Music aesthetics

[Outline; full version will follow]

GDR music aesthetics were, as was the case with literature, the heir to debates that had begun during the Weimar Republic and exile. (They were also the heir to Soviet music aesthetics, if one considers the ongoing GDR debates over Boris Asafiev’s intonation theory.) Parallel to the better-known literary “Expressionism Debate” running from 1934–1938 in the Moscow emigré publication Das Wort,1The materials are collected in Hans-Jürgen Schmitt, Die Expressionismusdebatte (Suhrkamp 1973); some may be found in English in: Aesthetics and Politics: Bloch, Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin, Adorno (London: Verso, 1980). a similar musical opposition developed between Lukács on the one hand and Bloch and Eisler on the other. The key term Erbe (inheritance) was already an important aspect of this debate.For the history of this concept, see Karl Robert Mandelkow, “Die literarische und kulturpolitische Bedeutung des Erbes,” Die Literatur der DDR, ed. Hans-Jürgen Schmitt (Munich: Hanser, 1983), 78–119. On its role in GDR music: Elaine Kelly, Composing the Canon in the German Democratic Republic: Narratives of 19th Century Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). Against Lukács’ normative classicizing,On Lukács’ music theory: Albrecht Riethmüller, Die Musik als Abbild der Realität (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1974); Jost Hermand, “Double Mimesis: Georg Lukàcs’ Theory of Music,” Sound Figures of Modernity: German Music and Philosophy, ed. Gerhard Richter (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), 244–260. Eisler defended the right of present-day artists to “sort through and prepare classical material” (klassisches Material … auszusondern und zu präparieren).“Die Kunst zu erben,” Materialien zu einer Dialektik der Musik (Leipzig: Reclam, 1973), 157–163, here 158. It is significant that Eisler names one of his imaginary debaters by the Brechtian term of “Produzent.” Eisler also argues – anticipating Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music by a decade – that musical material itself changes over time, so that modern composers can no longer simply make use of older musical techniques. Thus “Der Formalismus wird nicht durch Akademismus überwunden, sondern einzig von den neuen Stoffen her, die nach einer ihr gemässen, inhaltlich bestimmten Form drängen”.Ibid., 160. Eisler pleads for a wider spectrum of modern art than Lukács, one that includes Picasso and Schoenberg (and even Freud), as he will continue to do in the GDR. Nonetheless he shares with Lukács a Hegelian content aesthetics, even an aesthetics of “realism,” that will distinguish his version of musical modernity from Adorno’s. (One may argue that the differences within Marxist musical aesthetics are explicable in terms of varying interpretations of Hegel.)

This same opposition, after 1949, became one between official state-sponsored Marxist musical aesthetics (taking Lukács as its point of departure, and expressed in the aesthetics or normative poetics of “socialist realism”) and an underground or unofficial current of more pluralist positions, represented by Eisler, Dessau and others, including musicologists. The historical benchmarks of this split were the criticisms of Brecht and Dessau’s Lukullus projectJoachim Lucchesi, ed. Das Verhör in der Oper. Die Debatte um die Aufführung “Das Verhör des Lukullus” von Bertolt Brecht und Paul Dessau (Berlin: BasisDruck, 1993). and the controversy around Eisler’s never-composed Johann Faustus opera in the early 1950s. While these more advanced undertakings were either aborted or toned down, official music aesthetics were given form in the compositions and writings of Ernst Hermann Meyer (Mansfeld Oratorium and Bach speech, 1950)On which, see Toby Thacker, Music After Hitler, 1945–1955 (Ashgate 2007), chapter 5 (“Bach Shenanigans”), 127–150. and pieces by Ottmar Gerster (Eisenkombinat Ost, 1951), which ostensibly continued the primacy of text-based and “comprehensible” music already articulated in Weimar left musical culture (although without reflecting on the misuse of such music’s rhetoric during the Nazi period, a misuse that led Eisler to mistrust this desideratum).

