Zimmermann Requiem for a Young Poet

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Zimmermann Requiem for a Young Poet

  • Requiem für einen jungen Dichter

Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Requiem for a young poet is a humbling polyphony of twentieth-century misdeeds – riveting, provocative, uncompromising and as essential to our understanding of 1960s 'serious' music as The Beatles are to an informed perception of that decade's pop culture. In fact, the two momentarily converge when Zimmermann quotes The Beatles' song Hey Jude (something of a horrific pun, especially given the Requiem's use of the German language and of Hitler's voice in particular). The work opens to a hollow drone, a sort of post-Holocaust Zarathustra framing a gallery of voices, three of them, like Zimmermann's own, being suicides: the poets Vladimir Mayakovsky, Konrad Bayer and (via Mayakovsky) Sergei Essenin. The spoken word is crucial throughout; in fact it was Bayer who provided the Requiem's chilling motto: ''What can we hope for? There is nothing that awaits us except death''.
The vast opening section consists of a ''Prolog'', two ''Requiems'' (each launched to an agonized choral cry that makes even early Penderecki sound tame) and a ''Ricercar''. Taped voices recall major post-war cultural, religious and political figures (sometimes in person): Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, who was associated with the Vienna Circle of which Bayer was a member. Recited extracts from Wittgenstein's ''Philosophical Investigations'' (relating specifically to the idea of 'language games') precede the voice of Pope John XXIII, a reading from ''Molly Bloom's Monologue'' (Joyce's Ulysses), Alexander Dubcek addressing the Czech people; then Hitler, Chamberlain, the former Greek Prime Minister Andras Papandreou, readings from Pound, Schwitters, Camus, Sandor Weores and musical fragments by Wagner (Tristan), Milhaud (La creation du monde) and Messiaen (L'ascension) – a tumbling stream of consciousness where thinkers and artists have the definite upper hand. Most texts are spoken in German and although there are no detailed texts or translations provided (a bit of a nuisance, admittedly), one presumes that the point of quotation was more a matter of evoking memory and specific events than pondering the wisdom (either genuine or suspect) of those present. Zimmermann's musical argument, at least in the named ''Requiem'' episodes, is (to quote annotator Jorn Peter Hiekel) ''determined by a succession of montage-like blocks of sound polished with minute precision''. The work's brief later sections rely more on voices and instruments than on pre-recorded reportage (jazz is a strong presence), although the latter returns with a vengeance for a deeply pessimistic ''Dona nobis pacem'', with Beethoven (the Choral Symphony), von Ribbentrop, Stalin, Goebbels, Churchill and Bayer himself in fateful attendance. The Requiem climaxes to the unsettling sound of massed demonstrations and ends with a forcefully punctuated choral declamation (or affirmation) of the words ''Do... /na... /no... /bis... /pa... /cem''! Fans of Zimmermann's opera Die Soldaten will have already braced themselves.
''The piece is inscribed to all the catastrophes that the human race has brought down upon itself and addresses those aspects of human behaviour that have opened up the way to such a Day of Wrath or that threaten to do so.'' Hiekel's words ring true but barely touch the aural scope and emotional impact of this incredible piece, its sustained tension, telling juxtapositions (voices that echo or mix in various perspectives), the devastating effect of those ''montage-like'' chords and the rude (but rare) invasions of humour. No one was better qualified for the interpreter's role than Michael Gielen, a superb conductor whose impressive gallery of skills justifies a major record company contract. One hopes that that too will be put to rights before this deeply flawed century is out.'

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