Contemporary Music in Postwar Germany Contemporary Music – a New Beginning after 1945

In the aftermath of the cultural caesura wrought by the Nazi regime and World War II, so-called “serious music” underwent a radical renaissance in postwar Germany.

The opening-up of German culture to foreign influences fostered the development of contemporary music, among other things, especially in two hubs of musical activity: Darmstadt and Donaueschingen.

New methods of composition hit postwar Germany

Following upon Anton Webern’s rigorously constructivist compositional technique and Olivier Messiaen’s modal method, a new approach was formulated requiring the parameterization of pitch, duration, volume and timbre as the first step in musical composition. After the initial concentration on this so-called “serial” process of musical composition, which lasted till the early 1960s, composers began tapping a potentially unlimited range of musical material, even what is commonly deemed “noise”.

The hub of this compositional “avant-garde” was Darmstadt, whose establishment of the internationally oriented “Darmstädter Ferienkurse für Neue Musik” (International Summer Courses for New Music) created a discursive counterpart to the performing venue in Donaueschingen. Thanks to Theodor W. Adorno, whom the “Darmstadt community” hailed as the leading theorist of a new musical idiom based on the theory of musical progress, the craft of composition and its musical material were the subjects of ongoing critical analysis, though also of an enduring ideologization.


Mauricio Kagel Audio files (Source www.edition-peters.de)

Pierre Boulez Le marteau sans maître und weitere Werke (Source www.universaledition.com)

French composer Pierre Boulez, Germany’s Karlheinz Stockhausen, the Dutch Karel Goeyvarts, Italian composers Luigi Nono and Luciano Berio, Mauricio Kagel from Argentina, the Greek Iannis Xenakis, Polish composers Witold Lutoslawski and Krzysztof Penderecki, and Hungarian émigré György Ligeti were the leading lights of contemporary music at the time – and remain so to this day. Others, for instance Karl Amadeus Hartmann or Hans Werner Henze, withdrew from the Darmstadt mainstream, which they considered a “strait-jacketing” system, and successfully went entirely their own ways.

Cage and the European avant-garde

The appearance of the American pioneer John Cage in 1958 in Darmstadt, which many consider the turning-point in the European history of contemporary music, occurred at a time when the serial methods had already come under hefty criticism from within the scene and had been surpassed by some of the major composers of the period. Cage’s ideas of chance, indeterminacy, “equal treatment” of all sounds – even noises – as musical, the inclusion of silence, and the “liberation” of the performing artist nevertheless had a seminal impact on European composers and contemporary music in the ensuing years.

John Cage Imaginary Landscape No 1 (Source www.medienkunstnetz.de)

One of the outstanding composers devoted to musical experimentation was the aforementioned Mauricio Kagel, who influenced many contemporary developments and composers with his experimental music theatre. Other forms of experimentation involved audience participation and the use of open-ended forms, graphic methods of notation and improvisational techniques.

Politicization in the 1960s and ’70s

Imbued with socialist ideals and stirred up by the student revolts, some composers felt it was necessary to politicize music, to use it as a means of social emancipation. The chief exponents of this stance in Germany were Hans Werner Henze and Nicolaus A. Huber, as well as Mathias Spahlinger, albeit in a somewhat different register.

Nikolaus A. Huber Seifenoper (Source www.breitkopf.com)
Hans Werner Henze Erlkönig (Source www.sound-library.net)
Wolfgang Rihm In Schrift and other works (Source www.universaledition.com)

In the early 1970s a journalist coined the catchword “the New Simplicity”. His intent was to disparage the return to the sort of genuinely musical techniques, methods and, above all, effects that Hans Jürgen von Bose, Wolfgang Rihm and Manfred Trojahn had re-injected into musical composition.

Their compositions did indeed break taboos by openly declaring their faith in the emotive power of music, a quality that had fallen into disrepute owing to the misuse of music under the Nazi regime.

Helmut Lachenmann Fünf Variationen über ein Thema von Franz Schubert (Source www.breitkopf.com)

The stylistic pluralism that characterized the last quarter of the 20th century gave rise in Germany to György Ligeti’s micropolyphony, Helmut Lachenmann’s musique concrète instrumentale and Walter Zimmermann’s reductionist music as well as many other offshoots of a musical language tending more and more towards “anything goes”.

Artificial sound generation

Beginning in the reconstruction phase after World War II, the creation of a network of electronic studios all over Europe facilitated the exploration and exploitation of synthetic and ambient sounds and noises. The pre-eminent studios in postwar Germany were the electronic music studio of NWDR (later WDR, West German Radio) in Cologne, the Siemens Studio in Munich – neither facility exists today, though the latter is on exhibit at the Deutsches Museum in Munich – and the Süddeutscher Rundfunk (South German Radio) electronic studio in Baden-Baden, out of which emerged what is now the Experimental Studio in Freiburg.

Karlheinz Stockhausen Gesang der Jünglinge (Source www.medienkunstnetz.de)

Key pioneers of electronic sound generation there were Werner Meyer-Eppler, Herbert Eimert, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gottfried Michael Koenig and Josef Anton Riedl.

Using computers to develop sounds and processual musical events made algorithmic composition possible, the generation of whole worlds of artificial sound and the imitation and manipulation of natural ones.

Hanspeter Kyburz Streichquartett (Source www.breitkopf.com)

Current noteworthy proponents of music based on electronic tools and processes include Hanspeter Kyburz, Enno Poppe and Ludger Brümmer. Ludger Brümmer also directs the Institute for Music and Acoustics at the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, an institution that has made an outstanding contribution to the exploration of electronic sound and interdisciplinary interaction between the arts.

But the diversification of notational methods and musical styles has also led to an “interpenetration” of musical art, specifically manifest in the form of “soundart”, which is gaining acceptance. Noteworthy sound-artists are Christina Kubisch, Rolf Julius and the duo Joachim Krebs/Sabine Schäfer, and one of the prominent venues for its presentation is the singuhr Gallery in Berlin.

Influences: Contemporary music in the age of globalization

Widespread migration and globalization are increasingly bringing in train an exchange of musical conceptions, a phenomenon which, at best, might be encapsulated in the buzzword “transculturalism”. The influences interweaving and interacting here are so multifarious as to defy assessment for the time being. “Transculturalism” in this context means an amalgamation of Western and non-Western musical traditions that is free from relations of dominance. Major exponents of this form of music are Sandeep Bhagwati, Chaya Cernowin, Samir Odeh-Tamimi, Klaus-Hinrich Stahmer and Dieter Mack.