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  • On Die Soldaten
  • Bernd Alois Zimmermann
    Translated by Elaine R. Fitz Gibbon (bio) and Emily Richmond Pollock (bio)

If one begins to express something about opera, it is necessary that it be clear that since its creation the form of opera has been an anachronism, and a timeless one at that.

If one is aware of this, much has already been achieved. But first and foremost, another point must be noted: opera remains alive, though it is a completely “impossible” form: despite all of its impossibility, opera remains alive.

I must admit that as a young musician this amazed me; it then amused me and finally fascinated me.

A few words should be said about why I chose Lenz’s play for my material. It was one of those discoveries that sometimes comes after long years of searching; a reunion. Erich Bormann, the artistic director of the Cologne Opera at the time, brought my attention to Die Soldaten. I had read the Sturm und Drang work when I was quite young and had just run across Lenz’s “Notes on the Theater.” The unprecedented cleverness of this theoretical text, written in 1771 during Lenz’s time in Strasbourg, pointed in a direction that, in a quite astonishing way, corresponded to my musico-dramaturgical conception of form, which I had, at the time, despite all misapprehensions, referred to as “opera.” What was the most exciting for me was, above all else, the Lenzian conception of the unity of inner dramatic action that Die Soldaten defines in such an incredible way, and Lenz decided to renounce the “lamentably famous nonsense of the three unities” (namely, of place, action, and time). As a consequence of this text, Lenz negated the three classical unities, and multiple plots were layered over one another: an anticipation of Joyce’s “simultaneous dance of the hours.” The step from the dramaturgy of Sturm und Drang to the present time is astonishingly small: the suspension of the three unities leads directly to the suspension of space and time located within the “spherical form of time”: future, present, and past become interchangeable: Ulysses–Bloom wanders between the cities of day and night and represents a form of “present” that Joyce expresses through the analogy, “put allspace in a nutshell [sic],” and Pound says, “It is dawn at Jerusalem while midnight hovers above the Pillars of Hercules. All ages are contemporaneous. The future stirs already in the minds of the few. . . .”1

Thus, the path to Lenz’s Die Soldaten is not long: the realizations are essentially the same.

And now: what was it, to ask anew, that brought me to Die Soldaten?

At the beginning stands a negation:

neither the period piece, nor the class drama, nor the social aspect, and not even the critique of the “soldier’s position” within society (as timeless yesterday as it will be tomorrow) formed for me an immediate point of interest, but rather the way in which all the characters of Lenz’s Die Soldaten (written 1774–75), more [End Page 142] innocent than guilty, are inescapably forced into a situation that leads to rape, murder, suicide, and ultimately the annihilation of existence itself. Not determined by anything like fate—“the blind Moira” as the ancient Greeks still understood it—the lives of people, whom we can encounter in any era, are subjected to events determined by a constellation of social classes, conditions, and characters, from which they cannot escape.

The arrangement of acts and scenes is subjected to the demonstrated musico-dramaturgical idea of the “pluralistic” within the spherical form of time: later events lay the premise and earlier events the conclusion: Bach chorales and jazz stand among others opposite the rudiments of the “number opera” as well as “music theater,” among others—embedded in a kind of panacoustical form of the musical scene, melting together all elements of speech, song, music, sculpture, films, ballet, pantomime, tape montages (noise and speech sounds, musique concrète) into the pluralistic stream of time and experience, which in every case leads to that toward which we eternally and inexorably strive—and with that, the final plea of “Our Father,” “. . . sed libera nos a malo,” concludes...


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pp. 142-144
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