Avant-Garde and Trauma - The Music of the 20th Century and the Experiences of the World Wars.

The discovery of the unconscious

A technical article by Dr. Wolfgang-Andreas Schultz.

What traces has the endless suffering of the two world wars left in music? How does music react when an entire society is traumatized? Music may be able to cope with a single fate, having already ventured into the creation of extreme situations at the beginning of the century. Is Elektra, the heroine of the opera by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss, traumatized? The scene of her father’s murder is evoked again and again in the daily ritual of remembrance, updated at every opportunity: “What are you raising your hands for? This is how the father raised his two hands, that’s when the axe went down …”, she says to her sister. Let us leave the question open under clinical aspects – if we consider the unity of poetry and music, the picture emerges: Elektra can express her feelings, is alive in all her hatred, and in the hope of revenge has a goal that gives her a perspective on life. She is at least not so severely traumatized that she can no longer show feelings or tell stories. The music is able to adapt to her abrupt gestures, knows moments of torpor in dissonant sounds, but always remains expressive, always finds its flow again and is able, despite all discontinuity in the details, to shape time and create a coherent whole.

An extreme traumatization, on the other hand, as is often found in war participants, shows far stronger symptoms: “A traumatized memory is not capable of narrative reproduction. (…) Severe trauma destroys the cohesion of consciousness,” Jonathan Shay states. “For combat soldiers, the time horizon collapses. All that matters to them is getting through the now.” (Shay) “The change in the sense of time begins with the erasure of the future and eventually includes the erasure of the past,” writes Judith Hermann. Other symptoms of those who live on, have to live on, with unhealed trauma include “robotic functioning not accompanied by affect…” (Ursula Wirtz), “perpetuation of insensibility” and the “feeling of emptiness of meaning and meaninglessness” (Shay)

If we allow ourselves to anticipate a bit, it is striking how this results in a description of some currents of the musical avant-garde after 1950, with only a slight change in the choice of words: “Perception of individual, isolated events (…) prevents the telling of stories. Time is divided and cut up, time splinters, time scraps, time snippets are brought into new and different contexts in order to enable the experience of relationality again and again and again,” it says – without all criticism, by the way – in a book about “New Listening” by Eva-Maria Houben. 

The music of the 20th century might have faced the following problem: To what extent can it assimilate extreme states of mind while remaining powerful of itself, or is it drawn into them to such an extent that it takes the symptoms of traumatization into itself, reproducing them itself? When music reacts with emotionlessness, detachment, abstraction, coldness and
separation of its physical-sensual dimensions, when its time horizon breaks away, it becomes incapable of establishing connections and of meaningful, understandable succession, in short: when it fragments itself and can no longer narrate, and when no instance can be found that is responsible for the coherence of what is sounded, then emotional numbness, loss of time horizon and dissociation of the ego have seized music itself.

Let’s go back to the beginning of the 20th century. For Elektra, the traumatizing scene was in the past. Arnold Schoenberg continues in his opera one-act “Expectation”, here it is present. A woman wanders through the forest at night in search of her lover, whom she eventually finds murdered. The music traces her sensations with the greatest precision: Fear, fright, freezing, hope, happy memories, jealousy, pain and despair. In the process, it lurches frightfully from moment to moment; there are no longer any themes or motifs that could establish a temporal context, only isolated gestures,
shocks and outbursts; the time horizon shrinks to the pure present. The concomitant sounds are dissonant throughout, tense, as if the music were breathing only shallowly and tensely with the woman; the meter often remains barely perceptible in the nuanced and dissolved rhythms, as if the music were withdrawing from the body. And yet, in an ingenious balancing act, Schoenberg manages to create a grand formal arc in the dramaturgy of expression. For all its adaptation to extreme situations, the music always remains organic and – despite its tautness – always physically felt. Above all: the music lives
still in partly wide-swinging melodic arcs, thus preserves the space for an inner world and has a rich spectrum of expression – it has not yet let itself be drawn into the traumatizing situation.

Schönberg’s “Erwartung” was composed in 1909; a major break in his creative work is formed by the years of the First World War, during which hardly any work was completed. There may have been external reasons for this; Schoenberg was called up for military service in 1915, but was discharged as early as 1917. The years up to 1920 saw the elaboration of the twelve-tone technique. Schoenberg was decisively involved in the change of style at the beginning of the 1920s with his search for order and a music that conveys coldness, hardness and distance rather than sensitivity and vulnerability. Should the First World War have nothing to do with this? Even though Adorno’s “Philosophy of New Music” does not mention the First World War at all – remarkable for a thinker who addresses the connection between music and society – we must pursue this question.

