Udo Zimmermann, Sinfonia come un grande Lamento, in Memory of F. García Lorca

By Laura Silverberg, Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow, Columbia University

Written for the concert Music of the Other Germany, performed on Jan 25, 2009 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In 1971, Erich Honecker (General Secretary of the ruling Socialist Unity Party) declared that “there can be no taboos in the realm of art and literature” if one works from a socialist position. By the mid-1970s, modernist techniques such as serialism and indeterminacy rarely drew the critical ire that they had in previous decades. East German composers were less isolated from musical developments in other lands, and a new generation of talented young composers—including Friedrich Goldmann, Reiner Bredemeyer, Georg Katzer, Friedrich Schenker, Siegfried Matthus, Paul-Heinz Dittrich, and Udo Zimmermann—gained international recognition.

Both the music and career path of Udo Zimmermann (1943– ) exemplify the experience of the second generation of East German composers, who completed their musical training during the 1960s. Counting Henze, Lutosławski, and Boulez among his greatest influences, Zimmermann was one of very few East German composers to win acclaim on both sides of the Iron Curtain. As founder and director of the Studio Neue Musik in Dresden, he brought to the GDR some of the first performances of music by Cage, Kagel, Xenakis, and Stockhausen. Zimmermann is best known for his work in the dramatic realm: he composed six successful operas, served as dramatic advisor at the Dresdner Staatsoper and, following German reunification, was director of the Leipzig Opera and later Berlin’s Deutsche Oper.

Zimmermann’s interest in the dramaturgical capabilities of music extended beyond opera; even his instrumental music typically carries a dramatic or textual reference. His Sinfonia come un grande Lamento, in memory of the Spanish poet Fernando García Lorca, takes as a starting point Lorca’s poem “Casida del Llanto,” or “Casida of the Weeping,” from the collection El divan del Tamarit:

I’ve closed my balcony

because I don’t want to hear the weeping,

but from behind the gray walls

nothing else is heard but the weeping.

There are very few angels that sing,

there are very few dogs that bark,

a thousand violins fit into the palm of my hand.

But the weeping is an immense dog,

the weeping is an immense angel,

the weeping is an immense violin,

the tears muffle the wind,

and nothing else is heard but the weeping.

(translation: Paul C. Echols)

According to Zimmermann, the Sinfonia uses Lorca’s poem as a source of inspiration, but does not follow the text in a programmatic manner. In the most general sense, the work is a lament for the dead. More specifically, it is an epitaph for Lorca himself, who was murdered by Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War.

Divided into three movements, Antiphon I – Psalm – Antiphon II, the Sinfonia opens with a lengthy timpani cadenza built from a seven-note row. The cadenza gives way to an alternation between a march-like timpani theme and an adagio lament melody in the strings. This melody, built from the inversion of the introductory chorus of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, becomes the basis of the Psalm. Beginning with the flute, the lament melody builds up to a climactic semi-aleatoric layering of all 52 instruments. The second Antiphon returns to the material of the first; an alternation between the march-like timpani motive and the lament melody grows to a climax before a minute-long diminuendo on a unison note. Writing on the Sinfonia a few years after its premiere, Zimmermann noted that this final gesture acts like a photograph, freezing “the feeling of unspeakable sadness as the limit of human suffering.”