Introduction | Contemporary | Classical

After the devastation wrought in Europe by World War II, the urgent task of rebuilding the continent’s war-torn urban fabric demanded radical solutions. These were found in the centralized urban planning advocated before the war by architects such as Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Writing in 1953, the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928–2007) created an explicit analogy between the projects of urban and musical reconstruction: ‘the “cities have been razed to the ground”,’ he wrote, ‘and we can start completely from scratch, paying no attention to the ruins and “tasteless” remains’. Ignoring the ‘remains’ was indeed a widely perceived necessity. Few forms of European cultural expression had escaped Fascist appropriation – even aspects of Bauhaus design had been pressed into service in the construction of concentration camps. Composers and literary writers alike now sought a completely renewed language, free of nostalgia and inherited rhetoric.


Electronic music allowed composers to start from scratch in a literal way, by artificially constructing complex sounds using the ‘pure’ sine-tone as an elementary building-block. While the pioneering experiments in musique concrète undertaken by Pierre Schaeffer (1910–95) in Paris used sounds derived from real-life environments (such as the railway in the Etude aux chemins de fer, ‘Study for Railways, 1948), he too wanted to make them ‘new’, to transform them out of all recognition into pure ‘sound objects’. The highly ramified post-war developments in serial technique, led in Europe by Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez (b. 1925), Henri Pousseur (1929–2009) and Luigi Nono (1924–90), likewise aimed at an objective structural logic that, in large measure, would bypass considerations of personal taste and aesthetic preference.


The summer courses held in the German city of Darmstadt from 1946 enabled otherwise isolated young composers, in the words of Berio, ‘to stand side by side in defence of a new idea of music’. In their first decade, the courses introduced to many for the first time the music which had been suppressed in Nazi-occupied countries during the war, including that of Paul Hindemith (1895–1963), Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) and Anton Webern (1883–1945). But they soon became one of the most important platforms for the rising avant-garde generation, not only its composers – Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Pousseur, Ligeti and Kagel – but also its virtuoso performers, including the oboist Heinz Holliger (b. 1939), also a composer, the cellist Siegfried Palm (1927–2005) and the piano duo of Alfons (1932–2010) and Aloys (b. 1931) Kontarsky. Guests from the US included Edgard Varèse (1883–1965), Morton Feldman (1926–87) and, most notably, John Cage (1912–92), whose 1958 visit proved a vital catalyst for growing European interest in indeterminacy.

Though the 1950s tend to be viewed as Darmstadt’s heyday, the courses have continued to thrive (biennially from 1970) under such influential teachers as Brian Ferneyhough (b. 1943), Wolfgang Rihm and Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935).

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