Concert and Festival Scene
Experiencing Contemporary Music

Over the past few decades, contemporary music has established itself in Germany almost as a matter of course – from Kiel to Donaueschingen, from Saarbrücken to Dresden.

Hardly any other country devotes such a lively and diverse panoply of concerts and festivals to contemporary music, ranging in scope from big international events to small-scale workshops set up by local initiatives.

The festival paradigm: Darmstadt and Donaueschingen

The “Darmstädter Ferienkurse für Neue Musik” (International Summer Courses for New Music) run by the Darmstadt International Music Institute (IMD) since 1946, while initially conceived as a locus of training and placement for musicians and composers, was nonetheless widely perceived as a music festival. For a long time Darmstadt retained considerable influence in defining modern music. It was here that, in the 1950s, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez and Luigi Nono locked the avant-garde into the serial method of composition. It was here that, in 1958, John Cage shocked European composers with his anarchic aesthetic. And it was here in Darmstadt as well that the sometimes bitter struggles between the “New Simplicity” and the “New Complexity” were waged in the 1970s. To this day the summer school, now held every other year, remains a lively forum for the up-and-coming generation of young musicmakers that has anticipated contemporary music trends time and again.

Donaueschingen is quite different: not only has it always been an out-and-out public festival, but it was nurturing contemporary music long before the caesura of the year 1945. The Donaueschinger Kammermusikaufführungen zur Förderung zeitgenössischer Tonkunst (“Donaueschingen Chamber Music Performances for the Advancement of Contemporary Musical Art”) was held under the auspices of the prince of Fürstenberg as far back as 1921, when Paul Hindemith’s String Quartet opus 16 was premiered there. Since 1950 Südwestrundfunk (Southwest Broadcasting, SWR – previously SWF) has been running the event, focussing mainly on orchestral works that sound the traditional apparatus out on its aptitude for the avant-garde. With its impressive lineup and remarkable popular appeal, Donaueschingen ranks to this day as the world’s leading contemporary music festival.

Broadcaster patronage

German public broadcasting corporations have always attached special importance to contemporary music. They commission pieces, make the most of superbly trained ensembles and make contemporary music accessible to the general public through radio broadcasts.

After SWR took the helm in Donaueschingen, many other broadcasters followed suit. Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) in 1951 launched a concert series called Musik der Zeit (“Music of the Times”) in Cologne and has staunchly supported contemporary music ever since, playing a leading role from 1968 on at the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik (New Chamber Music Festival in Witten), probably the most important contemporary music festival after Donaueschingen. With its focus on small formations, Witten thrives on its high standards of composition and interpretation. This festival has pioneered major developments in the history of musical genres, including the renaissance of the string quartet, that would not have been conceivable without its advocacy.

Other broadcasters opted for concert series rather than festivals, above all Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR, Bavarian Broadcasting), which called the Munich musica viva into being as early as 1945. Directed by Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Wolfgang Fortner and Udo Zimmermann, this concert series is committed to premieres and revivals of current works, chiefly orchestral pieces as well as “studio concert”-style chamber music of an experimental cast. 2008 saw a first-ever overt attempt to interweave aesthetic concepts into the musica viva festival.

Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR, North German Broadcasting) imbued its concert series das neue werk, first held in 1951, with a similar profile. To this day das neue werk presents a vast array of contemporary music, foregrounding modern classics and actively espousing György Ligeti, among others. Saarländischer Rundfunk (SR, Saarland Broadcasting) and Hessischer Rundfunk (HR, Hessian Broadcasting) followed suit with Musik im 20. Jahrhundert (“20th-Century Music”) and the Forum Neue Musik (“New Music Forum”), first held in 1970 and 1989 respectively. An unusual alliance formed in Berlin in 1999 when Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (RBB) and Deutschlandradio Kultur joined forces to produce “Ultraschall”. This 10-day festival now boasts a compelling lineup of composer profiles and high-calibre revivals of contemporary works.

Federal, state and university patronage

Besides public broadcasters, Germany’s Federal Government and municipalities also render outstanding services to contemporary music and confer a distinctive image on the urban venues selected for contemporary music events. In Berlin, Inventionen has been attracting notice since 1982 with its creative conceptual programming. The upshot of collaboration between the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) artists programme and the Electronic Studio at Berlin’s Technical University (TU), Inventionen naturally features DAAD visiting composers and artists, often of a highly experimental bent, and electro-acoustic works from the TU studio.

