.S. premiere at Carnegie Hall on April 20 with the Southwest Radio Symphony Orchestra of Freiburg, explains the work's scope: "The piece depicts our whole world during this part of history, from 1920 to 1970, and the state of the human soul in the 1960s."

Indeed, this magnum opus, which lasts just over an hour, is a musical microcosm of events which have shaped, for better or for worse, the twentieth century. It requires the participation of a large, violin-free symphony orchestra with a gargantuan percussion section, and three large choirs, a jazz combo, an organ, two orators, a soprano, and a baritone. Electronic music and natural sounds are piped in. Throughout, tapes of historic speeches and political protests are projected from speakers scattered around the auditorium.

Michael Gielen conducted the world
premiere of Zimmermann's Requiem.

Gielen "I don't think people at the premiere realized the importance of this piece, which is unique in the panorama of twentieth-century music," asserts Gielen. What makes it unique, and significant, is the sheer scope of its own panorama. The Latin text of the Mass for the Dead is fragmented, overlaid, and distorted by a storm of recitations and historic recordings. Different historical layers collide and collude. Speeches of Pope John XXIII, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung are pitted against passages by Aeschylus, Joyce, Pound, Camus, and Schwitters. Eight tongues explode in a Babel of quotations, creating a dynamic -- and disturbing -- friction of ideas and ideologies, actions and aspirations. Irony arises, for instance, when Zimmermann juxtaposes hopeful words from Beethoven's Ninth with Goebbels' demagoguery and fraught phrases from the German constitution on "human rights."

"Words are a musical possibility," observes Gielen. "At times you understand the meaning, and at times, the words pile up like noise, like percussion." For instance, there's the remarkable "Ricercar" in which Zimmermann takes a section from Bayer's novel the sixth sense -- beginning with "question: why hope?" -- and creates a canon among three voices at three different speeds, a kind of fugal speech-music.

Musical quotes also abound. Amidst the dense vocal and orchestral textures emerge reminiscences of our musical past: snippets from Darius Milhaud's The Creation of the World, Olivier Messiaen's The Ascension, Beethoven's Ninth, and Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Zimmermann even quotes his own music, not to mention the Beatles. "Hey Jude" is employed as an emblem of contemporary youth and pop culture (and, perhaps, Holocaust-haunted, the German composer saw that "Jude" resembles the German word for "Jew").

Zimmermann referred to his Requiem as a "lingual" -- a piece in which elements of cantata, oratorio, radio play, journalism, and documentary come together in a cinematic montage of sound images and cultural artifacts. (He borrowed the term from Wittgenstein, whose Philosophical Investigations is quoted at the very start.) He outdoes the giganticism of Berlioz's Grande messe des morts (which requires a compound orchestra with four brass sections) and extends Brahms' German Requiem strategy of incorporating texts other than liturgical Latin to create hyperpolyphony: a counterpoint of not only musical lines but of different media and sound masses, a polyphony of contradictory ideas, texts, and textures.

Zimmermann was born in 1918 in Bliesheim, near Cologne. Educated by Catholic monks, he spent most of his life in Cologne, where he taught at the conservatory. Early on, he made contact with the avant-garde circle in Darmstadt. Twelve-tone serialism figured strongly in both his Violin Concerto and Symphony in One Movement. To make some money, he wrote music for radio plays and performed in jazz bars. He even penned a jazzy trumpet concerto, Nobody know de trouble I see. Zimmermann eventually developed his post-serial idea of "pluralistic sound composition," in which the notion of temporal simultaneity was key. The concept received its first mature treatment in his opera Die Soldaten, considered one of the masterpieces of the twentieth-century opera alongside Wozzeck and Moses und Aron. Soldaten has action that takes place simultaneously in the past, present, and future -- what Zimmermann called sphericality -- forging a unique musical stream of consciousness.

In the Requiem his investigations into historical simultaneity are realized through complex collage construction. The collage idea was certainly in the air of the 1969 zeitgeist -- just listen to Berio's Sinfonia and Stockhausen's Hymnen -- but this was its zenith. And no piece evokes the "noise" of the twentieth-century so effectively, so thrillingly.

"For many years he didn't have a breakthrough," says Gielen. "Success arrived late in life with Die Soldaten, only four years before his death." But why suicide? "He had a big problem with his eyes -- glaucoma," ponders Gielen. "I also suspect that he couldn't magnify the means any further than what he did in Die Soldaten and the Requiem. He was planning another opera where the main character, Medea, was to be represented by five different women. Probably he realized that this amplification of means was not a solution, and at his age he probably did not see the possibility of a new start from another point of view.... After the Requiem he was unable to snap out of this depression."

  In 1968, indignant Czechs push back the Soviet tanks in Prague -- one
  of the defining historical moments addressed in Requiem for a Young Poet.

Prague, 1968 Mourning became Zimmermann, but he had more on his mind than his own imminent death for his riveting vision of the grieving genre. Like Britten's War Requiem, his musical eulogy is a plea. "It's a call for peace," notes Gielen. "He was profoundly anti-Nazi, profoundly pacifist. He hated all dictatorship, war, and violence. What you feel during the piece is the violence of existence and the possibility of being engulfed in violence."

If Berlioz wanted his "Dies irae" ("Day of wrath") to strike terror into his listeners, then Zimmermann (whose Requiem technically lacks this section) surpasses him with his chilling end. Arising from the din of mass demonstrations from Paris to Vietnam on tape, the 300 live voices painfully push out the single syllables of "Dona nobis pacem" in an unnerving chord that embraces the total chromatic. "The end exclamation is presented, not as if you were praying to God," says Gielen, "but rather demanding of God: 'Now, for heaven's sake, give us some peace.' "


A senior editor at Stagebill, Robert Hilferty writes for New York magazine and Opera News, and is completing a movie, Babbitt: Portrait of a Serial Composer.

Reprinted courtesy Stagebill®

Photos: Stefan Odry (Zimmermann); Oggi E. Adesso (Gielen)

Return to Table of Contents