skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map

Sonata for Solo Violin (1951)

Related Artists/Companies

B.A. Zimmermann

Past Performances

Image unvailable for Augustin Hadelich, violin with Rohan de Silva, piano Augustin Hadelich, violin with Rohan de Silva, piano - Wed., Dec. 7, 2011, 7:30 PM

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: B.A. Zimmermann
Program note originally written for the following performance:
Augustin Hadelich, violin with Rohan de Silva, piano Wed., Dec. 7, 2011, 7:30 PM
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Bernd Alois Zimmermann was a maverick among mid-20th-century German composers, writing primarily atonal music that used techniques from neo-classicism as well as Schoenbergian serialism, quoting Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, Messiaen, Gregorian chant, gospel and jazz, composing an opera incorporating dance, film, pantomime, pre-recorded tape, 26 solo roles and a huge orchestra (Die Soldaten - "The Soldiers") that he originally envisioned being staged across a dozen performing spaces, each with its own instrumental ensemble. Norman Lebrecht, the outspoken English critic and authority on 20th-century music, wrote, "Zimmermann spent most of his life veering between elation and depression, describing himself as part-monk, part-Bacchus."

Zimmermann was born in 1918 in Bliesheim, twenty miles south of Cologne, received his early education in Cologne and at a monastery school in Steinfeld, near Mannheim, and did manual labor and played in dance bands to finance his university studies in philosophy, German literature and music education in Cologne and Bonn; he subsequently studied composition at the Musikhochschulen in Cologne and Berlin. He was drafted into the German army at the outbreak of World War II, but discharged in 1942 because of a severe skin disorder. He resumed his studies in composition and musicology at the University of Cologne and the Cologne Musikhochschule, where his principal teachers were Heinrich Lemacher, Paul Mies and Philipp Jarnach, and following the war attended the Darmstadt summer courses in contemporary music to study with Wolfgang Fortner and René Leibowitz. Zimmermann composed prolifically, taught musicology at the University of Cologne from 1950 to 1952, spent some time in Rome in 1957, and then joined the faculty of the Cologne Hochschule as director of radio drama, film and stage music. He was elected president of the German section of the International Society for Contemporary Music in 1956, became a member of the Academy of the Arts in Berlin in 1965, and received fellowships from the Villa Massimo in Rome, the Grand Art Prize of North Rhine-Westphalia, the Art Prize of the City of Cologne and other distinguished awards, but his later years were plagued by illness, depression and failing vision. On August 5, 1970, at the age of 52, Zimmermann sent his family into the countryside, finished his cantata I Turned and Saw All the Injustices That Are Committed Under the Sun, and five days later shot himself to death.

Zimmermann wrote of the Solo Violin Sonata in his 1974 collection of essays, Intervall und Zeit ("Interval and Time"): "The Unaccompanied Violin Sonata was composed in 1951, after I completed my Violin Concerto. The work is the result of intensive study of the expressive and technical possibilities of the violin. It is obvious that there are fundamental differences between using the instrument for a concerto or for a solo sonata. The fact that the violin is used unaccompanied seems first of all to pose a limitation. But in reality it is only in this way that the instrument can develop the whole breadth of its almost inexhaustible expressive power. [Swiss music theorist] Ernst Kurth says very aptly in his introduction to J. S. Bach's six sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin, ‘The idea behind such single-voiced works is the highest expression of everything melodic and thus of all contrapuntal art directed at linear development.' Contrapuntal development of a line: this means renewed reflection about the fundamental quality of the interval and its relation of note to note, renewed reflection about the significance of the length of a note in the sequence of notes, and finally renewed reflection about the significance of volume in the joint effect and thus the registration of relations between the three basic elements of any musical statement, pitch, note duration and volume.

"The Unaccompanied Violin Sonata is based on a twelve-tone row that controls all the movements. In striving towards the greatest possible musical intensity, an attempt is also made to achieve the greatest possible expressive intensity in the cumulative effect made by the basic elements mentioned above. The three movements - Praludium, Rhapsodie and Toccata - move from meditative improvisation via a rhapsodic quality to the strict commitment of the finale, in which finally the motive ‘B-A-C-H' [the pitches B-flat - A-natural - C-natural - B-natural] is quoted in honor of the great master of the six sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin."