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About this Piece

Composed: 1954
Length: c. 14 minutes
Orchestration: flute (= piccolo), oboe (= English horn), jazz clarinet, 3 alto saxophones, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, bassoon, horn, 3 jazz trumpets, jazz trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion, guitar, harp, piano (= Hammond organ or xylophone), strings, and solo trumpet
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 25, 2000, Håkan Hardenberger, soloist, with Ingo Metzmacher conducting (West Coast premiere)

As an elder member among the generation of postwar composers, Bernd Alois Zimmermann was self-conscious about his age vis-à-vis the young radicals who were determined to toss out the past and start with a blank slate. Like Berio, Zimmermann was temperamentally incapable of doctrinaire adherence to the serialist avant-garde and foreshadowed the postmodern mixing of styles.

Zimmermann’s openness resulted in a pluralistic outlook, setting ideology aside to draw on what some pundits considered incompatible stylistic approaches, mixing Stravinsky’s neoclassicism and twelve-note atonality with the popular idiom of jazz. The use of musical quotations also became a hallmark of Zimmermann’s musical voice. Nobody knows de trouble I see applies these compositional strategies to the concerto format. His incorporation of the familiar African-American spiritual tune as a key element is integral to the score’s musical logic; at the same time, it’s a political gesture intended as a protest against what Zimmermann perceived as the “racial hatred” he saw poisoning society.

The Concerto unfolds as a single movement drawing on three formal sources, identified by the composer as the chorale prelude (using the spiritual as a “cantus firmus”), “free variation form,” and “jazz modified as concert music.” Zimmermann elaborates his thematic material from a serial tone row, but its strong implications of C-minor tonality allow for a natural-sounding integration of the spiritual tune, first hinted at in alto sax.

The orchestration also blends idioms: thickets of dense chromatic harmony brush up against big band brass and a battery of percussion, while the Hammond organ suddenly whisks us into a gospel section at church. The soloist meanwhile maintains an emotionally compelling presence, lofting eloquently in a series of final variations on the tune before fading out with a wistful sense of the good fight not yet won.