Germany has long been a nation of musical visionaries. From the 12th century, when German Benedictine nun Saint Hildegard explored the idea of wedding Catholic “plainchant” with moral drama, through the “common practice period” (1600-1920), during which German composers regularly reinvented both opera and instrumental classical music, way into the late 20th century–wherever would we be without Kraftwerk?–German musicians have consistently found new ways to think about music, in turn inspiring new ways to think about the world. Let’s take a relatively chronological jaunt through the many masterful musics of Germany.
EARLY GERMAN MUSIC:
GERMAN CHRISTIAN HYMNS:
The first great composer in the recorded history of German music was a 12th century prolific philosopher, Benedictine mystic, botanist, poet, dramatist, monastery-founder and–lest we forget–a nun, known as Hildegard of Bingen. Busy “Saint Hildegard,” also known as Sibyl of the Rhine, composed Latin-language Christian hymns, many of which are still part of church liturgy. Watch a performance of Hildegard von Bingen’s “Ordo Virtum,” which may be the earliest “morality play.”
MINNESINGERS and MEISTERSINGERS:
In the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, though Latin-language religious music was still all the rage in Germany, a number of aristocrats who traveled from court to court and had picked up music along the way began to compose and perform decidedly non-religious love songs. These performers, known as MINNESINGERS, eventually made way for middle-class craftsmen known as MEISTERSINGERS
who studied music as their main profession. The “meistergesang” music of the “meistersingers” was more formal than the “minneleider” music of the “minnesingers.” The most visionary minnesingers, such as the still unidentified “Hermann, Monk of Salzburg,” advanced music as an art in Germany by exploring the use of many voices singing different notes at the same time (polyphony) in his songs. Listen to more contemporary minnesingers recorded in 1931. Enjoy 12th century minnesinger Walther von der Vogelweide’s “Under the Linden” with English subtitles (the singing starts at about 0:50).
GERMAN CLASSICAL MUSIC:
German classical music finds its roots in the intensity of Christian hymns by the likes of theological reformer Martin Luther, a composer, like many of his co-nationalists who followed, who appreciated the power of music as an indicator, if not a motivator, of cultural change.
In our introduction to German classical music we’ll expand our geographic horizons and include a few influential Austrians.
Starting in the 16th century German composers of religious music began to experiment with polyphony. One of these composers was a German monk named MARTIN LUTHER whose theological writing challenging many tenets of Catholic theology inspired the Protestant Reformation. Not surprisingly, Luther’s polyphonic “chorale” hymns, including “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” were lively and energetic, contrasting the staid Catholic music of the time. Post-Reformation German-Danish organist DIETRICH BUXTEHUDE was the most prominent chorale composer of the mid to late 17th century. Listen to Buxtehude’s “Der Herr ist mit mir.”
While the first widely-respected German opera may well be the 1627 Dafne by widely-respected composer HEINRICH SCHÜTZ,
German-language opera didn’t really come into its own until 1791 when WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART released Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), shortly before his death. Mozart’s The Magic Flute was a “singspiel,” a kind of opera that included both singing and speech, set in a magical, mystical Egypt. The opera’s fantastical plot is primarily a love story between Prince Tamino and Pamina, though librettist Emanuel Schickaneder wrote in so many allegories and references to Freemansory–he and Mozart were members of the same Masonic lodge–that both its critics and its admirers uncontroversially refer to the plot as “half-baked.” (Not to mention sexist and racist.) Mozart’s score is also exceedingly complex, but at the same time breathtakingly beautiful. [Watch the beginning of Motzart’s The Magic Flute. And, to give a nod to Schütz, watch an excerpt from Dafne. The music starts at about 0:53.]
The most prominent German opera composer of the 19th century and inspiration for “the German Romantic school” (more about the Romantic period below) was CARL MARIA VON WEBER. A musical prodigy and multi-instrumentalist, Weber began composing operas in his early teens and went on to break new musical ground with works such as the 1821 Der Freischütz, the tragic tale of young gamekeeper Max, a ranger’s daughter, Agathe, and seven magic bullets, and the 1826 “fairy-opera” Oberon, the production of which put such stress on Weber that he died soon after its debut. Weber’s operas explored German folk traditions, embraced the German natural landscape and customs of village life, and advanced the form by putting the orchestra at the core of the opera, by employing “leitmotifs”–recurring musical themes associated with a specific idea or character, and by striving to unify the music with the drama as no other composer had before him. Watch Edith Mathis sing an aria from Der Freischütz.
