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The Triumph of an Epochal Work • Die Soldaten by Bernd Alois Zimmermann

14 JUL 2012

published in: Opera

Drawing by Alvis Hermanis
The model for Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten is the play of the same title by the Sturm und Drang poet Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz, published anonymously in 1776. It is set in garrison towns in Flanders during a time which Zimmermann labels “yesterday, today, tomorrow”. Unlike Wozzeck, which takes place among the poor and underprivileged, Die Soldaten is set in the field of tension between the bourgeoisie, striving for wealth and upward social mobility, and the world of crude and vulgarized soldiers and officers’ messes. Marie Wesener, the daughter of a merchant, is drawn towards the respectable cloth merchant Stolzius, but is influenced by her father to accept the aristocratic officer Desportes, who is stationed in the local garrison and has been courting her. Instead of marrying into the aristocracy, however, Marie is faced with social ruin. Desportes abandons her. She is passed around, insulted and raped. Stolzius is out for revenge, kills Desportes with rat poison and then commits suicide. Marie ends up a soldiers’ whore. The final scene shows her as a beggar, asking her own father for money on the street, unrecognized.

Lenz and Zimmermann: Kindred Spirits

For Zimmermann, the story must have been intimately compelling. What interested him especially was the question of how “fateful constellations of characters and circumstances, as they are, destroy people we might meet anytime and any day, who are basically innocent”. He knew of what he spoke. As a young soldier, born in 1918, he had experienced the destructive force of war in the trenches of Poland and Russia, resulting in a life-long trauma.

The writing of the work was drawn out over eight tortuous years, for internal and external reasons. Zimmermann first came across the play in 1957, when the Cologne Opera first approached him about commissioning a stage work; the world premiere was to take place in 1960. He reduced the 35 scenes of the play – some of them mere fragments – to 15, gathering several of them into simultaneous progressions, which went on to become one of the work’s much-discussed special features. He also interpolated three poems by Lenz as “aria texts” and another one as the basis of a trio into the libretto. These interventions were all the more successful as Lenz fundamentally rejected the Aristotelian unity of place, time and action in his play: “What is meant by the three unities? I can name a hundred unities which ultimately all remain only one. Unity of nation, unity of language, unity of religion, unity of conventions – so which one shall it be? Always the same, eternally the same. The playwright and the audience must feel a unity, but need not classify it.”

A Drawn-Out Genesis

Zimmermann composed the first scene as early as 1958. He sent it to his friend, the conductor Günter Wand, for review, who thought it impossible to perform. The Cologne Opera and the conductor who had been asked to give the world premiere, Wolfgang Sawallisch, were similarly convinced, and thus the publisher stopped the production process. Zimmermann set the half-finished score aside and dedicated himself to other works. He studied the radical vocal experiments of the Cologne avant-garde and was present when Nam June Paik performed Hommage to John Cage for piano and tapes in 1960 at the Cologne studio of Mary Bauermeister. These experiences were to influence the final shape of Die Soldaten; the inclusion of tapes and films as well as the opening of the picture-frame stage towards the auditorium were consequent results.

In 1963, the West German Radio offered Zimmermann the opportunity to give the world premiere of the opera as a concert version, labeled a “vocal symphony”. This assuaged doubts about the work’s performability; the Cologne Opera came on board again, and Zimmermann continued his work. On February 15, 1965, the premiere took place, receiving wide-spread attention. The conductor was Michael Gielen, who had taken an active interest in the last stage of its writing.

The successful realization of the extremely complex score impressively demonstrated the potential inherent in contemporary musical theater, and provided the foundation of an astonishing performance history: within eleven years, the work was performed in Kassel, Nuremberg, Munich and Hamburg; abroad, stages from Warsaw to Florence and Edinburgh followed suit. Today, Die Soldaten forms a cornerstone of modern musical theater.

Die Soldaten is not only a highlight of the entire opera program of this year’s Festival, but also the undisputed focus of a Zimmermann retrospective offered by “Salzburg contemporary”. Nine concert works will present a cross-section through his entire œuvre, and some listeners may be surprised that this features not only the “serious” and “difficult” Zimmermann, but also the composer of brilliantly constructed “utility music”, the originator of jovial ideas.

Max Nyffeler

Translation: Alexa Nieschlag