Modern and Contemporary Music in Germany up to 1945
Contemporary Music up to 1945: From Dew departures to a Long Disruption

Following a suggestion of the important German music historian, Carl Dahlhaus, it seems wise to distinguish between a turn-of-the-century modernism, which lasted from the 1880s to 1910, and the development of contemporary music in several stages, beginning in 1910.

On the basis of a thoroughly fascinating body of work, we can in fact speak of an “epoch between epochs” beginning around 1900, which on the one hand was the last flourishing of Romantic music, and on the other hand formulated in many ways a crisis that already bore within itself the seeds of the future. The two relevant terms for the period, fin de siècle in French and Moderne in German, suggest this characteristic ambivalence, suggesting both an end and a new beginning.

An epoch between the epochs

As did no other musical work, Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, which was first performed in Munich in 1865, left its stamp on the development of German music and the continuing history of composition far into the twentieth century. In the course of this development, the treatment of the traditional parameters of composition came to a head, particularly in respect to harmonic organisation: the sonic saturation of the works of modern composers with dissonances reached the point at which the functional ties of a music essentially resting on the established major-minor scale were placed more and more in question. What is known as the “Second Vienesse School” spoke in this connection of “extended” and finally of “floating” tonal relationships, which increasingly relativised imposed links to underlying harmonic centres.
Gustav Mahler Sinfonie Nr. 9 (Hörproben Ausschnitte

As representative works of this decisive period in the history of composition we may cite, in Germany, Max Reger’s String Quartet in D minor, op. 74 (1903) and Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905); in Austria, Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1910) and Arnold Schönberg’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902); and corresponding works in Russia by Alexander Skrijabin or (already in the manner of rebellious refusal) in France by Erik Satie. The exhaustion of the possibilities of composition within the context of functionally structured tonalities particularly spurred the will to innovation in various composers. They sought a way out of this dead-end through a “New Music”.

The Second Viennese School – pioneers of atonal music

The history of contemporary music undoubtedly begins in 1910 and develops in two essential steps, until the catastrophic eruption of totalitarian systems in the East and the West, which then come to a violent and abrupt end.

The final manifestations of the first, “new departures” phase lasted into the 1920s and overlapped with a second phase of consolidation beginning about that time. The first phase consisted in a re-orientation of nearly all essential parameters of composition, and was a radical and cogent consequence of the crisis within end-of-the-century modernism.

Arnold Schönberg Klavierstücke op.11 und weitere Werke (Hörprobe

It was the Second Viennese School that, in 1910, took the at least externally drastic step of using a “free atonality” which was highly shocking to the musical public. As a compelling consequence of the dissolution of harmonic tonality, the early works of the school took up a non-thematic compositional technique – for example, in Arnold Schönberg’s Klavierstücke, op. 11 (1909), op. 11/3, his solo play Erwartung (Expectation), op. 17 (1909) and Anton Webern’s instrumental Miniatures for Violin and Piano, op. 7 (1910) and Miniatures for Cello and Piano, op. 11 (1914). Thus the major compositional parameters were divested of their traditional musical language and the listening habits of even trained listeners initially confronted by a difficult task. This came to expression not least in numerous concert scandals, both great and small, such as that in 1913 at the Wiener Musikverein during a performance of the orchestra works of the Second Viennese School.

“Le sacre du printemps” and other scandals

Igor Strawinsky Sacre du Printemps (Hörprobe

Following similar pioneer work of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel in a strikingly relaxed harmonic tonal technique, scandal also erupted in the French musical world. In 1913, at the premier of his ballet Le sacre du printemps, the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky unleashed archaic-ritualistic rhythms whose hitherto unimagined irregularities and vehement beats shocked even the cosmopolitan public of Paris, the “capital of the nineteenth century”, as Walter Benjamin had called it.

Edgar Varèse Ionisation (Hörprobe

A corresponding form of music may be seen in the folkloric and archaising break-through works of Béla Bartók (for example, Allegro barbaro Sz. 49, of 1911, or The Miraculous Mandarin of 1918/19, which had a scandalous premier in Cologne), or some time later in the acoustic compositions of Edgar Varèse, such as Amériques (1918–21/27), or the first percussion ensemble piece in musical history, Ionisation (1929–1931).

From new departures to consolidation

The breakthrough energies of this first phase of the contemporary music of the twentieth century could hardly have been surpassed in vehemence and disturbing power. The focal places of the avant-garde were Paris of the fin de siècle and Vienna around 1910. In the 1920s the reckless radicality of this spirit finally also emerged in Berlin, which developed into a third centre. Here the uninhibitedly dissonant compositions of Paul Hindemith ensured the occurrence of similar scandals, particularly because of the matter-of-course inclusion of elements from entertainment and dance music and jazz that rhythmically combined with wild, nearly machine-like movements (as, for example, in his Klaviersuite,1922).