After the unimaginable horrors of the Second World War, those of the First are occasionally underestimated. In addition to the battles of materiel, the use of poison gas at the front, the hunger and deprivation throughout the country, there was the grief of the fallen and the sight of the many invalids and crippled people. “The First World War left behind an army of blind, amputees, of those shattered in soul and body like no war before,” writes Bruno Schrep. This had to have a noticeable impact on the state of mind of the whole society, especially since in Germany and Austria the social upheavals caused by the end of the monarchies and the humiliating awareness of having lost the war were added.

The sources on the war experiences of the composers are not very productive. But even those who were not injured can be affected by traumatic experiences due to life-threatening situations or what they had to witness. And many people do not want to or cannot talk about traumatizing experiences. But even if composers were not personally affected, they often picked up the atmosphere, the altered ways of reacting, the ways of dealing with feelings, with grief and pain, with injuries, from the society that surrounded them. “Unhealed frontline trauma destroys not only the lives of the veterans affected, but also the lives of their families and the community. In some cases, such as in Weimar Republic Germany after World War I, this phenomenon can severely damage society as a whole.” (Shay)

In such a situation, the question of what resources a society has to deal with traumatic experiences is an interesting one. A look at the preceding good hundred years shows that the conditions for successfully coping with war trauma were conceivably unfavorable. Walter Benjamin, in his work “On some motifs in Baudelaire”, has worked out, in addition to the isolation of the individual, the experience of shocks as essential for people living in the big city. To a story by Poe translated by Baudelaire, it says there: “His passers-by behave as if, adapted to the automata, they could only automatically express themselves. Their behavior is a reaction to choks.” This already reads like a description of neo-Saxon art of the 20s. For a coping or integration traumatic experiences is a human environment crucial, in which the traumatized again can learn to find confidence. A religious or spiritual framework can also be helpfulfor processing the trauma. It is obvious that in a largely secularized, on individualization, on competition of individuals oriented society all these prerequisites were not or no longer in the necessary extent. People were ultimately referred to themselves, and so it may be that the second major problem besides the trauma itself was the impossibility of finding an appropriate framework for its management. In this respect, the situation after the First World War may differ from that after other major wars, and possibly therefore the traumas of the two world wars have left clearer traces in art than before.

Not only the poetry of a Baudelaire, but also the music owes decisive impulses to the changed perceptions of the big city. Anselm Gerhard, in his book “The Urbanization of Opera,” quoting Benjamin, describes how “Meyerbeer’s opera (‘The Huguenots’), even two decades before Baudelaire’s poems, ‘informs us of the intimate connection’ that exists ‘between the figure of the chook and his contact with the metropolitan masses.’ “It is the way of dealing with contrasts and surprise effects, the juxtaposition of liturgy and gypsy dance, of supplicatory chorale and approaching massacre, that brings the Grand Opéra close
to collage-like techniques. Berlioz transferred this, even further than Meyerbeer, to his instrumental music or to his imaginary stages. Gerhard surmises as the cause of this modernizing thrust in music:
“The terrifying upheavals in the aftermath of the Revolution had sensitized contemporaries to the perception of the ‘chocs inopinés,’ and so it was only a matter of time when these new impressions would be traced in the arts; after all, the artistic exaggeration of what was experienced allowed the domestication of epochal horror in its evocation.” While these experiences challenged the integrative capacity of musical language, they did not destroy it; they ultimately enriched the expressive possibilities of music and possibly strengthened already existing developmental tendencies. Is it possible that every shock also hides an opportunity for growth?

Schönberg’s “Erwartung” refers to a single, isolated person and his inner world of the soul. One can see this work as the end point of a development that began in the Romantic period, when artists began to take an interest in the “night sides” of life, in the unconscious realms, in fears, the repressed, and even in madness. We can call this listening into one’s own soul the discovery of the “personal unconscious”. In contrast to this, there is another current that searches further and further back into the past to the musical shaping of the archaic layers stored in the soul, a “collective unconscious”. There it is about the collective heritage of mankind, not about personal experience and not about the individual life story. The most succinct work of this development is “Le Sacre du Printemps” by Igor Stravinsky, which evokes images from pagan, archaic Russia, where a young girl is sacrificed to the Great Mother Earth so that spring will return.