While opera historians praise Weber in his own right, they rarely fail to mention the influence he had on unarguably the greatest composer of 19th century German Romantic Era opera, RICHARD WAGNER. Wagner’s compositions are dense, complex and passionate in most every way yet they are also masterworks full of enlivening melodies and, taking inspiration from Carl Maria von Weber, elaborate leitmotifs. Unlike most opera composers of note, Wagner wrote both the music and the libretto for all of his theatrical works.
Wagner is rightly revered for the power of his full operas such Parsifal, based loosely on the legend Arthurian knight Parzival (Percival) and his quest for the Holy Grail, which debuted in 1882 at his Bayreuth Festival (a festival that still takes place annually). His most famous compositions include “Ride of the Valkyries” from the opera Die Walküre (see a performance by the controversial Royal Danish Opera. See a performance by the non-controversial Elmer Fudd) and “The Wedding March (Bridal Chorus)” from the opera Lohengrin.
Wagner was a main inspiration for late Romantic Era German opera composers such as RICHARD STRAUSS (watch an excerpt from his 1905 Salome) and even Engelbert Humperdinck whose “great name to great mustache ratio” is nearly unbeatable. (Watch an excerpt from Humperdinck’s 1893 main work, Hansel and Gretel. Watch an excerpt from Hansel and Gretel performed by puppets. Don’t confuse German Romantic opera composer Englebert Humperdinck with this guy.)
Twentieth century Russian/French/American composer Igor Stravinsky called it “the German Stem” (though somewhat controversially)–a lineage of German composers, starting in the 16th century and stretching to the 20th, that included Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, and Schoenberg. These composers were only some of the inspiring number of forward-thinking Germans (and, when the countries eventually separated, Austrians) who pushed the artistic parameters of of Western Classical music.
Those unfamiliar with instrumental Western classical music not not recognize the distinction between these composers, and don’t always appreciate the fact that, much like the German operatic composers mentioned above, these composers listened to each other, learned from each other and used what they learned to expand their own art, not to mention the entire art form.
Historians of Western classical music call the centuries of Western classical music’s heyday (from about 1600 to about 1900) the “common practice period,” though they more often divide it into three distinct eras:
— the Barouqe Period,
— the Classical Period, and
— the Romantic Period.
Let’s take a quick look at each, and at some of the German/Austrian composers who personified them. (For an easy-to-understand overview, look at the Naxos.com history of classical music.)
THE BAROQUE PERIOD (1600 to 1750)
Before the early 1600s European classical music occurred mainly in the Church and in highly aristocratic circles, and mainly in choral form. During the Renaissance (approximately 1400 to 1600), and especially in the late 16th century in Northern Italy, composers had begun to experiment with instruments such as keyboards and with a system of major and minor chords, replacing a more formal set of melodic and rhythmic rules. In the early 1600s European composers finally began to use the scales and tonal relationships that still form the foundation of Western classical and popular music. They also embraced orchestral instruments such as the violin, viola and cello, marrying dramatic elements with orchestration to form the early foundations of opera–inviting the public to experience the music–and enabling the creation of compositional forms like:
— the concerto: a work composed, most often, of three parts (called “movements”), in which an orchestra accompanies a solo instrument like a piano, violin or a cello
— the sonata: a term first used in the Baroque period to refer to a piece of music performed by a solo instrument. (In the upcoming Classical era the term “sonata” expanded; we’ll learn a bit about “the sonata form” below.)
— the cantata: a term introduced in the Baroque period to indicate a piece of music written for voice. Over the centuries “cantata” has come mainly to refer to choral works, as distinguished from a composition for a vocal solo, but the fact that there needed to be a specific term applied to vocal music indicates that as early at the 1600s classical music had developed beyond the dominant choral music of the earlier eras.
Want to learn more? BaroqueMusic.org will introduce you to “the wonderful world of Baroque music,” which, it claims, “expresses order, the fundamental order of the universe.”
— JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH: (1685 to 1750)
Johann Sebastian Bach may not have been known in his time as a great composer–he was a mainly known as an organist, music teacher and father of several respected composers (four of his twenty children)–but today classical musical fans recognize his 1,100 works as those of a genius. Bach’s abilities in using “counterpoint” and harmony, in creating chorale works and preludes and concertos and compositions for organ, most especially in composing fugues (what is a fugue? look here)…. As other composers have long known, especially since the mid-1800s when composer Felix Mendelssohn led a Bach revival, Bach could do it all. Listen to Bach’s most famous work for organ, “Toccata and Fugue in d minor.”
— GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL: (1685-1759)
Georg Friedrich Händel was a late Baroque era composer of operas, oratorios and organ concertos. Always respected by his fellow musicians, Händel was technically proficient but also melodically and dramatically gifted; today his operas are among the most beloved. In 1712 Händel’s moved to Britain, after which he wrote many works in English, including his best-known oratorio, Messiah.
THE CLASSICAL PERIOD: (1750-1830)
Classical era composers took the building blocks of tone and form composers had explored in the Baroque period and solidified them into formal structures that led to the development of the modern concerto, symphony, sonata, trio and quartet. Classical composers were particularly obsessed with the structure of their compositions, particularly using “the sonata form,” a term that has come to refer to multi-instrumental structure of the first movement of a symphony, concerto or other longer work. In the sonata form, the first movement of a longer piece consists of three essential parts: the “exposition” (introduction of the main musical theme), the “development” (exploring the main theme) and the “recapitulation” (revisiting the main theme). [If you want to get a sense of the complexity of Western classical music, read Wikipedia’s entry on the “sonata form,” Rather than letting the highly technical nature of this approach to music put you off, try to appreciate the amount of formal knowledge classical composers must possess, let alone the ability great composers must have to elevate such intricate forms to high art.]
— FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN: (1732-1809)
Franz Joseph Haydn was an Austrian composer known alternately as “Father of the Symphony” and “Father of the String Quartet.” Haydn spent much of his career performing music in the Austrian court and developed his style in relative musical isolation. His imaginative yet legendarily well-structured sonatas, as well as his widely-admired sense of humor (“Surprise!“), challenged other Classical era composers to create works that were both technically proficient and emotionally accessible. Haydn was a friend of Mozart and a teacher of Beethoven.
— WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART: (1756-1791)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a child prodigy from Salzburg, Austria, who became a driving musical force in Vienna at the peak of the Classical era. A prolific composer of over 600 works, including many well-known symphonies, operas and concertos, Mozart responded to to the highly ornamental music of the Baroque period by creating music that, while still complex, thrived on their simplicity. While Classical era musicians and audiences respected Mozart’s art he was also dynamic, unpredictable and prone to playing practical jokes. Mozart died way too young (35) and, having spent all the money he’d earned through composing, very poor. Listen to Mozart’s “A Little Night Music.”
Hey Kids, Meet Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart! | Did Mozart write “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star?” Nah. But his 12 variations on the original melody are lovely.
— LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: (1770-1827)
Was Ludwig van Beethoven the greatest composer of all time? If you ask the New York Times‘ Anthony Tommasini, no way! Okay, so he’s pretty far up there–second to Bach. If you ask Listverse,com, no way! He’s third, after Bach and Mozart. If you ask L.A. Weekly, no way! He’s a distant second to William Hung. (That’s an American Idol joke from 2004, if you remember. [Don’t blame me. L.A. Weekly made the joke.]) Okay, so “greatest composers of all time” lists are a ridiculous exercise, but then again, any list of the greatest composers in the history of humanity that didn’t at least mention Beethoven would be a ridiculous list. (Lucare.com thinks he’s the greatest. So there!) Born in Germany to a musical family, Beethoven, like Mozart, showed promise at an early age, and when he was in his teens he moved to Vienna to study. He eventually became Haydn’s student, learning from the master about the classical era’s compositional simplicity. Throughout his career Beethoven demonstrated an unparalleled capacity for melody, harmony and rhythm. On the other hand, unlike the flamboyant Mozart, in public Beethoven was known to be sullen and prone to angry outbursts, in part due to frustration over his increasing hearing loss, which plagued him from his mid-20s. Beethoven was almost completely deaf by 1814, though he continued to compose masterpieces until his death. Watch Arturo Toscanini conduct the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony #5 at Carnegie Hall in 1952.
THE ROMANTIC ERA: (1830 to 1920)
Throughout the Classical period composers became more and more ambitious, striving to achieve levels of artistry and creative expression beyond that which strict Classical structures could offer. In the early Romantic period (1830 to 1860), compositions became even more complex and composers expanded their harmonic and emotional vocabularies, introducing tragically dramatic narratives into their operas, bringing deep emotion their increasingly difficult scores. In the process, performers had to increasingly become virtuosos to wow an eager public. In the late Romantic period (1860 to 1920) many composers valued emotion over structure, engaging their audiences with musical exuberance rather than focusing on technical mastery.
