Series: The Darmstadt School

It’s July. Do you remember what we did last July? Go have a look.

It seemed like a cool thing at the time to dedicate July to an interesting program of stuff, and last year’s month-long piano series was originally not intended to be so. I had carved out four composers in four weeks, a work or two for each, a smaller, usually solo work, like a sonata, and then a larger work, usually a piano concerto, for the bigger post.

But what ended up happening was I don’t know where to stop and I get excited and decide to write all the things, and it turned into eight works of Mozart (five piano concerti and three sonatas), eight of Beethoven, ten of Chopin, three of Robert and one of Clara Schumann, and three of Brahms. It was a month of piano stuff, and I was very excited about it, but it was a ton of music.

In thinking about what to do for this July, I first thought we’ll do the same thing but pick up where we left off: start with more Brahms, and work our way through the latter half of the Romantic era, either with chamber or piano works, but not symphonic, and move chronologically through some of the important stuff in some category or other. Then I thought that’s a little same-same and I want to do something new, so I thought “let’s focus on Spanish composers” and had looked up and made lists of piano works by Albeniz and Granados and Manuel de Falla and much more, but ultimately scrapped that as well, but it was an idea I liked, and that I will likely return to later.

Long story short, somehow (and I think it had to do with Boulez’s death earlier this year and my unplanned inclusion of his Livre pour Quatuor to the schedule in March that) I thought it might be time to face one of the greatest challenges (to me) in music currently, a group to which Boulez belonged, and of which he was, it seems, the last surviving member: the Darmstadt School. (If you can’t be bothered with the longish article, jump to The Main Point down below.)

A Foreword

I’ll be saying this throughout the articles this month, but I am sorely incapable of doing the kind of analysis that would be required to break these works down, take them apart and ‘figure out how they work.’ It’s beyond the scope of this blog. Rather, my purpose in discussing the pieces we will discuss this month is twofold:

  1. To say that yes, I am aware of them, even if I can’t talk about them very intelligently, and that all two of my readers should at least be aware of their existence, or just of the existence of the Darmstadt School (more about that below). While I’d argue that the vast majority of album- or ticket-purchasing music people are not interested in and have no stomach (mind?) for much of what we’ll discuss this week, it’s influential and historically significant and people should at least be aware of it regardless of if they like it or not. But maybe you do, and that’s great. And second,
  2. I think most of the pieces in the series I’ve carved out for July are good examples of the concept that knowing more about a piece, even one you don’t really care for, inherently makes it more listenable. The phrase ‘music appreciation’ has come to mind recently. I’m not a musician, or a historian, or a theorist, or anything else. The only thing I can (try to) do is perhaps share something I’ve learned that will make music more enjoyable for people who know less about it than I do. (I digress into an example of this. It may not be the most commonly-used example of sonata form, but Mahler’s sixth has an exposition repeat and everything, so I was explaining it to someone who was going to hear the piece live [Hi, JG] and I feel like even knowing simple things as what to listen for in the final movement [timpani’s ‘fate motif’] or the moments that mark the beginning and end of development, etc. are all very small things that make the performance instantly more intelligible.) So that’s what I’ll be trying to do here, is share a little something I’ve learned about the piece, make my readers aware of its existence, and encourage a listen or two, maybe even an enjoyable one. But knowledge does a lot to help break into a work.

Part of that is my hedging. I am reading a few (basically text)books about some of the works on tap for this month, and they are far beyond my ability to relate in any kind of paraphrased manner, because I really don’t understand many of the mechanisms at play or the results of their application. But again, that’s really beyond the scope of this series and the blog. I’ll be talking about the history of the work, some of the very basic, general ideas behind their composition, include some references if you really want to do some hardcore digging, but mostly present how I have approached and thought about these works.

History Time

That said, let’s talk about Darmstadt. That’s a city in Germany, yes, but what happened there that made it significant, in keeping with the First and Second Viennese schools? It was the Darmstädter Ferienkurse (in German), or the Darmstadt International Summer Course for New Music (one of the few cases where English is longer than German?). The program was started in 1946 by one Wolfgang Steinecke, a name I do not recognize, and he led it until 1961. It was annual until 1970 and now takes place every two years.

