Die Soldaten

Die Soldaten

Die Soldaten (The Soldiers) is a four act opera in German by German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann, based on the 1776 play by Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz. It is dedicated to Hans Rosbaud.[1] Zimmermann himself faithfully adapted the play into the libretto, the only changes to the text being repeats and small cuts. It is the composer's only completed opera and is considered an important work of the second half of the 20th century.[2][3]



Die Soldaten came about as a result of a commission from the Cologne Opera. Zimmermann began work on the opera in 1957. His original vision was to present the opera on 12 stages that surrounded the audience, however, the Cologne officials advised Zimmermann that his original vision was impossible to realize. An early version of the score was deemed unplayable,[4] so in 1963, Zimmermann prepared a vocal symphony using music from the opera for concert play.[5][6] According to his widow, Zimmermann did not complete that original score.[7] From 1963 to 1964, during a study visit to the Villa Massimo in Rome, Zimmerman revised his composition with further view to getting it performed.

Westdeutscher Rundfunk broadcast scenes from Die Soldaten in 1963, but the first stage performance –conducted by Michael Gielen and the Cologne Opera– did not take place until 15 February 1965. The first US performance was on 7 February 1982 by the Opera Company of Boston, led by Sarah Caldwell.[8] The New York City Opera subsequently staged Die Soldaten in 1991, conducted by Christopher Keene.[9] The first United Kingdom performance was at the English National Opera in November 1996, with Jon Garrison as Desportes.[10]


Role Voice type Premiere cast, 15 February 1965
Conductor: Michael Gielen
Wesener, a goods merchant in Lille bass Zoltán Kelemen
Marie, his daughter soprano Edith Gabry[11]
Charlotte, his daughter mezzo-soprano Helga Jenckel
Wesener's old mother contralto Maura Moreira
Stolzius, a mercer in Armentières baritone Claudio Nicolai
Stolzius's mother contralto Elisabeth Schärtel
Count Spannheim, a colonel bass Erich Winckelmann
Desportes, a nobleman tenor Anton de Ridder
A young gamekeeper sprechgesang
Pirzel, a captain tenor Albert Weikenmeier
Eisenhardt, a padre baritone Heiner Horn
Haudy, an officer baritone Gerd Nienstedt
Mary, an officier baritone Camillo Meghor
Three young officers tenor Norman Paige, Hubert Möhler, Heribert Steinbach
Countess de la Roche mezzo-soprano Liane Synek
Young count, her son tenor Willi Brockmeier
The Countess de la Roche's servant sprechgesang
An Andalusierin waitress dancer
Madame Roux, coffee house owner mute role
Civil servants, officers & captains mute roles
18 officers and ensigns sprechgesang & percussion


The opera is in 4 acts and 15 scenes. Place and time: Lille & Armentières in French Flanders, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Act 1

Scene 1 (strophe): Marie has moved from Armentières to Lille with her father Wesener, a fancy goods merchant. She writes a letter to the mother of her fiancé, Stolzius, a young draper in Armentières. An argument breaks out between Marie and her sister Charlotte, who is scornful of Marie's love for Stolzius.

Scene 2 (ciacona I): Stolzius has been lovesick since Marie's departure for Lille, but he is encouraged when his mother brings him a letter.

Scene 3 (ricercari I): Desportes is a French-serving nobleman from Hainaut, and one of Wesener's customers. He courts the commoner Marie and wins her affection. Her father, however, forbids her to go with him to the theatre – for a commoner to accompany an officer in public would damage the family name.

Scene 4 (toccata I): At the trenches in Armentières, officers discuss with Padre Eisenhardt the relative merits of comedy – Haudy, one of the officers, holds the view that it has more value than a sermon. Eisenhardt maintains that comedy undermines the soldiers' sense of what is right – their loose morals have already brought misery to countless young women. Haudy counters with the argument, "once a whore, always a whore". No, replies the Padre, a whore would never be a whore if she were not forced to become one.

Scene 5 (nocturno I): Wesener advises his daughter to be cautious in her dealings with Desportes, although he secretly harbours the hope that she may marry the young aristocrat. In the meantime, he says, it would not be wise to give up Stolzius altogether. As stormclouds gather, Marie grows anxious at what lies ahead and the dilemma builds in her heart.

Act 2

Scene 1 (toccata II): The officers are relaxing at the Armentières café owned by Madame Roux. They call across the unsuspecting Stolzius and make insinuating remarks about Marie's relationship with Desportes.

Scene 2 (capriccio, corale e ciacona II): Marie has received a reproachful letter from Stolzius. She is reading it in tears when Desportes enters. He scornfully dictates to her a brusque reply. His flattery finally has the desired effect – his spot with Marie is won. In the room next door Wesener's aged mother sings the folk song Rösel aus Hennegay which contains the prophetic line "Some day your cross will come to you". On a partitioned stage appear, on one side, Marie and Desportes as a couple engrossed in love play, and on the other, Stolzius and his mother, who is trying to convince her son that having broken off his engagement, the "soldier's whore" Marie was not worthy of him. But Stolzius defends her and swears revenge on Desportes.

