German Musical Life: Patterns of Conservatism and Experiment



Music is the Germans’ favorite art, and their approach to it has never been more aptly put than in the motto once adorning one of their most famous concert halls: “Res severa veruni gaud turn” (“Serious mailers are the real fun”). The hall, the old Gewandhaus in Leipzig, has shared the fate of most German concert halls and opera houses: it was destroyed in World War II. Yet the spirit of its inscription lives on. The Germans consume serious and sternly symphonic music as passionately as the Italians love the sweet art of bel canto. Since the nineteenth century, since Schopenhauer, Wagner, and Nietzsche, knowledge and appreciation of music have been considered prime cultural factors in Germany; some musical training is still a required part of higher education.

Before 1933, musical Germany stood open to the world. Diversity and cosmopolitan tolerance were the rule; perfection was the only yardstick. Under Hitler the valuable Jewish element departed and culture was made “self-sufficient,” i.e., excluded from international competition. The drastic consequences did not show in full until the gates to the world were reopened in 1945. Even now Germany has not made up her loss of substance in all fields of music; even now her younger generation of instrumentalists cannot meet the requirements of the world market.

Germany publicly supports today some seventy year-round opera houses — more than exist in all the rest of the world. About a dozen of these are first-class theaters, half of them well known abroad, where tours have won them wide recognition. Their styles and techniques of performance vary enormously, and their repertories run the gamut from classic and romantic opera to the experiments of our time, depending on the artistic leanings of the men in charge. An institution such as the Munich State Opera holds fast to its traditions of cultivating Wagner and Richard Strauss, along with Mozart, and of collecting great voices. (In Munich the old Nationaltheater was destroyed, but the Prinzregentent heater has been preserved.) At the Hamburg State Opera, on the other hand, a moderninclined director, Dr. Günter Rennert, has used the postwar decade to develop a very modern repertory: Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes was first performed there in a makeshift theater seating six hundred, and the opening week of the new house in October 1955 featured a work as daring as Ernst Krenek’s Pallas Athena Weeps.

Heinz Tietjen, head of the West Berlin City Opera until 1954, combined due attention to Wagnerian music-drama with a broad policy of moderate modernism. He successfully staged Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake, Werner Egk’s Circe and his Abraxas ballet, and overcame the widespread opposition to the social criticism contained in Boris Blacher’s Prussian Fairy Tale.

East Berlin has two separate music theaters, the State Opera and the Comic Opera. Tradition as well as the cultural policies of the Soviet occupying power have kept the State Opera repertory conservative, though Alban Berg’s Wozzeck was brilliantly staged there in December 1955 to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of its first performance. The Comic Opera under Walter Felsenstein, one of Germany’s outstanding operatic directors, presents whatever does not belong to “grand opera,” from Mozart’s Magic Flute to Carl Orff’s The Glever One, from Weber’s Freischütz to Richard Mohaupt’s Hostess of Pinsk, from Rossini’s Barber to Richard Strauss’s The Silent Woman, from Offenbach’s Orpheus to Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Some Felsenstein productions — of Leoʂ Janáçek’s Sly Fox, for instance—are model achievements.

In the West modern operas have been staged with distinction in Cologne and Essen, while Stuttgart under its conductor Ferdinand Leitner has become a showcase of dramatic voices. As such it has worked closely with the Bayreuth Festival: Wieland Wagner, the artistic guiding spirit of Bayreuth, presents his frequently sensational productions both there and in Stuttgart. Some theaters bear the imprint of a conductor’s personality — Georg Solti’s in Frankfurt, Eugen Szenkar’s in Düsseldorf, and until recently, Hermann Abendroth’s in Weimar. Others maintain or revive such local traditions as the Handel renaissance in Halle. Many cities — Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Essen, Mannheim, Kassel, East Berlin — have built large new opera houses on the ruins of their old ones.

