Bernd Alois Zimmermann – Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu (1968)

While the “Monologe” are representative of the period in which Zimmermann’s “pluralism” was at its most intensive – the almost unbounded multi-layered structure of an entire world of ideas, Zimmermann pushes his idea of quotation and collage ad absurdum and this culminates in the “ballet noir” “Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu”, a piece that consists solely in quotations from others, witty, humorous and full of bitter cynicism, almost misanthropically set to music; it is a most opulent music with hair-raising impact and reality which radiates with some coarseness a desperately macabre merriment and yet which turns into bitter earnestness at the end. Without doubt one of the few pieces of music combining inspired imagination and perfect mastery of his craft. In 1966 Zimmermann became a member of the Berlin Akademie der Künste. The music for “Ubu” was written for this occasion and first performed in 1968. Zimmermann: “The piece is a ‘ballet noir’ which is performed at a banquet at the Court of Ubu. The Academy of the country in which the piece set is commanded to attend the banquet – and at the end in the ‘Marche du decervellage’ is dispatched through the trap door: symbolic of the fate of a liberal academy under the reign of a usurper. In order to show up our absolutely disproportionate intellectual and cultural situation, musical collages of the most amusing and hardest tone are used; the piece is pure collage, based on dances of the 16th and 17th centuries, interspersed with quotations from earlier and contemporary composers. A farce which is seemingly merry, fat and greedy like Ubu himself: apparently an enormous prank, but for those who are able to hear beyond this it is a warning allegory, macabre and amusing at the same time.” In the 20-minute work the basic features and actions of the main character are adapted from the surrealist novel by the French author Alfred Jarry. Ubu is the incarnation of a depraved bourgeois, a tyrant and mass murderer, boorish and coarse, who has made his way by murder from being a captain of a regiment of dragoons to become the Head of State. Zimmermann’s work is divided into seven parts with an Entree in which all the colleagues of the music academy are “quoted”. A work that surpasses by far Zimmermann’s musical pluralism and without doubt is intended to have a political function. The climax is the “Marche du decervellage”: a collage of quotations from Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyrie”, Stockhausen’s “Klavierstuck IX” (from which a chord on the piano is repeated, not as in the original 280 times but 631 times) and Berlioz’s “March to Scaffold” from the “Symphonic fantastique”. Hardly ever can descriptive music have been crueller, more destructive, more implacable; biting attacks against his contemporaries, musical marking time taken to absurdity, giving rise to brutality. The orchestra consists of large wood-wind, brass and percussion groups and only 4 double basses.

The use of musical quotation and the resulting quotation collage in imitation of literary and artistic collage reached its peak in the sixties in Zimmermann’s “Ubu”. The practice of quotation is thus overcome. The sorting and ordering of existing musical material as composition – and in this connection the composer’s self-orientation in face of tradition and history, achieves a point of culmination in the works of the last five years of Zimmermann’s life which is to remain unequalled. Quotation and quotation collages are extended in his works to higher and extra-musical significance within his peculiar philosophic “pluralistic method of composition”. [Bestellnummer DMR 1013-15]

Art by Max Ernst


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