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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 1 Starting from Scratch
Richard Taruskin

Although Boulez cast them all as hypotheticals, some of the new extensions of serialism he was proposing had already been put into practice by 1952, both by Boulez himself and by some of the other musicians who had been meeting every summer at a unique institution that had been set up in 1946 in Darmstadt, a town located in the state of Hessen in central Germany, which is to say in the American zone of occupation. These International Summer Courses for New Music (Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik) were founded by Wolfgang Steinecke (1910–61), a music critic, and Wolfgang Fortner (1907–87), a composer, first with the permission, later with the active financial backing of the United States military government as channeled through Everett Helm (1913–99), an American composer and musicologist who held the position of chief music officer with the Theater and Music Branch of the American Military Government. (Fortner, who had been active and successful throughout the Nazi period but was now an ardent “post-Schoenbergian,” was perhaps the most conspicuous of those seeking cover in the “zero hour” myth.) The courses had two main goals: first, to propagate American political and cultural values as part of the general Allied effort to reeducate the German population in preparation for the establishment of democratic institutions; and second, to provide a meeting place where musicians from the former fascist or fascist-occupied areas of Europe — chiefly Germany/Austria, France, and Italy — might further their musical reeducation through exposure to (and instruction in) styles and techniques that had been prohibited or otherwise silenced during the fascist years. The first of these aims was mainly that of the American backers. The Summer Courses, in their earliest phase, have been compared with the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an anti-Communist organization headed by the composer Nicolas Nabokov, which was secretly funded by the United States government's Central Intelligence Agency as an instrument of American foreign policy. (The difference was that the source of the Summer Courses’ financial support was never a secret.) The second aim, more insularly professional, was primarily that of the Germans. Each took advantage of the other's interests — a classic case of mutual “co-option.” During the first few years, the American presence was strongly pronounced at the “Darmstadt school” (as the Courses quickly became known). Lectures by American musicians were frequent, as were those by Germans who had fled to America such as Leo Schrade, a famous musicologist who, though primarily a medievalist, spoke at Darmstadt about Charles Ives, and Stefan Wolpe, whose leftist commitments had been muted in the wake of the Zhdanovshchina. Music by Ives, Harris, Copland, Walter Piston, Wallingford Riegger, and other “Americanist” composers were performed at Darmstadt, as was the music of Paul Hindemith, who had become an American citizen.

During the first session, in 1946, Henze conducted a performance of Brecht and Hindemith's Lehrstück vom Einverständnis (“Lesson in Acquiescence”), a work that had been banned under Hitler for political rather than stylistic reasons. The fact that Hindemith's music was not all that different, stylistically, from the music played under Hitler eventually made it seem superfluous at Darmstadt. It did not further the politically important purposes of the “zero hour” myth. But the most decisive change of course came after (and as a result of) the Zhdanovshchina, news of which was followed at Darmstadt with horrified fascination.


fig. 1-4 Pierre Boulez, Bruno Maderna, and Karlheinz Stockhausen at Darmstadt, 1956.

The urgent wish, especially after 1949 when administration of the courses passed from the American occupying force to the new West German government, was to provide the musicians of the avant-garde with a protected space free from all social or political pressures (“avant-garde” now being defined entirely in esthetic rather than political terms—in other words, no more Brecht!). It became imperative, in short, to foster at Darmstadt, in the name of creative freedom, exactly that which was subject to repression in the Soviet bloc. And that made, as if in obedience to some Newtonian law of culture, for equal and opposite repressions.

Henze has left a vivid recollection of Darmstadt in 1955 that well captures the grim irony whereby the very thing most feared was reproduced. The dominating presences by then were three young composers who had first come in 1951–1952. One was Boulez; the others were Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928–2008), a German who had moved to Paris early in 1952 to study with Messiaen, and Bruno Maderna (1920–73), an Italian composer and conductor who had originally come as a member of the paid faculty, teaching conducting and analysis in addition to composition. In 1955, the composition class was taught by Henze, Maderna, and Boulez. “Things had become pretty absurd,” Henze recalled:

Boulez, who saw himself as the supreme authority, was sitting at the piano, flanked by Maderna and myself—we must have looked like reluctant assistant judges at a trial, as young composers brought their pieces forward for opinion. Anything that wasn't Webernian, he brusquely dismissed: “If it isn't written in the style of Webern it's of no interest.”

My antipathy was directed not against Webern's music, but against the misuse and misinterpretation of his aesthetic and, indeed, of his technique and its motivation and significance. Thanks to the initiative of Boulez and Stockhausen this had become institutionalized as official musical thinking, whose maxims the body of lesser mortals now had to put into practice with religious devotion, esprit de corps and slavish obedience…. There was constant talk of law and order. Just imagine: it was being bureaucratically determined how people should compose, in which style and according to which criteria.31

It was an irony that was being played out in all walks of life during the early cold war. (Just to cite the most obvious example, it was paranoiac antagonism to expanding Soviet totalitarianism that led to the most serious breaches of democratic process in the United States during the so-called “McCarthy” period, named after Senator Joseph McCarthy, who in pursuit of traitors led aggressive and destructive investigations into the lives of many innocent Americans.) But this particular irony, while revealing, is far from all-explaining. Some investigation of the actual music produced at or for Darmstadt during the years 1949–54 will show another irony: its considerable actual distance from Webern, whose meticulous control over his materials was now systematically sacrificed in the interests of something more urgent that Webern, in his prewar or wartime world, never thought to seek. Identifying and assessing this discrepancy will shed the sharpest light on the world the war's survivors inherited.


(31) Henze, “German Music in the 1940s and 1950s,” p. 43.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001008.xml