Five days before his voluntary death in 1970, Bernd Alois Zimmerman completed his ‘Ecclesiastical Action’ Ich wandte mich um und sah an alles Unrecht das geschah unter der Sonne. Significantly, this moving piece for 2 speakers, bass and orchestra ends with a quotation from Bach’s chorale Ich habe genug. The cynical libretto is based on the Bible book Ecclesiastes and the legend of the Grand Inquisitor from Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov.
Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) is best known for his pioneering 1965 opera Die Soldaten (The Soldiers), a multimedia spectacle avant la lettre. Simultaneous scenes in different times and on different stages are the more layered through the addition of film and sound fragments form tape. The collage technique was groundbreaking as well.
Zimmermann spiced up an expressionistic atonal idiom with a good dash of jazz, pop and quotes from classical music. The libretto, inspired by Jakob Lenz’s book of the same name, is also far from easy reading. It sketches a pitch-black world view: injustice reigns everywhere and man is defenceless against it.
This fatalistic message fits in seamlessly with the ‘Ecclesiastical Action’ composed shortly before his death in 1970. Zimmermann’s attitude to life is marked by his background. Born eight months before the end of the First World War, as a child he experienced the repression of the Nazis, who unleashed the Second World War in 1939.
He grew up in a Catholic rural community near Cologne; his father was a farmer and railway official. At the age of 11, he went to a monastery boarding school, but when the Nazis closed all private schools in 1936, he was forced to complete the grammar school at a public institute in Cologne.
After a compulsory enlistment in the Reichsarbeitsdienst, Zimmermann studied musicology and composition, but was drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1940. Two years later, he received a dishonourable discharge due to a serious skin disease; because of the war, he couldn’t complete his studies until 1947.
Zimmermann worked as a freelance composer for radio and attended the newly established Ferienkurse für neue Musik in Darmstadt. There he was taught by modernists such as Wolfgang Fortner and René Leibowitz, but he was too antidogmatic to make a radical break with musical tradition. Drawing from all possible periods and styles, he developed the pluralistic Klangkomposition that became his trademark.
In 1970 he composed his gloomy ‘Ecclesiastical Action’for bass, two speakers and orchestra. The title description refers to the azione sacra, a hybrid form between opera and oratorio. Zimmermann derived the texts from the Bible book Ecclesiastes and the legend of the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov.
The selected verses of Solomon describe the impossibility of human happiness: there is only injustice, hate and envy, death is preferable to life. Dostoyevsky describes how the Grand Inquisitor reproaches Christ, who has returned to earth, for offering people freedom because they are far too weak to handle this. He would have been better off listening to Satan, whom the Inquisitor himself serves ‘in the name of Jesus’.
One speaker recites the texts of Solomon, the other those of Dostoyevsky; the singer draws from both. Beforehand, reciters and conductor sit ‘in meditative posture’ on the stage while the singer stands; the conductor covers his face with his hands. The speakers may recite texts at random until the conductor stands up and starts the piece.
A blast of clarion from three trombones introduces the first speaker: ‘Ich wandte mich um und sah an alles Unrecht das geschah unter der Sonne’ (I turned around and saw injustice in everything that happened under the sun). Then the same text is sung by the bass, who is given much freedom of interpretation. Although he must hit the prescribed pitches, he may phrase and colour them as he pleases, using all possible vocal techniques. Provided he conveys feelings of ‘lamentation, agony, oppression, terror and desolation’.
Lonely gong beats underline the ritual atmosphere and in just under forty minutes a blood-curdling drama unfolds. The exalted-declamatory texts of the speakers find their counterpart in the tormented Sprechgesang of the bass, who rarely gets to sing a recognisable melody.
The orchestra generally keeps a low profile, but at regular intervals it cries out its impotence and anger in shrill, fortissimo dissonant harmonies that pierce the very marrow. Like when the Grand Inquisitor bites Christ: ‘Tomorrow I will execute you!’
Striking is the short quote from the Bach chorale Es ist genug near the end: ‘It is enough, Lord, if it pleases you, grant me relief.’ Although the text is performed instrumentally, it poignantly illustrates Zimmermann’s state of mind while composing. – Five days after completion he took his own life.
Saturday 20-2-2021 14.15 NTR Saturday Matinee, live on Radio 4
Radio Philharmonic Orchestra / Ingo Metzmacher / Tabea Zimmermann, viola
Bach/Webern: Ricercare from Musikalisches Opfer
Höller: Viola concerto
Zimmermann: Ich sah mich um und sah an alles Unrecht das geschah unter der Sonne