Bernd Alois Zimmermann

German composer (born 1918 in Bliesheim - died 1970 in Königsdorf)

Zimmermann described himself as "a typically Rhenish mixture of monk and Dionysus". The life of this musician, who loved teaching and literature, was marked by illness and war.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann was born into a modest Catholic family and given a strict education by the Salvatorians religious order, where he studied ancient languages and music theory. He was allowed to play the abbey's old Baroque organ and he was interested in painting, poetry and literature. After being mobilised for six months in 1937, he gave up his plans for a career in the clergy and studied musical education at the universities in Bonn and Cologne. Obliged to interrupt his studies in 1939, he served in the German army in Poland and Paris, where he discovered the music of Darius Milhaud and Igor Stravinsky. He was discharged because of chronic illness in 1942 and completed his musical studies in 1947 with Hans Haas for the piano and Philipp Jarnach for composition.
He eked out a living as choirmaster or labourer. His earliest works, in a neoclassical style, were performed in 1944. His style gradually evolved towards serialism, then into a more contemporary language. He learnt sound editing while in charge of music for the cinema and radio in Cologne. The years 1949 and 1950 were devoted to seminars on new music in Darmstadt, where Wolfgang Fortner and René Leibowitz converted him to serialism, which he then applied in his Violin Concerto, written in 1950.
He taught music theory at the University of Cologne from 1950 to 1952, was invited to study at the Villa Massimo in Rome in 1957, and took over Frank Martin's position as composition teacher at the Musikhochschule in Cologne that same year. During this period, he began work on his best-known composition, the opera Die Soldaten (The Soldiers). The technical requirements for this work made multiple revisions necessary before its first performance in 1965, which was also the date of his election to the Academy of Arts. His Requiem for a Young Poet, a work on what he termed "the sphericity of time", was first performed in 1969, at a time when the composer's physical and mental health had considerably deteriorated. Obsessed by death and diminished by illness, he committed suicide the following year.

Six landmark dates in the life of Bernd Alois Zimmermann:
1937: studied musical education in Bonn and Cologne
1942: resumed his studies after his mobilisation
1949: became interested in serialism
1956: appointed president of the German section of the International Society for Contemporary Music
1957: first composer invited to study at the Villa Massima in Rome
1965: elected member of the Academy of Arts

Six key works by Bernd Alois Zimmermann:
1952: Concerto for oboe and chamber orchestra, serial work
1954: Nobody Knows the Trouble I See, Concerto for trumpet and chamber orchestra
1958-1960: Die Soldaten, opera, revised in 1963-1964
1965-1966: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra en forme de pas de trois
1966: Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu
1967-1969: Requiem für einen jungen Dichter 

Biography compiled from Radio France Musical Documentation, February 2014