In the “Sacre,” time dissociates for very different reasons than in Schoenberg’s work, where in the “Erwartung” the music lurches shockingly from gesture to gesture. In “Frühlingsopfer” the music imagines an archaic world before the formation of a stable ego-consciousness and before the experience of a linear development of time, and so there is a series of melodic formulas and flat sections circling developmentlessly within themselves. Changes and accents come surprisingly and unprepared and remain inconsequential, so that here, too, the music lingers in the now without memory or expectation.

The concentration both on the unconscious of the individual and on the archaic layers is accompanied by the dissociation of time. Weakened in the process are the ego and consciousness, that personal center from which traumatic experiences could be integrated. Aaron Antonovsky mentions the “sense of coherence” as an important prerequisite for coping with extreme situations, which includes the availability of a temporal framework, a thinking out beyond the mere now. If perhaps the two most important developments at the beginning of the 20th century involve the dissociation of time, music as a temporal art is already wounded to the core, and so the traumas of war hit this art in a particularly unprotected way.

War Trauma. After 1918

In the textbook by Fischer and Riedesser it says: “A reenactment of traumatic experience on an immense scale could be observed in Europe between the two world wars. (…) The First World War had left war traumas on a large scale among soldiers and population. (…) The cult of strength and the denial of one’s own weakness and vulnerability were accompanied by the contempt and exclusion of the ‘weak’ and ‘hereditarily inferior’ up to their physical destruction. In a ‘trauma-compensatory’ enterprise of gigantic proportions, Germany plunged in parallel into the Second ‘World War’, into a war ultimately against the ‘whole world’.” So it’s not surprising that there was little shared mourning in music either, but that a strong need for order took hold.

Order makes life predictable, builds dams against feelings, and forms armor against injury. Ultimately, it was a matter of no longer having to feel the pain and the continuing fear. This came at a high price: people tended toward an attitude of coldness and emotionlessness, toward the illusion of superiority and invulnerability, and this went hand in hand with a dramatic devaluation of the inner world of the soul and of individual expression – because that makes one vulnerable.

What “order” emerged in the 1920s, however, was of a different kind than, say, the order of a Bach fugue or a Mozart symphony. Bach’s and Mozart’s orders were audible; even the contrapuntal arts of a Bach fugue are, if the listener is prepared for them, audibly comprehensible, in Mozart the music is held together by a subliminally effective correspondence of graded final turns and key planes, and in all tonal music the structures are formed by audibly comprehensible consonance-dissonance relationships. It is a “soft” order, as it were, which does not do violence to any detail,
but grows out of the melodic and harmonic forces.

The order developed in the 1920s is different. It appears externally and does not emerge from the life of the details, composed is rather the “aura” of order: one feels restraint, the constraint and harshness that the music must do to itself, and one feels the fear and chaos against which the order was erected. This subliminal anxiety appears as a “subtext” that sometimes mixes with or even overlaps the expression intended by the composer.

The twelve-tone technique developed by Schoenberg is a good example of this. It was presented as a solution to the compositional problems of “free atonality” of those works written before the First World War. In truth, however, it solved none of them and created a whole new set of problems. However, the development of the twelve-tone method becomes understandable in a sense other than that of compositional technique in connection with the traumas of the postwar period. Due to the constraint of the series, neither harmonic nor melodic forces come to fruition, and this gives this music a peculiar rigidity. The difference between consonance and dissonance becomes relatively meaningless; while in “free atonality” the dissonances still seem to be consciously and expressively set, they now appear as a seemingly neutral sound material. “As an expression of tension, contradiction and pain, the dissonances have emerged. SThey have sedimented and become ‘material’. They are no longer medium of subjective expression. But they do not therefore deny their origin.” So Adorno in the “Philosophy of New Music”.

The expression of fear and pain becomes a “subtext”. However, this exposes the idea as an illusion that one can now have all expressive areas at one’s disposal in the twelve-tone technique and even compose a Buffo opera (which Schönberg did try to do with “From Today to Tomorrow”). Gerhard Scheit writes: “During these years, Schönberg was obviously concerned to semantically neutralize the music formed according to the twelve-tone method, to present it as music like any other: as if it had no special horizon of meaning, as if it were not the result of a certain epoch – an epoch to which the destroyed cities owe their existence (…).” Behind the facade of twelve-tone sonata and rondo forms, variation sequences and baroque dance types lurks the expression of fear and pain.