Yet, however outwardly promising the state of German opera may seem, inwardly it is critical. The very success abroad of its singers, conductors, and directors has brought a discontinuity to their work that cannot but affect the ensemble spirit and the growth of the repertory. Policy today is often dictated by stars according to their schedules. If Herr Tristan — long under guest contract only — is home in March, Fräulein Isolde flies to Buenos Aires or San Francisco; when she is in the country, Tristan has a recording date in London.


CONCERT life is centered more and more in the great orchestras and their conductors. Chamber music and solo concerts, once dominant, are now rare; only the large choral organizations are still going strong, chiefly in the song-loving Rhenish and South German cities. In Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Leipzig, Cologne, and Frankfurt the traditional philharmonic subscription concerts go on virtually unchanged. The concert cycles of the Berlin Philharmonic, for example, run from September to May or June on a basis of Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and Tchaikovsky, with some Schubert, Schumann, Haydn, Mozart, Bach, and Richard Strauss thrown in as accessories. More modern works are cautiously interspersed, un requested by the subscribers. Under Herbert von Karajan, Wilhelm Furtwängler’s successor at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic, the repertory remained almost the same, and the other German “traditional orchestras” — Hamburg, for instance, under Joseph Keilberth’s leadership, or Cologne, where young Gunther Wand cultivates the tradition of the Gürzcnieh concerts—follow an almost identical pattern.

Since 1945, however, broadcasting has led to the creation of new symphony orchestras that offer stiff competition to the old ones. Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt in Hamburg, Hans Rosbaud in Baden-Baden, Eugen Jochum in Munich, Hans Müller-Kray in Stuttgart, and others in Cologne, Frankfurt, Berlin, Leipzig, are now leading such orchestras which aim at — and occasionally achieve — the American ideal of technical perfection. In Baden-Baden, Cologne, and Munich, above all, they have become important exponents of modern music. The two most active institutions dedicated to contemporary music, Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Musica Viva in Munich and Dr. Herbert Hübner’s Das neue werk in Hamburg, would be unthinkable without the financial backing of the radio stations and the co-operation of their new orchestras. The avant-garde music festivals held in Donaueschingen similarly depend on the Baden-Baden Radio, its orchestra, and its musical director. Dr. Heinrich Strobel.

Besides the orchestras, the radio choirs and chamber choirs also have become precision instruments for the presentation of very modern and very ancient music. With classicism and especially romanticism — i.e. all music written between 1750 and 1900 —turning into a private preserve of the conservative audience and its orchestras and choirs, the interest of new listeners has focused on preclassicism and modernism. Thus we have today two kinds of audiences for serious music, aside from the special audience for jazz which is the same the world over.

In 1949 Germany buried Richard Strauss and Hans Pfitzner, the two great exponents of her late romanticism. Strauss, the last German operatic master of world-wide importance, was also the only contemporary admitted to the programs of conservative concert life. Paul Hindemith, approaching him in international renown, had left Germany in 1937 and moved to the United States in 1940. When the Nazi ban on his music was lifted in 1945, his works soon topped the performance figures of modern music; but Hindemith himself returned only as a guest. Like Thomas Mann, he preferred to make his home in Switzerland.

Of the moderns whose work dates back to about 1920, a few survived the Hitler era in Germany. Philipp Jarnach, a leading member of Ferruccio Busoni’s school which also includes Wladimir Vogel and Kurt Weill, has withdrawn to the ivory tower of the Hamburg Academy of Music. His few works — a number of songs and a string quartet movement — combine romantic beauty with classic form. Heinz Tiessen lives in Berlin; his songs, piano pieces, and chamber music works continue a tempered expressionism whose historic significance will be as obvious to future generations as that of Jarnach’s romantic classicism.

Two major figures represent the conservative attitude in the realm of church music: the Reger pupil Josef Haas of Munich, equally successful with his Catholic oratorio Saint Elizabeth and with his folk operas Tobias Wunderlich and Job’s Wedding; and the Rhinelander Ernst Pepping, who lives now in Berlin and independently carries on the great Protestant tradition in his Passion According to Saint Matthew.

A postwar discovery is Karl Amadeus Hartmann of Munich, born in 1905 and successful since 1946. His style freely follows the German expressionist line; his music, based on that of Mahler, on Schönberg’s middle period, and on Alban Berg, has recently acquired elements of Stravinsky’s concerto manner and of the “variable metrics” developed by Boris Blacher. Hartmann, alone among the progressive composers, has striven in six major works for a symphonic style and symphonic forms; but his chamber music and his opera The Youth of Simplicius Simplicissimus also mark him as an imaginative exponent of a polyphonic style not bound by tonality.

The successors of Bruckner have produced an organ master and eminent symphonist: Johann Nepomuk David of Stuttgart. A genuine traditionalist, he has developed an archaic constructivism based upon the old church scales and using thematic inversion, augmentation, and diminution as effectively as his twelve-tone antagonists.


THE change in present style from the period between the two wars shows in the symphonic thinking of the new German composers. If it was then customary to write in the spirit of the baroque concerto grosso — on one theme, without development, by contrasts — the trend has now been reversed and the symphonic ideal has come back to the fore. Mahler and Bruckner are the signposts, not Corelli or Handel. The contributors to the symphonic renaissance in this sense include so progressive a composer as Wolfgang Fortner as well as younger men like H. W . Henze and Giselher Klebe.

Fortner, one of the most interesting figures of the generation now in its fifties, clearly embodies the evolution of German music from 1930 to 1950. Under Hitler he wrote in Hindemith’s manner, like many progressives; after 1945 his style remained at first a mixture of Hindemith’s and Stravinsky’s types of neo-classicism. In 1947 he re-encountered the works of Schónberg, Alban Berg, and Anton von Webern, and revised his composing technique and musical style. In this revision the bulk of the younger German composers took part; their show place is t the Internationale Ferienkurse für neue Musik, held since 1946 by Dr. Wolfgang Steinecke at the Hessian castle of Kranichstein, and later at the former Isadora Duncan school of Marienhbhe near Darmstadt. There the young people heard their first works of the Schönberg school. In 1948 René Leibowitz came to Darmstadt to proclaim the message of uncompromising dodecaphony — of “serial” composition in series of twelve tones, none of which is repeated, and whose sequence varies only according to the three possibilities of ordering: inversion, recurrence, and retrograde inversion. Influential lecturers at Darmstadt, besides Leibowitz, were Ernst; Krenek, Edgar Varèse, Olivier Messiaen, and Alois Hába.

Shortly before his shift toward the twelve-tone technique Fortner had written a symphony of imposing formal conception and expressive power, with a fourth movement climaxed by highly dissonant fugues. This apocalyptic work was ascribed by Fortner himself to French existentialist influences. Later important dodecaphonic works of his were the B-A-C-H Fantasy, the Cello Sonata — with interesting links to the medieval music of Guillaume de Machault, — and the White Rose ballet based upon Oscar Wilde’s Birthday of the Infanta, Operatic fragments after Lorca’s Blood. Wedding also show Fortner’s expressive language at its best.

Fortner teaches composition in Detmold, and his influence is probably exceeded only by that of the head of the Berlin Academy of Music, Boris Blacher. Born in 1903, Blacher is now one of Germany’s most original and prolific composers. Of his recent orchestral works the most brilliant and successful are the Paganini Variations on the famous, often varied A-minor theme; but his dry, unadorned personal style shows up even better in his two piano concertos. The second uses Blacher’s own “variable meters.” In this new metric plan the classic time pattern has been replaced by continual time changes — not, however, employed irrationally (as in Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps, in Bartók’s Bulgarian Rhythms, or by Messiaen) but after arithmetical models. Thus one of Blacher’s Ornaments begins with the expanding time sequence: 2/8, 3/8, 4/8, 5/8, (6/8, 7/8, 8/8, 9/8, which is followed by the contracting one: 8/8, 7/8, 6/8, 5/8, etc. Blacher also goes in for twelve-tone composing, as in his ballets Lysistrata, Hamlet, and The Moor of Venice.