— ROBERT SCHUMANN: (1810-1856)
Robert Schumann was a German Romantic-era composer who was also an influential music critic. Most of Schumann’s great works were for piano, though throughout his career he also wrote many lieder (songs for voice and piano), an opera, four symphonies and some chamber, orchestral and choral works. Throughout the late 1930s Schumann courted teenage virtuoso pianist, and a composer in her own right, Clara Wieck, daughter of his former piano teacher, Friedrich Wieck. The elder Wieck disapproved; not only was Robert Schumann no longer one of Wieck’s star pupils–he had been a rising star but had injured his right hand during what has been widely described as “a self-inflicted training injury“–but Schumann had also known his daughter since she was a young child, which he found despicable. Clara and Robert actually embarked on a legal battle to earn permission to marry before the then 21-year old age of consent; the court decided in favor of Clara and Robert and they were married one day before her 21st birthday. For the next several years Clara performed the compositions of her husbands and bore their eight children. Unfortunately for the Schumanns, Robert was notoriously jealous of his wife’s success. He also exhibited signs of severe mental illness, and by 1854 had checked himself into an institution, where he stayed for the rest of his life. Listen to pianist Claudio Arrau perform Schumann’s “Carnaval.”
— JOHANNES BRAHMS: (1833-1897)
Johannes Brahms was Robert Schumann’s prodigy and a leading composer of Romantic era chamber, symphonic and vocal music. (During Robert Schumann’s time in a mental institution, Brahms, who had become quite close to Clara Schumann [despite being fourteen years her younger] moved into an apartment upstairs from her and essentially joined the Schumann household.) Brahms was a talented pianist, a legendary perfectionist–he destroyed his works which he believed were not up to snuff–and a well-known grump. He was also both a Baroque and Classical structures and also known for his innovative approaches to harmony and melody. Watch a performance of Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 5.”
ClassicalArchives.com’s biography of Brahms | Classical.net’s slightly longer biography of Brahms, with a list of recommended recordings
— FELIX MENDELSSOHN: (1809-1847)
Felix Mendelssohn, also known as Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, was a German-born composer known first as a child prodigy in the same vein as Mozart, then later for his restrained musical compositions in an era of Romantic-era indulgences. Hailing from a prominent intellectual Jewish family–his grandfather was the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn–Felix was actually baptized and became Lutheran. During his career, Mendelssohn developed less-than-friendly relationships with his contemporaries such as Hungarian composer Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, who he criticized as taking unfounded liberties with music. (Wagner in turn stated both his disapproval of Mendelssohn’s music and his disapproval of Mendelssohn’s Jewish roots.) Eventually this artistic disagreement developed into the “War of the Romantics,” with the Schumanns, Brahms and Mendelssohn supporting traditional composition, while Liszt, Wagner and French composer Hector Berlioz promoting their new take on old music–Liszt famously said, “New wine required new bottles.” After Mendelssohn’s death he retained some degree of the popularity he had developed while performing in England, but became a posthumous “degenerate,” in the eyes of the Nazis because of his Jewish lineage. After World War II classical music historians have revived Mendelssohn’s music and his role in developing the classical canon, though they usually also note his lack of stylist development as a composer. Watch a performance of the overture to Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
— GUSTAV MAHLER: (1860-1911)
Gustav Mahler was a late Romantic era Austrian conductor and composer who acted as a musical bridge between Austro-German classical music and the modern compositions of the early 20th century. Mahler was Jewish but converted to Roman Catholicism in this late ’30s, perhaps not coincidentally while being considered for a musical directorship in Vienna that would be unlikely to go to a Jew. Mahler publicly asserted his “non-Jewishness” by becoming one of the primary interpreters of operas by German antisemitic composer, Richard Wagner. Mahler’s own compositions were few but after World War II the interplay he developed between his songs and symphonies as been the object of great praise in classical circles, not only for their musical and emotional depth, but also for their inspirational orchestration.
AFTER THE GREAT WAR: (1920 and beyond)
In the early 20th century composers began to create in dozens of often-confusing directions. Some Austrian composers explored increasingly avant-garde forms such as atonal music and twelve-tone music (what is this? let the Anthony Tommasini tell you). Some German composers like Kurt Weill, who we’ll meet briefly below, embraced the populism of cabaret music. Many responded to the rise of the Nazi party, and its subsequent attack on “degenerate” music (any music that had anything to do with Jews, Communists or African-Americans), by fleeing to the U.S.