I quote Wikipedia directly. Get used to it:

Coined by Luigi Nono in his 1958 lecture “Die Entwicklung der Reihentechnik” (Nono 1975, 30; Fox 1999, 111–12), Darmstadt School describes the uncompromisingly serial music written by composers such as Pierre Boulez, Bruno Maderna, Karlheinz Stockhausen (the three composers Nono specifically names in his lecture, along with himself), Luciano Berio, … and even composers who never actually attended Darmstadt, …Two years later the Darmstadt School effectively dissolved due to musical differences, expressed once again by Nono in his 1960 Darmstadt lecture “Text—Musik—Gesang” (Fox 1999, 123).

We’ve chatted before about serialism, and I have to say that while he is in no way a part of the Darmstadt bunch, Milton Babbitt must be mentioned among the earliest if not the very earliest of composers to work in a truly serial idiom. That being said, it seems it was a development waiting to happen, as Boulez and his associates were also working on their own things, with the Second Viennese School as a kind of common jumping off point.

Also, if you know anything about Boulez, you might know of his polemicist reputation, for making intentionally vitriolic comments about art, composers, the world, and his alternating beliefs that Schoenberg is everything, and subsequently that “Schoenberg est mort.” Well, now, Boulez est mort, if only in a literal way, but he also seemed staunchly opposed to the idea of sentiment, nostalgia, emotion in music, and while he wiff-waffed on other statements he made about people or ideas, he was generally one for a cold, sort of mathematical (or else extremely absolutely musical) approach to music. There’s a lot of politics and backstory and other stuff involved here, and you can go read The Boulez-Cage Correspondences or Boulez’s Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship (for which I lost patience), or Rocco Di Pietro’s Dialogues with Boulez (which I might discuss later, but it’s an enlightening if not incredibly one-sided discussion of many things), however… this is…

The Main Point

Again, I quote Wikipedia:

Composers such as Boulez, Stockhausen, and Nono were writing their music in the aftermath of World War II, during which many composers, such as Richard Strauss, had had their music politicised by the Third Reich. Boulez was taken to task by French critics for associating with Darmstadt, and especially for first publishing his book Penser la musique d’aujourd’hui in German, the language of the recent enemies of France, falsely associating Boulez’s prose with the perverted language of the Nazis.

What I read from that, or have read elsewhere, is that it was a way to prevent their own otherwise-politically-neutral art from being weaponized and used to represent ideals which they did not support. Wagner aside for now, composers like Beethoven (obviously) wrote their music entirely free from the political implications that the Nazi party later gave it. I’m not going to pretend like I am familiar with sociopolitical climate of a place I’ve (unfortunately) never (yet) visited, but as I’ve said before, music (and all art) is a reflection of the human experience, and after one of the greatest tragedies, darkest periods in human history, things change, and at least some of what we’ll be discussing this month is a part of that.

I felt really proud of the way I wrapped up a six (eight?) week program of (more) Austro-German symphonies and string quartets and all the rest, from Haydn back in early May all the way through to Mahler and onto Webern, from which point we look both backward and forward, a mirror of sorts, as the end of one symphony series, and the beginning of a new series.

In the first week or so of July, we’ll be discussing works of composers who were unmistakably not part of the Darmstadt school. They’re prerequisites of sorts. There’s all the history of serialism and the rest, but there’s also a very French approach to understanding this very modern music, and we’ll take that as a sort of prequel to what we’ll get to in the second week.

There’s plenty to learn from these works, lots of beauty here, but it’s generally also entirely different from what I usually discuss. It’s been a challenge to prepare, but do your best to go into it with a neutral, open mind and just listen, free of expectations (we shall discuss that idea later on as well). Stay tuned for many interesting things this month.

cover image: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F004566-0002 / Unterberg, Rolf / CC-BY-SA 3.0

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