Bernd Alois Zimmermann

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Bernd Alois Zimmermann (20 March 1918 – 10 August 1970) was a German composer. He is perhaps best known for his opera Die Soldaten , which is regarded as one of the most important German operas of the 20th century, after those of Berg. [1] As a result of his individual style, it is hard to label his music as avant-garde, serial or postmodern. His music employs a wide range of methods including the twelve-tone row and musical quotation.



Zimmermann was born in Bliesheim (now part of Erftstadt) near Cologne. He grew up in a rural Catholic community in western Germany. His father worked for the German Reichsbahn (Imperial Railway) and was also a farmer. In 1929, Zimmermann began attending a private Catholic school, where he had his first real encounter with music. After the National Socialists (or Nazis) closed all private schools, he switched to a public Catholic school in Cologne where, in 1937, he received his Abitur, the German equivalent of a high school diploma.

In the same year, he fulfilled his duty for the Reichsarbeitsdienst and spent the 1937/1938 winter semester studying pedagogy at the Hochschule für Lehrerausbildung (lit. University for Teacher Training) in Bonn.

He began studying Music Education, Musicology and Composition in the winter of 1938 at the University for Music in Cologne. In 1940, he was drafted in the Wehrmacht (the German Army) but was released in 1942 due to a severe skin illness. After he returned to his studies, he didn't receive a degree until 1947 due to the ending of the war. However, he was already busy as a free-lance composer in 1946, predominantly for radio. From 1948 to 1950, he was a participant in the Kranichsteiner/Darmstädter Ferienkursen für Neue Musik (lit. Kranichstein/Darmstadt Vacation Course for New Music) where he studied under René Leibowitz and Wolfgang Fortner, among others.

In 1957, he received a scholarship to spend time at the German Academy Villa Massimo in Rome. He also assumed the position of Professor of Composition (from Frank Martin) as well as Film and Broadcast Music at the Cologne Music University. In the 60s, he received more attention and success as a composer (including a second scholarship to the Villa Massimo in 1963 and a fellowship in the Academy of Arts, Berlin), especially after his opera Die Soldaten (The Soldiers) finally premiered in 1965. The opera had previously not been performed due to the enormous number of people required and the musical difficulty—the Cologne Opera had considered it "unspielbar" (not performable). The composer's depressive tendencies led to an emotional crisis, compounded by a quickly deteriorating eye problem. On 10 August 1970, Zimmermann committed suicide at his home in Königsdorf near Cologne – just five days after completing the score of his last composition, Ich wandte mich und sah an alles Unrecht das geschah unter der Sonne. [2] At the time, he was preparing another opera, Medea, after Hans Henny Jahnn.


In his own compositional growth, he took his place in the progression of new music, from which the German composers were mostly separated during the Nazi regime. He began writing works in the neoclassical style, continued with free atonality and twelve-tone music and eventually arrived at serialism (in 1956). His affection for jazz can sometimes be heard in some of his compositions (more so in his Violin Concerto or Trumpet Concerto).

In contrast to the so-called Darmstadt School (Stockhausen, Boulez, Nono, etc.), Zimmermann did not make a radical break with tradition. At the end of the 1950s, he developed his own personal compositional style, the pluralistic "Klangkomposition" (German word referring to the compositional style that focuses on planes – or areas – of sound and tone-colors). The combination and overlapping of layers of musical material from various time periods (from Medieval to Baroque and Classical to Jazz and Pop music) using advanced musical techniques is characteristic of Klangkomposition. Zimmermann's use of this technique ranged from the embedding of individual musical quotes (seen somewhat in his orchestral work Photoptosis) to pieces that are built entirely as a collage (the ballet Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu). In his vocal works, especially his Requiem for a Young Poet, [3] the text is used to progress the piece by overlapping texts from various sources. He created his own musical stance using the metaphor "the spherical form of time". [4]



  1. Andrew D. McCredie and Marion Rothärmel, "Zimmermann, Bernd Alois", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  2. "Bernd Aloïs Zimmermann". Dictionnaire de la musique (in French). Larousse. Retrieved 12 May 2013.
  3. Davis, Peter G. (3 May 1999). "Look Back In Angst". New York magazine. Retrieved 10 April 2009.
  4. 'Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Germany (1918–1970)' UbuWeb (Accessed 28 May 2006)


  1. Much of the content of this article comes from the equivalent German-language Wikipedia article (retrieved 28 May 2006).
  2. 'Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Germany (1918–1970) UbuWeb (Accessed 28 May 2006)
  3. McCredie, Andrew D. (with Marion Rothärmel): 'Zimmermann, Bernd Alois', Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed [28 May 2006]), Grove Music

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