— ARNOLD SCHOENBERG: (1874-1951)
Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg began his musical career by creating works both in the traditional Romantic vein of Brahms and the innovative style of Wagner, but he eventually developed his own visionary (and controversial) forms. Schoenberg went on to pioneer a movement known as The Second Viennese School, which embraced early 20th century musical expressionism by exploring atonal and twelve-tone (series) composition. Schoenberg, who was Jewish, was also notoriously afraid of the number thirteen. Schoenberg escaped the antisemitism of the rising Nazi Party but he couldn’t escape the number he dreaded; in 1933 he emigrated to America where he died, in 1951, on Friday, July 13th. Watch a performance of Schoenberg’s 1906 “Kammersymphonie Op. 9” in which he explores nontraditional relationships between tones.
Oom-pah is a form of brass band music popular in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and around Eastern Europe, though it is most widely identified with Germany’s Bavarian folk music and the yearly beer-hall celebration, Oktoberfest, both of which we’ll introduce below. The term “oom-pah” simulates the prevailing sound of “oom-pah” songs–a tuba plays the “oom,” and instruments with a higher pitch, like clarinets, accordions or trombones, play the “pah.” In a three beat oom-pah waltz, the song goes, “oom-pah-pah.” Watch Bavaria’s Jungen Riederinger Musikanten perform “Munti Polka.” Learn more about Oom-pah.
Bavaria is a German state located in the southeast of Germany that borders Austria and Switzerland and encompasses many picturesque Alps. Some of Germany’s most stereotypically identifiable folk culture comes from Bavaria–traditional Bavarian shorts known lederhosen, the Schuhplatter Dance, and, of course, yodeling! While today most expressions of Bavarian folk dress, dance and music are just for show, at the turn of the 19th century Bavarian folk culture was very much alive. From the 1880s until the 1920s Bavarian Volkssängers (people’s singers) would present shows consisting of folks songs that were often full of rambunctious humor. After the first World War Volkssängers like, BALLY PRELL, the “Beauty Queen of Schneizlreuth,” sang folk songs as well as light opera. Watch Bally Prell perform in Munich in 1922.
MUSIC OF THE WIEMAR REPUBLIC:
During the frantic and fragile years of Weimar Republic, as Germany struggled and failed to recover from the destruction of the World War I, German composers left the conservatories and flocked to the cabaret. “Kabarett” had actually begun to develop in Germany in the earliest 1900s, but after World War I the political theater and sharply dark social satire that had become characteristic of the German cabaret developed an almost apocalyptic bite. As their country crumbled around them, Germany’s creative urbanites–writers, dancers, painters, dramatists and anyone who dared experience the nation’s artistic edge, reveled in the humor, the decadence and the danger of Kabarret. Watch break-out cabaret star MARLENE DIETRICH sing “Falling in Love Again” from the 1930 film, “The Blue Angel.”
In the late 1920s classically-trained composer KURT WEILL collaborated with theatrical absurdist BERTOLT BRECHT on the socialist-communist (Weill brought the socialist, Brecht the communist)-tinged Threepenny Opera. Written “by and for beggars,” Weill and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera liberated the German operatic form from the staid concert hall and brought it, gallows humor and all, to “the people.” Some of the show’s songs, like the opening number, “Mack the Knife,” (hear Brecht himself sing the German original) have become part of the international pop canon, but the opera’s real power came in its unapologetic portrayal of, and identification with, Germany’s street criminals like the show’s most gripping character, Macheath, or “Mack the Knife,” and with how the nation’s underclass was struggling to survive modern capitalism. By 1933, when both Weill and Brecht fled Germany to escape the rise of the Nazis, their opera had been performed thousands of times all over the world. Learn all you’d ever want to know about Threepenny Opera.
When the Nazis rose to power in post-Wiemar Germany they firmly took control of youth culture, including their beloved American music. The Nazis particularly despised American jazz and swing, which they not only saw as a tool of their enemy but which they associated negatively with African-Americans. At the same time, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels saw the promise of developing a German big band, composed of German musicians and those from conquered countries, to perform as part of Nazi propaganda radio broadcasts. The band, known as Charlie and His Orchestra, also known as “Templin band” and “Bruno and His Swinging Tigers,” performed songs written by Nazi lyricists throughout the war and were tasked with presenting German conquest as inevitable. Often they would play American swing standards, starting the songs by singing the original lyrics, then diverging halfway through into new lyrics full of pro-Nazi rhetoric. After the war Charlie and His Orchestra continued performing as “Brocksieper Freddie,” and found some acceptance in U.S. Armed Forces clubs in Germany, but never could shake their association with Goebbels.
POST-WAR GERMAN POP, ROCK and BEYOND….
