- To do justice to opera’s “monstrosity”: Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten
In 1963, five years after the work was first commissioned, three scenes from Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s as-yet-unperformed opera Die Soldaten were broadcast by the West German Radio. Since the work’s proper staged premiere at the Cologne Opera had been delayed (due to a score deemed unplayable), these three scenes stood as representatives of an unprecedentedly complex, at times even chaotic, full-length opera.1 For the occasion of that performance, Zimmermann composed a short essay to provide both context to the chosen passages and a broad account of the opera as a whole.2 He remarked that, while the scenes were chosen to be representative of the opera’s plot, style, and characters, “what are three scenes removed from the whole complexity of a three-act, evening-length opera?”3 There is a certain urgency to this rhetorical construction, beyond the simple desire of a composer to see his work finally performed. For Zimmermann believed that there were questions that could only be answered if Die Soldaten were performed in full—questions about the very purpose and existence of opera in the mid-twentieth century: “Berg in Wozzeck drew forth the latent consequences present in Tristan and that every opera production today draws forth those present in Wozzeck. Must I say that this by no means denotes a return to the compositional principles of Wozzeck? Only the performance of my entire opera, however, can give the conclusive answer to this question.4
Zimmermann held the conviction that this work was not just an important music drama but was indeed a referendum on the viability of opera, a statement of opera’s continued utility. To open the essay, he relied on a formulation he had used repeatedly from 1958 onward to describe his sense of what was most important in his decision to set Die Soldaten as an opera: that it was not the play’s appeal as a period piece, nor as a class drama, nor even as a work of social criticism. Rather, it was the archetypal situation of the eponymous play (by Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz, 1776) that had excited the composer and begged to be adapted.5 Citing the “constellation of social classes, conditions, and characters,” he said, “es handelt sich um eine Oper”—these are the concerns of opera.6
What Zimmermann meant by the phrase “es handelt sich um eine Oper” (and he wrote it exactly that way no fewer than three times in an essay of only a thousand [End Page 69] words) is that he considered this play, with its seemingly timeless themes of cruelty and helplessness, to be the kind of story best suited to his idea of opera; and opera, more than any other medium, to be the art form best suited to this kind of story. In a number of writings on the subject, including the “Three Scenes” notes and the lengthy essay “The Future of Opera” (1965), the composer consistently justified his project along specifically generic lines. Zimmermann thereby formulated a particular historical trajectory for opera with a keen awareness of the state of opera in the mid-twentieth century, and he repeatedly emphasized his efforts to redefine opera in order to address its most pressing problems.
While previous authors writing about Zimmermann’s aesthetic contributions have concentrated on certain aspects of his philosophy, especially the idea of the “spherical shape of time,” this article focuses on the composer’s conception of and approach to the problem of opera as a medium and genre, as stated in his essays on Die Soldaten and as demonstrated in the composition of the opera itself.7 Attention to both the writings and the music demonstrates how, as a theorist and creator of modern opera, Zimmermann had an idiosyncratic yet ambitious project for what opera could (or should) become, extending far beyond his philosophies of time. As points of entry into his writings on the topic, the claims about generic identity and viability in the four essays, on which I focus here, reveal a common concern both for the place of the...