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  • Three Scenes from the Opera Die Soldaten
  • Bernd Alois Zimmermann
    Translated by Elaine R. Fitz Gibbon (bio) and Emily Richmond Pollock (bio)

My opera, Die Soldaten, after the eponymous “comedy” by Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz, was written between 1958 and 1960. That which drew me to Die Soldaten was, above all, the way in which this work, written between 1774 and 1775, portrays an archetypal situation that encompasses all of those involved and is determined not so much by fate, the blind Moira, but far more by the fateful constellation of social classes, conditions, and characters as they are: people, whom one can encounter in any era, are subjected to events from which they cannot escape: more innocent than guilty.

Neither the period piece, nor the class drama, nor the social aspect, not even the timeless critique of the “soldier’s position within society,” a criticism relevant not only in the past but which will remain so into the future, formed the immediate point of interest. It has to do with an opera.

With regard to the above, what possibilities lie in such an old form, so frequently proclaimed dead, as that of opera? In writing his “Notes on the Theater” (1771–73), Lenz not only produced a dramaturgy of “Sturm und Drang” but also communicated a conception of drama that has influenced theater until today. Indeed, it seems to be unfolding in its fullest effect only now. Unity of the inner dramatic action: that is, in a certain sense, the geometric locus, the germ cell from which all of the phases and stations of action, the characters, the entire theatrical phenomenon develop. Here lies the fundamental idea of the Lenzian conception: the derivation of manifold events from a single unity, which unfold and unfurl, expressing themselves either successively or simultaneously. Consequently, the three classical unities of action, place, and time are negated, many “plots” are layered over each other: an anticipation of the Joycean “simultaneous dance of the hours.”

And what do these Lenzian principles mean for the composer? The answer has already been given: disintegration radiating from a singular, elementary idea. In this way, the compositional method is clearly defined: “put allspace in a nutshell [sic]” (Joyce) and, similarly, “I will name you a hundred unities, all of which, however, will forever remain the one” (Lenz).

In the libretto, none of Lenz’s language was altered. A number of scenes were brought together simultaneously—in the final act of the opera, no less than ten. The shooting descent into the spiral of time, as I like to call it—one of the most fascinating moments in Die Soldaten—can only be overcome, in a way that satisfies the direction referred to by the poet, through musical composition. This in particular possessed for me a compelling appeal to compose with the material.

I stated above that this has to do with an opera. And I would like to repeat that this has to do with an opera. [End Page 140]

If one “opens” oneself to opera, one must be aware of one of the most fascinating, perverse anachronisms of all time and, furthermore, that invariably opera means the overcoming of the past. What I mean is this: the unfettered genius (apart from the fact that, as Schoenberg observed, such a phenomenon does not even exist) is present to the least degree in the field of opera; this means, among other things, that 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.

The premiere of this work, commissioned by the city of Cologne in 1958, could not occur until now. Five years after the work was commissioned, the Westdeutscher Rundfunk [WDR, West German Broadcasting, Cologne] is now granting the possibility of a partial performance. Three scenes will be performed, the selection of which was determined by three considerations:

First, in consideration of the practicality of the performance. (Of a work conceived for the...


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