In the wake of World War II many German musicians looked for inspiration outside of their devastated land. While East Germany fell behind the Soviet Iron Curtain, making the performing of “American” music there into a subversive, often dangerous, act, West Germans embraced genres and artists from the Allied nations, especially from the U.S. and Great Britain. A tension developed in the German music world between “German” and “non-German” music, with some artists singing in English (like German metal hitmakers SCORPIONS, whose career spanned four decades), some in German, some performing in German while in Germany but in English while abroad. Even though Germans have embraced and in many cases advanced genres like punk, metal and techno, German artists are well aware that these popular German genres originated in the English-speaking world.
SCHLAGER and VOLKSÜMLICHE:
Schlager (“hit”) music is a post-War genre popular throughout Central Europe, Northern Europe and the Balkans that developed in the 1960s as a highly sentimental vocal pop, much of which is analogous to American “easy listening.” Schlager music fell out of favor in Germany after the ’70s, but experienced a self-reverentially kitschy revival, with deejays in dance clubs adding Schlager music to their repertoires and Schlager fans dressed in ’70s clothing gathering annually by the tens of thousands in Hamburg for a street parade called, “Schlager Move.” Older generations of Germans are especially fond of Volkstümliche Musik, a genre often mixed with Schlager that reinterprets traditional Alpine folk songs using drum machines, synthesizers and the occasional yodel.
In class we’re going to listen to “Blau Blüht der Enzian” as performed by popular Schlager/Volkstümliche vocalist HEINO, who is known for his deep bass voice, his bright blond hair and his omnipresent sunglasses (which he wears because of an eye condition, though they do make him look cool). Watch this extraordinary Heino performance of “Blau Blüht der Enzian.”
Inspired by American singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan and French chanson singer/composers like Jacques Brel, German “liedermachers”(singer/songwriters) like REINHARD MEY, KONSTANTIN WECKER and HANNES WADER started their long-enduring careers in the late ’60s or early ’70s by stripping down their bands–often just performing solo with an acoustic guitar–and writing songs that explored political and personal themes. Watch Reinhard Mey perform “Das Narrenschiff.” Watch Konstantin Wecker and his band perform “Inwendig Warm” in 1993. Watch Hannes Wader perform in 1985 from inside a postage stamp.
Between 1968 and 1977 German musicians dove headfirst into the psychedelic and progressive music explosion in the U.S. and United Kingdom. As there was no African-American-based blues-rock tradition in Germany, the German manifestation of this music was generally less rootsy than in the English-speaking world (bands like CAN were an exception) and more experimental and eclectic, such as electronic pioneers, KRAFTWERK. Watch Can jam in 1972. Watch Kraftwerk perform “The Robots.”
NUE DEUTSCHE WELLE (NDW):
Neue Deutsche Welle (“New German Wave,” or “German New Wave”) started in the early ’80s as an underground movement of bands that developed a distinct sound by blending British punk and British New Wave with their German-language lyrics. When record companies caught onto Neue Deutsche Welle in the mid ’80s they sensed English-language versions might appeal to an international market, and they were right–performers like NENA and FALCO rocketed to the top of international pop charts. This unprecedented success inspired record companies to mine the Neue Deutsche Welle scene for potential pop stars, an act that quickly drained it of creative energy. By 1984 the New German Wave was no more.
Watch Neue Deutsche Welle band Nena perform “99 Luftbaloons” in 1983 (with lead singer Gabriele Susanne Kerner, also known as Nena, wearing an outfit that one could only get away with in 1983). (Did you know “99 Luftballons” is actually a protest song?) Watch Falco sing “Rock Me Amadeus” and “Der Kommissar” (“Don’t turn around, uh-oh! Der Kommissar’s in town, uh-oh!”).
Before the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall East German rockers had to be careful not to rock too hard, or at least to not rock hard in public, lest they find themselves in trouble with the ruling Communist government. Somehow East German “Ostrockers” like the PUDHYS and KARAT were not only able to find Western records to inspire their creative explorations, but they also found a way to produce inventive and politically groundbreaking rock that challenged the status quo. After 1989 Cold War era East German rockers were able to make music as freely as their Eastern German counterparts and were able to drop the double entendres that once hid the political messages in their lyrics.
Watch the Pudhys perform in 1989, and then more recently, with “Ikarus” in 2006. (Now this is a great album cover.) Watch Karat perform “Über sieben Brücken” to an adoring crowd. Want to see how Ostrock relates to other German forms of music? Check out the Ostrock Knowledge Map on InfoRapid.org.