Opera, at which composers of all generations labor with slight success, has been most strongly affected by the modern evolution. Since the classic and romantic periods European musical style has become more and more instrumental, and since the beginning of the twentieth century, instrumentally polyphonic. Today you can no more compose a naïvely melodious vocal opera than a rhetorical drama aɑ la Wagner, Pfitzner, or Strauss. The very form and spirit of opera have been called in question. Werner Egk (born in 1901) is one of the most successful of the older composers, but in 1948 his Cires did not come up to his previous Peer Gynt, and in 1955, when his Irish Legend was produced in Salzburg, it proved to be a musical disappointment.

The followers of Carl Orff constitute a large sect in the realm of German dramatic music. This inventive Bavarian dramatist plans for a mysticcultistic revival of the musical stage. His Antigone, using the Sophoclean theme in Tried rich Hölderlin’s somber translation, is the representative work of the school. It makes of music a mere accessory to dramatic effect, something like a painted stage prop. There are exotic elements in Orff’s deliberately infantile musical language; there is monotonous recitative; there is an orchestra for a rhythmic and dynamic accompaniment, with several harps, pianos, xylophones, and a large percussion section. They seem intended to demonstrate how far the drama outweighs every other artistic expression. It is only in the narrow framework of scenic effect that Orff can be credited with musical creative power; all of his works are useful objects of the stage setting, musically effective wherever there is a naïve reaction to sensual impressions.

Boris Blacher, whose taste and composing skill are combined with a strong sense of the dramatic, tries to revitalize the allegedly exhausted operatic form by introducing ballet and oratorio-style modifications. His most successful stage work — aside from the much older Princess Tarakanova — was the ballet opera, Prussian Fairy Tale, in which he used the grotesque theme of The Captain of Kopenick to try out a new, highly individual language along lines somewhere between Offenbach and Stravinsky.

Hartmann’s Youth of Simplicius Simplicissimus came from the epic theater in the spirit of Bertolt Brecht. Brecht himself joined with the composer Taul Dessau in producing The Trial of Lucullus at the East Berlin State Opera in 1951: a mixture of opera and play, employing aria, chorus, spoken dialogue with musical accompaniment, and recitative in a functional manner to intensify and accentuate moments of action.


To THE generation born after 1920, the twelvetone law became a similar collective experience to the young painters’ abstraction from the objective world. From about 1948 on, composition turned away from all neo-classicist tendencies toward a formal analytic complex whose main attraction was the new “serial” ordering of all elements of music. The eclipse of tonality must be accepted as inevitable, a historic fact, despite attempts to circumvent it. In place of tonality we either have old and exotic scales or we have “series,” new forms established individually for each work. Series are primarily melodic figures, tone sequences that are maintained throughout a composition; but the same fixation can be applied to rhythms, to dynamic marks, to timbres. There are rhythmic series in the medieval ars nova, and dynamic and timbre “series” in Anton von Webern’s late works.

Today this serial thinking kindles the imagination of many young composers. Three may be mentioned as typical: Hans Werner Henze, Giselher Klebe, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. All three, however different their eventual directions, tend to make composing totally fixed and methodical.

Henze, born in 1925 in Westphalia and a student of Fortner and Leibowitz, is the richest artistic personality of the trio, a composer as facile as Hindemith. In his symphonies and piano concertos, in his chamber music and cantatas, the sublime alternates with the ridiculous, and experiment with imitation. His second opera, Boulevard Solitude, has set oflf many controversies; a modern version of the Manon Lescaut theme, it employs both surrealist and naturalistic scenic means and tries for a musical synthesis of dodecaphony and tonal melody. Even more consistent in its turn to vocal melody is Henze’s new opera, King Stag, first, performed at the Berlin Festival in 1956. There he draws with prodigal imagination on the wealth of all modern style media and composing techniques, and the union of Italian delight in song and a tonally free, serially bound construction brings forth a new sound, deeply romantic in effect.