Likewise of signal importance are two federally funded events in Berlin, MaerzMusik and Musikfest. While Musikfest foregrounds “moderately modern” music, MaerzMusik (“Music in March” Contemporary Music Festival) is committed to cross-genre experimentation, billing not only orchestral and ensemble works, but all manner of concertante, theatrical and installation-based numbers – with abundant forays into pop culture, jazz and world music. The festival’s contours are reinforced by spotlighting individual countries all the way from the Baltic to Brazil and conceptual topographies like “The Desert” or “Collecting”. In 2002 MaerzMusik took the place of the Musik-Biennale, an erstwhile showcase for avant-garde music in East Berlin that was taken over by the Berlin Festspiele after German reunification.

The Saxon capital has also been funding a festival of its own since 1987. The Dresdner Tage der zeitgenössischen Musik (Dresden Contemporary Music Festival) always approaches avant-garde music from a specific angle: “Music and City” or “Music and Film” are among the past themes it has explored not only musically, but also within the framework of a colloquium. The Dresdner Zentrum für zeitgenössische Musik (Dresden Center for Contemporary Music), which runs the event, is now part of the Europäisches Zentrum der Künste Hellerau (European Arts Center in Hellerau).

The ECLAT festival in Stuttgart has gained nationwide renown since it debuted in 1980. It takes a transdisciplinary approach to the music of our day and gives the young generation of aspiring artists a hearing. ECLAT is part of the Stuttgart society Musik der Jahrhunderte (“Music of the Centuries”), which also holds a series of modern music concerts.

The MusikTriennale in Cologne, started up by the City and its philharmonic orchestra in 1997, has enjoyed resounding success by bringing together various institutions of the one-time “capital of contemporary music” and by top-billing big orchestras and renowned artists to interpret 20th- and 21st-century music, while taking on works of the Romantic tradition as well. Cologne attracted considerable notice for its large-scale retrospectives on the oeuvre of Luigi Nono in 2004 and Luciano Berio in 2007.

The Munich Biennale, founded on the initiative of Hans Werner Henze, focuses entirely on contemporary music theatre. This biennial has been probing opera’s potential since 1988: director Peter Ruzicka has won over many a young composer to the lure of opera, including in recent years Mark André, Jörg Widmann, Enno Poppe, Klaus Lang and Carola Bauckholt.

Grass-roots music

Alongside big-name festivals with a nationwide pull, just about every city in Germany organizes smaller-scale festivals and concert series too, many of which survive on the unflagging commitment of their organizers and the creative use of what are often shoestring budgets. These events range from the Ostseebiennale für Klangkunst (“Baltic Sea Soundart Biennial”) to neue musik im stadthaus (“New Music in the Town Hall”) in Ulm, from chiffren in Kiel to the Weingartener Tagen für Neue Musik (Weingarten New Music Festival), from Brücken (“Bridges”) in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania to Utopie jetzt! (“Utopia Now!”) in Mülheim.

And this is where the Netzwerk Neue Musik (Contemporary Music Network) of the Bundeskulturstiftung (Federal Cultural Foundation) comes in, exhorting regional associations to work together and providing “good offices” for the whole contemporary music scene. From 2007 to 2012, the Network will be funding 15 projects nationwide that are pursuing new angles and helping contemporary music gain a wider following. The Network has spawned the Freiburg MehrKlang (“Harmony”) and Augsburg Mehr Musik! (“More Music!”) festivals, and the concert series Alles im Fluss (“Everything in Flux”) in Passau and Musik 21 Niedersachsen (“Music 21 Lower Saxony”).

Funding and social acceptance

The vast and prodigious array of contemporary music events in Germany is extraordinary and, especially for the audience, enriching. Contemporary music is perceived nowadays as a matter of course, something that doesn’t put off the subscription audience or attendees of youth and family concerts. People no longer listen to contemporary music as a mere necessity, but – albeit still as something of an aesthetic curio – with delight and gusto. Even festivals not primarily about contemporary music, like the Beethovenfest Bonn, the Düsseldorfer Altstadtherbst (“Düsseldorf Old Town Autumn”), the Klavierfestival Ruhr (Ruhr Piano Festival) or the Schleswig-Holstein Musikfestival, keep a slot reserved for contemporary music in their programmes.

The widespread funding that has reached its apogee, for the time present, in the disbursal of 12 million Euros all told through the Netzwerk Neue Musik reflects this social awareness. At the same time, however, the arts are not proof against cost-cutting measures, which is why, time and again, festivals have to be discontinued or – as with the Berlin Inventionen in recent years – drastically downsized. Particularly in the wake of the popularization of the airwaves, German radio broadcasters seem to be scaling back their commitments. Radio Bremen stopped holding its renowned pro musica nova biennial in the year 2000, RBB bid farewell to its Musik der Gegenwart contemporary music series in 2005, and SWR withdrew from the ECLAT festival that same year.