The German punk scene rose in the late ’70s, finding inspiration in both the punk music and the left wing anarchist politics of British bands like The Clash. Not all German punk bands were as radically anti-authoritarian as their most “outspoken” fans–many songs by popular, and enduring, acts like West Berlin’s DIE ÄRTZE (“The Doctors”) and Dusseldorf’s DIE TOTEN HOSEN (“The Dead Beats”) focused more on fun than politics–but the scene as a whole consistently challenged the staunch German state.
Watch Die Toten Hosen’s video for “Hier Kommt Alex.” Watch Die Ärzte perform “Wie es geht” from their 2000 album, “Runter mit den Spendierhosen, Unsichtbarer!,” which literally translates as, “Down with the generosity trousers, invisible one!”)
TEUTONIC THRASH METAL:
Inspired in the early ’80s by early English-speaking acts like Motorhead and Iron Maiden, German bands DESTRUCTION, KREATOR and SODOM developed metal’s first homegrown German subgenre–Teutonic thrash metal. The music of Teutonic thrash metal bands featured, according to Wikipedia’s entry on Teutonic thrash metal, “raspy vocals, palm muted guitar riffs, and frantic double bass drumming.” The genre’s heyday came and went, and by the early ’90s most Teutonic thrash metal bands had moved on. Watch Destruction perform the instrumental “Thrash Attack” live in 1988.
In the 1980s and early ’90s the Hamburger Schule (“The Hamburg School”) of West German rock, based in around the city of Hamburg, incorporated punk, pop, American grunge and German-language lyrics that contained social criticism and post-modern theory to form a distinctly German form of alternative rock. Hamburger Schule bands like BLUMFELD (watch them perform “Verstaerker“) and TECOTRONIC (watch them perform “Kapitulation“) may not have sounded alike, but together they were part of a collective creative moment in German musical history.
Goth rock–dark and brooding, theatrical and dramatic, lyrically intense–originated in England in the late ’70 with bands like Joy Divsion and Bauhaus and may have had its heyday in England and the U.S. in the ’80s (Flesh for Lulu! Sisters of Mercy!, The Mission UK!) but still resonates deeply with German music fans. Watch German goth duo LACRIMOSA perform “Darkness” live in Romania in 2006. Watch LACRIMAS PROFUNDERE perform the incrementally more upbeat “My Velvet Little Darkness.”
NEUE DEUTSCHE HÄRTE:
Neue Deutsche Härte “(New German Hardness”) is a style of industrial metal (a genre that blends industrial dance music, hardcore punk and thrash metal–no doubt three of your favorites) that combines electronic samples, heavy metal and lyrical and theatrical elements of German gothic rock. Neue Deutsche Härte emerged in the ’90s when German bands like OOMPH! added heavy electronic grooves to their rock and metal. (Watch Oomph! perform “Labyrinth” live.)
RAMMSTEIN!! Whether or not you’re a fan of Industrial metal, you must love East German Neue Deutsche Härte rockers, Rammstein. Fans love Rammstein is as much for its music as for its extraordinary theatrical live performances, featuring so many explosions and fireballs that the band’s lyricist and lead singer, Till Lindemann, who, during many concerts, appears to become engulfed in flames, has become a licensed pyrotechnician. Watch Rammstein rock out at the Knebworth UK Sonisphere 2010.
Mittelalter-Metal (Medieval metal) is is a subgenre of metal that blends medieval folk instruments with drum kits and electric guitars. Medieval metal exists in various countries but is most popular in Germany, where bands that emerged in the ’90s, like Potsdam’s SUBWAY TO SALLY, rocked–and rocked hard–while playing medieval instruments like the lute, bagpipes, and the shawm. Watch Subway to Sally perform “Ohne Liebe.”
ELECTRONICA & TECHNO:
Germany is not only home to one of the most active electronic music scenes in the world, but it can also fairly accurately claim to be the land where electronica started; the widely acknowledged originators of techno–Michigan’s Bellville Three–acknowledge Krautrock band Kraftwerk as a primary influence. Other Krautrock bands like TANGERINE DREAM embraced machines and electronic sounds as well, and throughout the ’70s and ’80s began to create music exclusively on electronic instruments, inspiring bands like West Berlin’s EINSTÜZNDE NEUBAUTEN (translation: “collapsing new buildings”) and KMFDM (originally “Kein Mehrheit Für Die Mitleid,” which means “no majority for the pity,”) in their own pioneering of industrial and electronic music. Today German’s dance clubs are still hopping with electronica, with techno/trance deejays like SVEN VÄTH keeping the beats pumping. [Watch Sven Vãth Live in Ibiza. Watch Tangerine Dream live at Conventry Cathetral in 1975, then again, more than thirty years later, in 2006 at the Berlin Temodrom.Watch KFMDM in Dallas in 1990 performing, “Rip the System.” Watch Einstürzende Neubauten sing “Was Ist Ist Live” with some of it most enthusiastic fans.]
