Radio Drama and Radio Art The Karl Sczuka-Prize turns 60

The pioneer of radio art and name giver of the prize, Karl Sczuka.
The pioneer of radio art and name giver of the prize, Karl Sczuka. | Photo (detail): SWR / Vollrath

The most important award for radio drama and radio art in Germany, the Karl-Sczuka-Prize, was awarded in the autumn of 2015 for the sixtieth time. Time for a look back.

Radio plays and radio art have a long tradition. 23 October 1923 is considered the birth date of German radio, which first made these new forms of acoustic experience possible. On this date the record company Vox broadcast their first “Berlin Radio Hour”. The first German radio play, Zauberei auf dem Sender (i.e. Radio Magic) by Hans Flesch, could be heard scarcely a year later on 24 October 1924 in Frankfurt am Main on Wave 467. From then on progress was swift; in televisionless times radiophonic entertainment was popular. Between 1945 and 1960 there was even a real boom of the medium. Up to 500 radio plays were broadcast annually. Television was still in its infancy, but radio was in vogue and, unlike moving pictures, could be consumed everywhere; after the Second World War numerous cinemas and theatres first had to be rebuilt.

The spectrum of creative possibilities ranged from verbal radio plays to complex sound montages that framed the stories. And with time there also developed the experimental form of radio art, which, for instance, in 1969 reached its first structural apex in Ludwig Harig’s Staatsbegräbnis (i.e. State Funeral). This “radio play” consisted entirely of original sound material, that is, excerpted speeches and sounds, from Konrad Adenauer’s funeral ceremony, which had taken place two years earlier.

A booming medium needed its own awards. In 1950 the unendowed Blind War Veterans’ Radio Drama Prize was already initiated and in 1952 awarded for the first time to Erwin Wickert’s Darfst du die Stunde rufen? (i.e. Are you allowed to call the hour?) This was not to remain the only award. In 1955 Friedrich Bischoff, the then director of the Südwestfunk’s SWR, the predecessor of today’s Südwestrundfunk (SWR), launched the Karl Sczuka Prize. Over six decades this award has developed into the central instance of radiophonic esteem, placing its emphasis, in distinction to the more dramatic-narrative orientation of the Blind War Veterans’ Radio Drama Prize, on the creative acoustic moment of so-called radio art.

The name giver, Karl Sczuka

Karl Sczuka, born in 1900 in Schillersdorf, Upper Silesia, decided to study musicology and composition after hearing the works of Paul Hindemith and Ferrucio Busoni. After the “Silesian Radio Hour” started operation in May 1924 in Breslau, Sczuka became interested in the new medium and received in 1929 his first composition commission for the broadcaster, the suite Musikalisches Bilderbuch einer Stadt (i.e. Musical Picture Book of a City).

As in-house composer and musical consultant, he composed after 1946 over 150 radio plays, including for writers such as Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Günter Eich, André Gide, Max Frisch, Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Walter Jens.

Shortly after Sczuka’s death in 1954, the SWF decided to found a prize in memory of its house composer. “It is to be awarded annually for the best composition in the field of radio play music.” The endowed prize money was initially 1,000 German marks, but has now reached the sum of 12,500 euros, while the advancement award, given since 1991, is endowed with 5,000 euros. The first prize winner in 1955 was Siegfried Franz for his music for the radio play Der Tiger Jussuf (i.e. The Tiger Jussuf) by the poet Günter Eich. In 1955 Sczuka’s successor, Peter Zwetko, was honoured for his music for the radio play adaptation of Jean Giraudox’s The Trojan War Will Not Take Place.

Focus on music and radio art

Initially awarded every two years, with three exceptions the SWF (today the SWR) has awarded the prize since 1970 annually. There have been a number of innovations such as working scholarships and the advancement awards (since 1991), and two amendments, for the prize has had to keep up with its ambitious field. Today the prize is no longer awarded for the music of a radio play, but for the “radio play as radio art”. In the statutes of the Sczuka Prize the criterion of its awarding is both open and specific. Sought is the “best production of a radio work that uses musical materials and structures in acoustic forms of performance”.

This means collage-like, staged, skillfully shaped acoustic rearrangements of reality, sometimes musically or sonically elevated, such as Mauricio Kagel’s Ein Aufnahmezustand (1970) (i.e. Recording Mode) and Nah und Fern – Radiostück für Glocken und Trompeten im Hintergrund (1995) (i.e. Near and Far – a radio play for bells and trumpet in the background), Heiner Goebbel‘s Schliemanns Radio – Hörstück in 12 Protokollen (1992) (i.e. Schliemann’s Radio . Radio Play in 12 Protocols), Hartmut Geerken‘s Hexenring (1994) (i.e. Witch’s Ring) or Thomas Meinecke’s übersetzungen/translations (2008, with David Moufang).

Opening to the outside

If in the first decades only SWF internal productions could be submitted for the prize, in 1966 submissions from throughout the ARD became possible. Since 1972 the Karl Sczuka Prize has been publicly announced and tendered and awarded as part of the Donaueschingen Festival. As an international award for “radio plays as radio art”, it has a unique position that allows it to take account not only of textual elements but also significantly more possibilities of musical, noise-like and associative creations, thus making it a useful additional to the awards of an experimental musical festival such as the Donaueschingen Festival.

It is striking that up to the mid-1980s WDR, SWF/SDR, HR and NDR produced and broadcast most of the prize-winning works. In spite public and international tenders, only a few writers’ productions received awards. This has changed: the broadening of the range of producers – for instance, the increased number of composers and writers as producers of radio plays – is surely not least thanks to the Karl Sczuka Advancement Award.

Thus on its anniversary in October 2015 the experienced author Gerhard Rühm, writer, composer, pianist, actionist, speaker, draughtsman and member of the legendary “Vienna Group” was honored with the Karl Sczuka Prize for Radio Drama and Radio Art (Hugo Wolf und die drei Grazien, letzter Akt, i.e. Hugo Wolf and the Three Graces, Last Act). The Advancement Award again cast a glance at the work of young artists (Entstehung Dunkel [i.e. Emergence of Dark] by Dagmar Kraus and Marc Matter). Such diversity ultimately underlines the fact that radio art, in its full spectrum ranging from music features and radio plays to acoustic media art, enjoys an enduring popularity with writers and composers.