Act 3

Scene 1 (rondino): A conversation between the Padre and Captain Pirzel, whose odd behaviour is portrayed as the result of the monotony of military service, reveals that major Mary –a friend of Desportes– is to be transferred from Armentières to Lille.

Scene 2 (rappresentazione): In order to move closer to Marie, Stolzius offers Major Mary his services as a batman.

Scene 3 (ricercari II): Desportes has left Marie. When she starts accepting gifts from Major Mary, her sister Charlotte labels her a "soldier's girl". Marie claims she only behaved in this way in order to get news of Desportes. Mary invites the two sisters Marie and Charlotte for a drive – neither of them recognises the true identity of his batman Stolzius.

Scene 4 (nocturno II): Countess de la Roche reproaches her son, the young Count, for his behaviour towards Marie. She advises him to leave town and, in order to protect Marie from the advances of other officers, she declares herself willing to take the girl into her own house as a companion.

Scene 5 (tropi): The countess goes to find Marie at her father's house. In Charlotte's presence she makes the offer to take Marie into her household, persuading her it is the only way she can now save her honour.

Act 4

Scene 1 (toccata III): What the future holds in store for Marie is a living nightmare. Having turned down the Countess' offer in order to try to renew her contact with Desportes, he now subjects her to the attentions of his gamekeeper who makes a brutal sexual assault on her. Dishonoured and discredited, Marie wanders aimlessly while the Countess, the young Count, Wesener, Charlotte, Pirzel and the Padre search for her.

Scene 2 (ciacona III): Mary and Desportes are eating their evening meal. Stolzius, who is serving them, overhears their conversation and learns of Marie's fate. He hands Desportes a bowl of poisoned soup, and before drinking some of the soup himself he triumphantly reveals his identity to the dying officer.

Scene 3 (nocturno III): Marie, now sunk to the level of a street beggar, encounters her father and asks him for alms. The old man does not recognise her, but out of concern for his daughter he gives her money. He then joins an endless procession of enslaved and fallen soldiers, in which the drunken officers also take part. In the final scene, the action builds to a vision of hell in which one human is raped by another, the individual by the collective conscience – and, in this instance, by the ruthless power of the army.

Staging and instrumentation

Even today a stage performance of Die Soldaten places very great demands on any opera company.[3] In addition to the sixteen singing and ten speaking roles, it requires a one hundred-piece orchestra involving many unusual instruments and pieces of percussion. With its open action, a large amount of scenes which at times overlap one another or run simultaneously (the second scene of act 2, for example, or all of act 4), its multimedia structure incorporating film screens, projectors, tape recordings and loudspeakers, in addition to the sound effects of marching, engines and screams, Die Soldaten –an opera composed using the strict rules of twelve-tone music and presenting a high degree of complexity despite its careful design for the stage– is a uniquely complicated opera, both to stage and to watch.[4]

There are numerous unorthodox roles in this opera, but the most noticeable is the mass usage of banging chairs and tables on the stage floor as percussion instruments. This is carried out by many of the actors with non-singing roles. The composer also calls for 3 cinema screens, 3 film projectors & groups of loudspeakers on the stage and in the auditorium.

The orchestra is composed of: 4 flutes (all 4 doubling on piccolos, flute 3 also doubling on alto flute in G), 3 oboes (doubling also on oboe d'amore, oboe 3 also doubling on cor anglais), 4 clarinets in B-flat (1, 3 & 4 also in A, clarinet 3 also bass clarinet, clarinet 4 also on E-flat clarinet), alto saxophone in E-flat, 3 bassoons (2 & 3 also contrabassoon), 5 horns in F (all 5 also tenor tuba in B-flat, Horn 5 also bass tuba in F), 4 trumpets in C (1 & 2 also trumpets in B-flat & F; 3 & 4 also in B-flat & A and bass trumpet in E-flat), 4 trombones (Trombone 4 contrabass trombone), bass tuba (also contrabass tuba), timpani (also small timpani), percussion (8-9 players), 3 crotales (E-flat, F & G), 3 crotals (high, medium & low), gegenschlagblock (counterstroke block), 3 cymbals, 4 gongs, 4 tamtams, tambourine, 3 bongos, 5 tomtoms, tumba, military drum, 4 small drums, friction drum, 2 large drums (one of them horizontal), 5 triangle (instrument), cow bells, steel sticks, 2 sets of tubular bells, 3 free-running railway rails, whip (instrument), castanets, rumbaholz, 2 wood covers, 3 wood drums, güiro, maracas, vibration pipe, xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, guitar, 2 harps, glockenspiel, celesta, harpsichord, piano, organ (2 players) & strings.[12]

On the stage (6 players):

I. 3 triangles (high register), 3 crotals (high), 2 basins (high), gong (small), tamtam (small), small drum, military drum, 2 bongos, agitating drum, large drum (with cymbals), 3 bass drums, cow bell (high), 2 tube bells, maracas & temple block (high).