As early as the mid-’80, disaffected German youth–primarily white, middle class disaffected German youth–began to emulate elements African-American hip hop culture, including breakdancing and graffiti tagging, and even also began to rap, sometimes in German but very often in English. By the late ’80s a German hip-hop scene had developed, though many critics accused English-speaking German rappers of succumbing to cultural imperialism by imitating a form that wasn’t theirs. In the late ’80s, Stuttgart’s DIE FANTASTISCHEN VIER (the Fantastic Four), realizing their middle class German lives differed significantly from the life of the African-American gangsta rappers they were imitating, decided to rap in German about German issues. Though their hit songs lacked the political “street level” punch many German rap fans craved, Die Fantastischen Vier’s success enabled German hip hop artists to embrace their own culture. Torch, rapper with a Heidelberg based hip-hop crew called ADVANCED CHEMISTRY, also began to freestyle in German and to rap about issues relevant to his Haitian-German ethnic background. He and the others in Advanced Chemistry, all German citizens but from a variety of non-German backgrounds, were precursors to today’s Turkish-German hip hop scene, which immigrants to Germany, an active but very vocal–and controversial–minority, use as a means of expression. (Watch Turkish-German hip hop artist AZIZA A‘s video for “Takil Bana.”)
Watch Die Fantastischen Vier perform “Die Da!?!” Advanced Chemistry’s hit “Fremd im eigenen land” (“Foreign in Your Own Country”) is a frank discussion of the second-class status of immigrants in Germany. In the video, members of the group hold up their German passport and wonder why being German citizens isn’t good enough to make them “German.” There is a small bit of foul language in the rap, though if you don’t mind it (especially if you don’t speak German), you’ll easily be able to find the video on YouTube–you don’t need to speak German to understand what the rap is about. (Be careful when you Google “Advanced chemistry rap.” You may end up with something like this.)
NEW GERMAN ROCK and POP:
While German pop and rock bands only seem to be able to find international commercial success if they sing in English, Germany’s internal rock and pop scenes are strong. Rock bands like Cologne’s BAP were popular in Germany in the ’80s and ’90s; ten of BAP’s albums reached number one on the German record charts. Since the 2002 success of German-language pop/rock band WIR SIND HELDEN, Germany has appeared more willing to support its pop and rock musicians who sing in the local language.
Watch BAP perform “Nemm mich met” in 1983. BAP sings most of their songs in Kölsch, the dialect of Cologne, or, as Wikipedia’s entry on BAP says, “in a Kölsch-influenced derivation of Eifelplatt, a regional variant of the Ripuarian language spoken in the nearby rural Eifel.” Sounds awesome.
Watch Wir sind Helden perform the really fun “Gekommen um zu bleiben.” In German. (We’re going to listen to “Gekommen um zu blieben” in class.)
GERMAN WORLD FUSION:
In today’s Germany immigration is one of the most pressing topics, inspiring much debate over the benefits of multiculturalism within German culture. Whether or not most Germans approve, the presence of immigrants from around the world has inspired music in their country to become much more diverse. For example, the band DISSIDENTEN, founded in the 1980s–ahead of its time!–collaborates regularly with musicians from South Asia and North Africa. (Watch Dissidenten join forces with Jil Jilala on “Morock’n Roll.”) Germany-based ADE BANTU, bi-racial son of a German mother and Nigerian father, has become known across the continents as one of the main performers in the Nigerian genre of “fuji music.” Bantu and “Brothers Keepers”–which is both the name of Bantu’s band and his non-profit/non-governmental organization–are outspoken proponents of immigrants rights. (Watch Ade Bantu perform “Lagos Jump.”) Even the German klezmer band DI GRINE KUZINE (named after a traditional Yiddish song, “The Greenhorn Cousin,”) expands the nation’s musical diversity as it tries to blend Eastern European rhythms with Western genres like ska, pop and Latin music (Watch Di Grine Kuzine perform live in Ukraine in 2002.)
In class we’re going to celebrate two essential German yearly cultural festivals: Oktoberfest and the Wacken Open Air metal concert.