In the same period, however, there also emerged the first important tendencies towards consolidation, which sought to bring the liberating and rebellious breakthrough energies into a new aesthetic coherence or even a secure form. The phase of independence and freedom, probably unique in musical history (as Theodor W. Adorno maintained with respect to Viennese atonality), had to be followed by a stablisation of the rhythmic-tonal innovations which ultimately also looked to the future.

This second phase became noticeable in Stravinsky’s neo-classical turn, initially in his ballet Pulcinella (1919/20), which was to shape the compositional style of the great Russian musician for decades to come, well into his American exile. The adaptation of stylistic and formal elements from the past, which were subjected to a process of both alienation and revaluation, exercised an international attraction that has continued to influence contemporary forms of music.

Arnold Schönberg and Paul Hindemith

The first step towards consolidation of contemporary music was followed by a no less momentous second one: in 1921, in the Viennese suburb of Mödling, Schönberg unveiled the “technique of composition with twelve tones related only to each other”. In contrast to the neo-classical style, dodecaphony developed a system of structural rules that was further combined with classical strategies of consolidation, as in many of Schönberg’s works of the 1920s (Serenade, op. 24, 1920–23 or Klaviersuite, op. 25, 1921–1923). The function of this new technique of composition was twofold: on the one hand, it was conceived as a replacement for the organisational forms of the tonal system, and on the other hand its application was again to enable planned large-scale formal procedures.

Paul Hindemith’s efforts at consolidation went a step further: in his “The Craft of Musical Composition” (Unterweisung im Tonsatz, 1937/39) he sought a fundamental and new evaluation of all possible forms of harmony, and so aspired to a new, universal harmonic system. In the 1920s, his compositions already evinced a tendency to the New Objectivity, with which Hindemith soon combined classical aspects, in particular Baroque models. His Ludus tonalis for piano (1942), modelled on Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, affords a late and prototypical example of this fusion of new harmonic doctrine, objectivist demands and historical ties.

Paul Hindemith Ludus tonalis, Klaviersuite 1922 (Hörprobe
Arnold Schönberg Serenade op. 24 und weitere Werke (Hörprobe

Naturally, both the breakthrough energies of the first phase and the consolidation efforts of the second phase of contemporary music were widespread and taken up by many composers besides the heroes. In Vienna, Schönberg assembled a distinguished circle of pupils, including, in addition to Anton Webern and Alban Berg, a number of young composers such as Hanns Eisler, who after World War II became the major composer in the German Democratic Republic. In Berlin, Stefan Wolpe developed a politically motivated expressionism, and Viktor Ullmann a tense rhythmic-motoric style (in 1944 Ullmann was murdered in the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau). In Paris, along with Ravel’s virtuoso eclectic art of composition, the “Groupe des Six” round Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud soon developed a playful, “distanced” classicism.

Catastrophe and break: National Socialism and Stalinism

The natural development of this consolidation was brought to an abrupt halt by the barbarism of the Nazi terror and Stalinism, so that by the mid-1930s at the latest, and decidedly earlier within the Soviet Union, the situation of contemporary music, was completely transformed.

On the one hand, under the rubric of “degenerate”, the political enemies of contemporary music scattered or annihilated its representatives. This resulted in the emigration of nearly all its pioneers (we may think here of Schönberg, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bartók and Varèse) or the arrest and murder particularly of its Jewish exponents. The favoured land of immigration was the United States, where in the meantime Charles Ives and Henry Cowell had found their own way to a contemporary music freed from the burden of tradition.

On the other hand, there arose a generation of younger composers largely oriented to the backlog of late Romanticism, whose representatives (for example, Richard Strauss and Hans Pfitzner) become involved with the regime each in his different way and committed themselves, sometimes well-meaningly, sometimes emphatically, to the aesthetic maxims of National Socialism. Another example is Richard Trunk, who joined the Nazi Party in 1931 and three years later became the Director of the Munich Music Conservatory, which he remained until the end of the war. Under his supervision, the Conservatory offered its services to the regime; Trunk composed himself a musical cycle for Hitler entitled Feier der neuen Front, op. 65 (i.e., Celebration of the New Front). Other younger composers, working in the style of a moderate modernism, attempted to find at least some arrangement with the Nazis, as, for example, Carl Orff and Werner Egk. Yet other artists chose instead an “inner emigration”, which took place far from the events of musical life in a self-imposed solitude and exclusion; one of these was the symphonic composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann, who after the war spoke up for the revival and re-establishment of contemporary music.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann Concerto funebre (Hörprobe

This was indeed the legacy of the civilisational catastrophe to contemporary music after 1945: its place and task had to be re-discovered and developed again at centres especially established for this purpose such as at Darmstadt, or cult sites such as Donaueschingen, or at radio broadcasting stations.