The alternative current of musical thought did not however cease despite official discouragement: Eisler returned from Austria to lecture to the Berlin Academy of the Arts in late 1954 on Schoenberg,Albrecht Betz, Hanns Eisler: Political Musician, transl. Bill Hopkins (Cambridge 1982), 227. and his Ernste Gesänge of 1962 are an unrepentant statement of his credo (“nicht Mächtiges ist unser Singen, aber zum Leben gehört es”); alongside this work he admittedly also produced work like the Neue deutsche Volkslieder with Becher. Dessau would continue his version of modernism with In memoriam Bertolt Brecht (1957) or the Bach-Variationen (1963)Matthias Tischer, Komponieren für und wider den Staat. Paul Dessau in der DDR (Cologne: Böhlau, 2009). – which put into concrete practice the unconventional approach to the “inheritance” Eisler had defended in the 1930s – and mentored a generation of younger GDR composers, including Reiner Bredemeyer, Friedrich Schenker and Friedrich Goldmann, who went on to develop a GDR variant of musical modernism from the 1960s on. This development in compositional practice went hand in hand with changes in music aesthetics as well. Harry Goldschmidt argued for a “relative” autonomy of music – thereby contradicting the principled suspicion of autonomy aesthetics entertained by Eisler – and was followed in this by Klaus Mehner (whose work can be seen as anticipating the much later “rediscovery” of Eduard Hanslick).Harry Goldschmidt, Um die Sache der Musik. Reden und Aufsätze (Leipzig: Reclam, 1976); Mehner’s discussion can be found in the important anthology Musikästhetik in der Diskussion, ed. Goldschmidt and Knepler (Leipzig: Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1981). See the discussion in Fritz Beinroth, Da stritten sich die Geister (Aachen: Shaker Verlag, 2011). Eisler himself changed his mind about artistic autonomy by the end of his life, as is clear in Hans Bunge, Fragen Sie mehr über Brecht. Hanns Eisler im Gespräch (Munich: Rogner und Bernhard, 1970), 315–320. At the 1964 Music Congress, Goldschmidt’s student Günter Mayer presented a Problemspiegel summing up the state of affairs in GDR composition that was a virtual declaration of independence from existing modes of interpretation of socialist realism.Laura Silverberg, “Between Dissonance and Dissidence: Socialist Modernism in the German Democratic Republic,” The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Winter 2009): 44–84; Lars Klingberg, “Die Debatte um Eisler und die Zwölftontechnik in der DDR in den 1960er Jahren,” Zwischen Macht und Freiheit. Neue Musik in der DDR, ed. Michael Berg, Albrecht von Massow and Nina Noeske, 39–61. Interestingly, there was also a belated reception of Adorno’s work in the GDR (despite his being officially a persona non grata), especially in the work of Knepler and Günter Mayer,Weltbild, Notenbild. Zur Dialektik des musikalischen Materials (Leipzig: Reclam, 1978); Peter Gülke’s Beethoven work would also be worth mentioning here (“… immer das Ganze vor Augen”: Studien zu Beethoven [Stuttgart: Metzler, Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2000]). For Knepler, see for instance Geschichte als Weg zum Musikverständnis (Leipzig: Reclam, 1977), 469–470 and 480–482. who developed their own ideas of musical material – a concept that had been earlier subordinated to music’s conscious political function (especially by Eisler).Eisler’s notion of music as functional or as “communicative” was one that he “zuletzt gegen eine Verselbständigung des musikalischen Materials ins Feld führt” (Albrecht Betz, “Der Komponist als Dialektiker. Hanns Eislers Philosophie der Musik,” Hanns Eisler, ed. Albrecht Dümling [Frankfurt: Stroemfeld, 2010], 132). In Eisler’s own words: “denn die Geschichte lehrt, dass jeder neue Musikstil nicht aus einem ästhetischen neuen Standpunkt ensteht, also keine Materialrevolution darstellt, sondern die Änderung des Materials zwangsläufig bedingt wird durch eine historisch notwendige Änderung der Funktion der Musik in der Gesellschaft überhaupt” (“Die Erbauer einer neuen Musikkultur,” Materialien zu einer Dialektik der Musik, 78–79). I would like, in my contribution to the project, to explore this later development in GDR music aesthetics, along with Knepler’s reconsiderations of “realism in music” (contrasting them to Dahlhaus’ skeptical treatment of the topic in his book about it).Georg Knepler, “Musikalischer Realismus: neue Überlegungen zu einem alten Problem,” Beiträge zur Musikwissenschaft 1988, Vol. 30, No. 4: 231–253; Carl Dahlhaus, Musikalischer Realismus. Zur Musikgeschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts (Munich: Piper, 1982). Knepler in particular had a wide range of theoretical and aesthetic interests, including bioacoustics. One may argue that there was no single unified (Marxist) musical aesthetic in the GDR, but rather a plurality of musical aesthetics (as Gerd Rienäcker has suggested).“Haben wir eine marxistische Musiktheorie?” Musikwissenschaft und Kalter Krieg: das Beispiel DDR, ed. Nina Noeske/Matthias Tischer (Köln: Böhlau, 2010), 159–178.


  1. The materials are collected in Hans-Jürgen Schmitt, Die Expressionismusdebatte (Suhrkamp 1973); some may be found in English in: Aesthetics and Politics: Bloch, Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin, Adorno (London: Verso, 1980).


Music aesthetics


    Larson Powell, Artikel „Music aesthetics“, in: Musikgeschichte Online, hg. von Lars Klingberg, Nina Noeske und Matthias Tischer, 2018ff. Stand vom 2022-09-14, online verfügbar unter, zuletzt abgerufen am 2022-11-27.