Musical History Alive: A Visit to the IMD Archive

Last month I had the opportunity to conduct one week of research at the archive of the International Music Institute Darmstadt (IMD). The IMD is above all known for organising the Summer Course for New Music that takes place in Darmstadt every two years and that has been an important centre for contemporary music production for 65 years.1 When we think of the work of e.g. Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Cage and Adorno in the 1950s, we can rightly say: Musical history was made in Darmstadt. And this history is thoroughly documented in the IMD’s archive.

Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt (IMD)

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Musical History as a Sonata Form or the End of Music as a Recapitulation of History

Since I read Alexander Demandt’s book Metaphors of History (orig. Metaphern für Geschichte, 1978), I gladly and extensively look for verbal images of musical history. Demandt divides often used metaphors into semantic fields. He differentiates between organic and technical metaphors as well as metaphors of season, theatre and movement. Recently, while I was skimming through music journals of the 1950s, I came across the following idea: Musical history is said to run like a sonata form. Even if this is, strictly speaking, not a metaphor but a simile, a question inevitably comes to mind: How can musical history be conceived as a sonata form? Are we dealing with a double-function form1 in an unforeseen dimension? Continue reading

Just read: Golan Gur’s “Prophetic Music. Schoenberg, Progress and the Avant-garde”

The idea of progress is so influential, Golan Gur writes, since it combines the understanding of the past with the projections about the future. Thus the musicologist names his doctoral dissertation Prophetic Music [orig. Orakelnde Musik] in reference to Karl Popper who speaks about prophetic philosophy in his critical consideration of Hegel’s and Marx’s philosophies of history. In his study published in the series “Musiksoziologie” [“Sociology of Music”] in 2013, Gur wants to show “how the category of progress achieves significance as a source of artistic motivation and legitimisation in the musical thinking of a modern age ranging from Richard Wagner to Pierre Boulez.”1 The focus lies on the idea of progress prevalent in Arnold Schönberg’s aesthetic writings. Furthermore, the author gives much room to its backgrounds in the histories of thought and of ideas: Thus his work reads like a historical discourse on the idea of progress in music, oriented towards and centred on Arnold Schönberg. And yet Gur never considers the idea of musical progress as a given fact but constantly subjects it to a critical review. Continue reading

Curiosities from the 1950s: The denial of twelve-tone technique

Examining sources from the music aesthetic discourse of the post-war period I frequently come across texts which appear peculiar from a present-day perspective: Something for example ist questioned that today is taken for granted. Thus I was surprised to read how Heinrich Schnippering forms the hypothesis in the journal Melos in 1950 that twelve-tone technique does not exist and that it is basically a simplified notation of chromatically enhanced music in the tradition of Romanticism. One might be astonished that this statement dates back to 1950, that is almost 30 years after Arnold Schönberg wrote his first twelve-tone works. This is because twelve-tone compositions – as allegedly “degenerated music” – disappeared from the German music scene and became topical again after 1945: Searching for orientation and new role models after the Second World War serial composing was believed to be a potential point of contact since it was deemed as politically unburdened – in contrast to the German-Austrian Romantic music tradition.

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Hunters for dissonances in the past and present: Why new music is not well received

It is a hundred-year-old question one can still hear today in talks during the interval of subscription concerts: Is the widespread deprecative attitude towards new music basically nothing but the rejection of Beethoven’s late works by his contemporaries? Or do we have to do with an essentially different form of incomprehensibility? When Mathias Spahlinger is booed at the premiere of his cello concerto in Munich’s Herkulessaal (January 2013), do we have to think of Richard Wagner, how he was catcalled for his Tannhäuser in Paris – an opera today’s repertoire is not imaginable without? Continue reading

Just read and reviewed: Martin Iddon’s “New Music at Darmstadt”

Detailed, ostensive and always with a critical view – Martin Iddon’s (University of Leeds) book is written like an exciting history of the beginning of the Darmstadt Summer Course from 1946 to 1961. As the subtitle “Nono, Stockhausen, Cage, and Boulez” suggests this story is told by using the example of selected (central) figures. In the introduction the first years of the Summer Course are historically reviewed: Iddon describes the political and cultural climate during its foundation and considers economic factors as well as the background of the persons involved during the era of National Socialism. In the following main part he examines the individual years with their priorities and special occurrences. This results not only in a comprehensive picture of the Summer Course but also in a lively impression of what topics were discussed and what kind of music was focussed on. These impressions are based on rich source material, e.g. numerous correspondence (especially between Wolfgang Steinecke and various composers), publications and presentations of the participants as well as reviews in the press: How was the “Wunderkonzert” received in 1952? What kind of press coverage did John Cage cause in 1958? All this can be looked up in New Music at Darmstadt.

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Battle of Giants: Wilhelm Furtwängler vs. New Music

The journal Melos sets the scene of numerous exciting aesthetic debates of the postwar period. For example in the second number of 1949 there is at stake nothing less than the struggle for and against new music. The context: Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954), longtime principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and celebrated maestro in sold-out concert halls, gives a harsh verdict on new music in his book Gespräche über Musik (1948, Concerning music): This music must be “considered biologically inferior.”1 Such a statement does not leave cold Heinrich Strobel (1898-1970), head of the music department of the former Südwestfunk (today: SWR) and the Donaueschingen Festival. In Melos he publishes not only passages from Furtwängler’s text but confronts them with a detailed reply. Can a discourse be more tangible? Continue reading

Crisis and Chance. An Introduction to Music in the 1950s

The 1950s present a consistently fascinating object of research – for musicologists, too. After the end of the Second World War there are extensive changes in political, social and cultural respects. In 1949 the simultaneous foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic takes place; the following years are shaped by reconstruction and the Cold War. In the musical life of the new Federal Republic there are considerable changes: Music by composers like Arnold Schönberg, Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith, which was considered degenerated (“entartet”) by the National Socialists, is performed again. Many works from the 1930s and 1940s are presented publically for the very first time. For composers, music critics and broadcasting editors the question arises of what music – after the humanitarian catastrophe and incisive break of the National Socialist dictatorship – will look like in future. Many young composers strive for a total renewal, others search for new possibilities to tie in with tradition, and yet others continue their customary path without any disruption. Thus the music of the 1950s is marked by both continuity and upheaval. Continue reading