II. 3 triangles (middle register), 3 crotals (middle), 2 basins (middle), 2 gongs (medium & large), small drum, 2 Tomtoms, agitating drum, 3 bass drums, cow bell, 6 tube bells, maracas & temple block (middle).

III. 3 triangles (deep register), crotal (deep), 2 basins (deep), gong (large), 2 tamtams (small & large), small drum, tomtom (deep), snare drum, 3 bass drums, cow bell (deep), 4 tube bells, maracas, 3 temple blocks (deep); jazz band: clarinet in B-flat, trumpet in B-flat & double bass (electrically amplified).[12]


The prelude is written to sound as mechanical as possible, with dissonant combinations of instruments colliding against each other rhythmically to portray the mechanised movements of the soldiers on stage. As with Alban Berg's operas Wozzeck and Lulu, the individual scenes are built on strict musical forms; strophes, chaconnes, ricercare, toccatas, etc.[4][13] Musically, the work makes extensive use of twelve-tone technique, and expresses debts to Berg's Wozzeck, such as in the shared name of the principal female role (Marie) and the number of scenes in each opera (15).

Just as Zimmermann allows temporal levels to flow into one another, he also makes use of musical styles from several periods. Jazz rhythms (as in the coffee house scene), J.S. Bach chorales (from the St Matthew Passion), a folksong and the Dies Irae sequence from a plainchant are juxtoposed and assembled in a way which creates a score which seethes with tension.[4][13]

Discography & videography

  • Bernhard Kontarsky, conductor; Nancy Shade, William Cochran; Staatsoper Stuttgart Chorus, Staatsorchester Stuttgart; 1988–1989 (Teldec) CD
  • Bernhard Kontarsky, conductor: Nancy Shade, Mark Munkittrick, Milagro Vargas, Grace Hoffman, Michael Ebbecke, Elsie Maurer, William Cochran, Alois Treml, Gregor Brodocz, Guy Renard, Karl-Friedrich Dürr, Klaus Hirte, Raymond Wolansky, Ursula Koszut, Jerrold van der Schaaf, Johannes Eidloth, Robert Wörle, Helmut Holzapfel; Staatsoper Stuttgart Chorus, Staatsorchester Stuttgart; Harry Kupfer, director; 1989 (Arthaus) DVD
  • Steven Sloane, conductor; Claudia Barainsky, Claudio Otelli, Frode Olsen, Katharina Peetz, Hanna Schwarz, Kathryn Harries, Andreas Becker, Peter Hoare, Robert Wörle, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Adrian Clarke, Robert Bork, Michael Smallwood, Christopher Lemmings, Bernhard Berchtold, Helen Field, Adrian Thompson; Bochumer Symphoniker; David Pountney, director; Robert Innes Hopkins, stage design; DVD of the live performance of the production which premiered on 5 Oct 2006 at the RuhrTriennale, staged at the Jahrhunderthalle, Bochum[14]


  1. ^ Die Soldate at Schott Music (German) "Dedication: Dem Andenken an Hans Rosbaud gewidmet" – Also mentions original choreographer, designer, etc.
  2. ^ Introduction to an article from The Economist "His works include the opera 'Die Soldaten', one of the most important and influential operas written in Germany since the second world war."
  3. ^ a b New National Theatre, Tokyo production notes "A masterpiece of twentieth century opera, famous both for its importance in terms of the idea of opera as “a total work of art” and for how notoriously difficult it is to stage."
  4. ^ a b c d Booklet from ArtHaus Musik's Die Soldaten DVD (Arthaus 100 270)
  5. ^ New National Theatre, Tokyo production notes "Conductor Wakasugi Hiroshi led the premiere performance of this work in Japan as a vocal symphony in 1999."
  6. ^ Avant Garde Project "...this opera was at first declared unplayable, and so in 1963 Zimmermann prepared the Vocal Symphony from a set of linked scenes to demonstrate in concert performance that the music could be played."
  7. ^ John Rockwell, "Boston Opera: Die Soldaten Has US Premiere". The New York Times, 8 February 1982.
  8. ^ Michael Walsh, "The End of a World". Time, 22 February 1982.
  9. ^ Peter G. Davis, "Look Back In Angst". New York, 10 May 1999.
  10. ^ Ian Pace, "First Performances: Die Soldaten in London". Tempo(New Ser.), 200, 41–42 (1997).
  11. ^ Michael Gielen: Unbedingt Musik. Erinnerungen, Insel Verlag, Frankfurt am Main und Leipzig 2005, ISBN 3-458-17272-6, 143.
  12. ^ a b OperOne.de's Die Soldaten page
  13. ^ a b Review by Edward Rothstein, The New York Times (20 October 1991) "Zimmermann even used a formal logic resembling Berg's, writing each scene as a musical form –a chaconne, a ricercar, a toccata, a nocturne– creating an ironic tension between the horrors expressed and the manners of musical forms."
  14. ^ The RuhrTriennale DVD can be found here
  • Viking Opera Guide ed. Holden (Viking, 1993)

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