Had Bernd Alois Zimmermann not taken his life in 1970, nine months after the premiere of his Requiem for a Young Poet, he would be 81 and right in tune with today’s end-of-millennium angst. Perhaps the pervading global unease over Y2K partly explains why Zimmermann’s final apocalyptic cry of despair seemed to resonate extra loudly when the Southwest Radio Symphony Orchestra of Freiburg, under conductor Michael Gielen, brought the score to Carnegie Hall. Then, too, New York concertgoers almost always respond eagerly to cultural events on a grand scale, no matter how grim, and the sound of more than 350 musicians proclaimed that something very important must be in the offing.
To accommodate this massive ode to chaos, Zimmermann requires an orchestra, two actors, soprano and baritone soloists, three choirs, a jazz combo, and an organ. In addition to the live performers, a vast array of electronic equipment is spread about the auditorium to feed loudspeakers with the recorded voices of, among others, Hitler, Mao Tse-tung, Churchill, Stalin, Alexander Dubcek, and Pope John XXIII; taped readings from the works of Albert Camus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce; and the writings of three young poets – Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sergei Esenin, and Konrad Bayer – who committed suicide. The score is also pregnant with significant musical quotes from the Catholic liturgy, Wagner (Tristan), Beethoven (the Ninth Symphony), Messiaen (L’Ascension), and the Beatles (“Hey Jude”). All this is packed into a bulging score lasting little more than an hour, a tightly compressed but still gargantuan apparatus that Gielen and his forces controlled with awesome virtuosity.
Anyone who saw Zimmermann’s unremittingly bleak Die Soldaten at the City Opera in 1991 and figured he had gone as far as he could in assembling insanely complex sound montages was wrong. Completed in 1964, that opera might now be thought of as just a prologue to the Requiem, a work that stretches the composer’s elaborate pluralistic and contrapuntal layering techniques, both musical and verbal, to the limit. Zimmermann even invented a new name for the genre, which he called a lingual, a piece that blends elements of the cantata, oratorio, radio play, journalism, and feature film. So much simultaneously purveyed information would, one might think, be impossible to take in all at once, but an attentive listener armed with a schematic plan of the score’s structure and translations of the texts can follow its progress easily enough. For better or worse, the entire piece is actually surprisingly coherent, and Zimmermann is nothing if not a master of theatrical effect – the finale, a collage of taped mass protests from around the world, is hair-raising.
What seems most likely to keep the Requiem out of the repertory, aside from the sheer expense of performing it, is its irritating German-centrist point of view. Apparently, one source of Zimmermann’s depression was a conviction that German music, a dominant force in Western culture from Bach through Beethoven and Wagner to Schoenberg, had now reached the end. That numbing sense of finality is present throughout the Requiem, which in fact has precious little real musical content – the whole score is more of a language game than a piece of music, and in that respect seems little more than a dated artifact of the sixties. Beyond that, to promote the idea that suicide is one option for a composer who feels aesthetically out of joint with his times almost seems obscene. No, when I’m in the mood for music of overwhelming nihilism, I’ll take the inspired work of that dogged survivor and incorrigible pessimist Shostakovich every time.