Giselher Klebe, born in 1926 in Mannheim, lives in Berlin and studied with Blacher and Josef Rufer. He produces much more slowly and cautiously than Henze. His music is polyphonic and often very methodically constructed, his tonal imagination leans toward the eccentric. His short orchestral work, The Twittering Machine, was inspired by a Klee painting. His string quartet is a tour de force of ultimate thought compression. In a symphony, Klebe tried to contrast the principles of metamorphosis and variation, with the glissando serving as thematic idea, so to speak. His music “glides” into spaces of sound lying outside our tonal system. This experiment, forecast in the works of Bartok and Messiaen, has never been carried out with the relentlessness and with the daemonic effect achieved by Klebe. He is a musician interested in philosophy and inclining to all sorts of metaphysical speculation. Recently he attracted attention with a large dramatic scene, Raskolnikov’s Dream— based upon Dostoevski —for soprano, clarinet, and orchestra. At present he is working on an opera based upon Schiller’s drama, The Bandits, for which his two ballets, Signals and Fleurenville, may be regarded as preliminary studies.

Wholly experimental is the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, born in 1928 in Allen berg, near Cologne, who studied with Frank Martin, went to Messiaen in Paris, look part briefly in the work of the musique concrete group, and then turned to the electronic methods of Herbert Eimert in Cologne. Technically, his compositions are derived from Anton von Webern’s athematic pointillism. Such works as his Cross Play, the Play for Orchestra that was performed at Donauesehingen in 1952, and Counter points, offered at the 1953 Cologne Festival, represent a new type of music. At first Stockhausen’s anti-vocal oscillographic style, his aesthetic of atomizing discontinuity, c. bed bafflement and icy rejection. The underlying ideas are as confused as they are basically right. The experimental state of these works is undeniable; much of it — as in the similar compositions of Italy’s Luigi Nono and France’s Pierre Boulez — points toward a creative dehumanization.

The logical result was to entrust this music to electronic instruments, and finally to turn composing into an electronic montage process. The circle around Herbert Eimert in Cologne stands in sharp opposition to the Parisian musique concrète; instead of registering natural sounds and tones, it works exclusively with pure simple oscillations (“sine tones”) and tone mixtures that constitute the new timbre scale of electronic music. There is something monkish and magnificent about the militant zeal with which the Eimert school defends its methods. Like all monaslicism, however, the movement tends to lose touch with the world and to strangle its own vitality. Looking at the diagrams and graphs which Stockhausen publishes in lieu of musical notation, one is scared by so much algebra and mental reservation. For traditionally trained musicians his book is unreadable; one has to study systems of co-ordinates so as to get an approximate notion of sound. But the effort will have to be made, and though the resulting music will soon leave the listener in a state of aural fatigue, there is no denying its strong, new artistic effect.

It was one of the surprises of spring 1956 that the Eimert school — technically and financially supported by the Cologne Radio — brought out two works combining electronic with vocal sound. The two composers who dared to bridge the gulf between tone apparatus and human voice were Stockhausen and Ernst Krenek. Both chose Scriptural texts. Stockhausen entrusts his Song of the Three Holy Children in the Fiery Furnace to a single boy’s voice, with the sound now pure, now altered, multiplied, technically distorted, forced through all sorts of acoustic sieves as it pours from five loudspeakers scattered about the hall. The work is intemperate, often bizarre, but it does have an immediate impact. Aesthetically still quite surrealistic, it adds a spatial effect, a stereophonic element, and space, after all, is the domain of music.

These new experiments were presented also at the annual Darmstadt Festivals, which have maintained their position as the principal European testing ground of modern music. There, it would seem important to give a hearing to others than Webern followers and rationalizing constructivists — especially important in view of the new threat of a twelve-tone academicism, a pseudo-modern philistinism. The German tendency to systematize, to overstress the res severa and forget the verurm gaudium, has turned “serial” composing into a facile nostrum which now enjoys the mass distribution that Hindemith’s canonic technique had in the 1930’s. Still, it must be said that all the really vigorous creative talent of the younger generation feels drawn to the serial technique and has come at least temporarily under its spell. That there are ways leading from such systematism to a new vocal concept seems as much evidenced by Stockhausen’s latest composition as by Henze’s King Stag, which demonstrates it on the operatic stage.

Translated by E. B. Ashton