But with twelve-tone technique, form and the shaping of time also become a problem. Every detail is derived from the series. “As soon as everything is equally absorbed in variation, a ‘theme’ does not remain behind, and everything that appears musically determines itself indiscriminately as a permutation of the series, nothing changes at all in the totality of changes.” (Adorno) Actual development is hardly possible anymore, and so the “end of the musical experience of time” and a “state of musical historicity” occur. Even if in Schoenberg’s case the traditional forms still seem coherent on the surface, beneath it all those symptoms are perceptible which are known from traumatized people: suppressed fear behind a hard and rigid facade of order and coldness, and a dissociated consciousness of time. Adorno goes even further: “The new order of twelve-tone technique virtually erases the subject.” Such loss of subject corresponds to the experience of traumatized people to no longer be the master of their lives, to no longer be able to shape their lives.

If we now turn, following Adorno’s method of his “Philosophy of New Music”, to Stravinsky, who was seen at the time as an antipode of Schoenberg, the problem nevertheless presents itself similarly with him – in some respects more subtle, more hidden, because he retained tonality as a system of order (or its surface), in other respects more open, because he quite consciously cultivated a coolly distanced attitude and denied that music can express anything at all. Schoenberg was still largely perceived in the 1920s as the heir to Romanticism and Expressionism (perhaps the phrase “frozen” or “congealed” Expressionism captures his attitude quite well), while Stravinsky, along with Paul Hindemith and the representatives of the “Groupe des Six” (the late Erik Satie, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and others), was perceived as the actual new current – and thus as avant-garde. 

In contrast to Stravinsky’s works of the “Russian period” (such as from “Petrushka” to “Les Noces”, i.e. until the stylistic turn around 1920), which can be easily opened up to analysis and traced in their compositional technique, his works after 1920 peculiarly refuse analyzing understanding. Possibly Stravinsky was not about an understandable and comprehensible order, but about the “aura” of order, about the fact that the music exudes restraint, rigor, distance and coolness, qualities that were associated with classicism at the time. There,where Stravinsky uses diatonic tonality,forces by simultaneously interlocking chords that actually strive towards each other, preferably thus superimposing tonic and dominant, so that the striving of the dominant towards the tonic is neutralized. Difficult to explain is his way of deliberately “wrong”using chromatic tones, changing key fields and pushing them into each other, all that can hardly be deciphered in its logic – perhaps there is none. The result is a music that seems constructed, but can not really be traced, and so only the “aura” of rigor and order radiates. This impression is supported by an often motoric flowing rhythm, which does not breathe, but occasionally stumbles. All this, his “objectivity” and his departure from the expressive principle make it understandable why Stravinsky and neoclassicism were so successful in the 1920s: they served the need not to feel pain and fear better than the Schoenberg school, whose “traumatic subtext”always referred to the wounds.

Adorno has shown that the suppression of subjectivity and expression by no means leads to the “objectivity” longed for by Stravinsky: “Occjectivism is a matter of façade, because there is nothing to objectify, because it does not operate on anyone however reluctant, a dazzle of force and security.” Thus the form of his music loses substance and so also the ability to shape time sequences: “Memory debris is strung together, not musically immediate material unfolded from its own driving force. The composition does not realize itself through development, but by virtue of the cracks that furrow it. (…) Thus, however, the musical time continuum dissociates itself. “

Even if Schoenberg and Stravinsky differ in their relationship to expression, even if they establish “order” or the appearance of order in different ways, they resemble each other in their defense of the organic, the silencing or avoidance of melodic and harmonic forces, in the difficulty of shaping developments and large forms, ultimately in the dissociation of musical time and in the threatening loss of subject. Adorno suspects “that one day Stravinsky’s alienated, assembled tonal chords and the succession of twelve-tone sounds, whose connecting wires have been cut, as it were, at the behest of the system, will not sound so different as they do today.” Thus the two supposed antipodes are equally marked by their time.

Many consider Alban Berg the greatest composer of the Schoenberg school because his music shows fewer traits of torpor and has remained more expressive, as he has always sought proximity to tonality and his music flows more vividly – and because he has given voice to the suffering human being in his operas. Adorno reproached him for this: “The irreconcilable in the late Schoenberg (…) is superior to Berg’s too early reconciliation, the inhuman coldness to the generous warmth.” Perhaps it should be noted that Berg managed the balance of exposing himself to traumatizing experiences (he, too, participated in the war as a soldier) while at the same time preserving his music from torpor, retaining its ability to narrate and its expressiveness. Bela Bartok and Maurice Ravel also absorbed much of the experience of the time, but Ravel’s way of dealing with bitonality is more lively, more dynamic than Stravinsky’s, it allows for developments, transitions and bridges to tradition; Bartok has always preserved the possibility of authentic expression and for the construction of larger fulfilled forms, for all the harshness inherent in his music at times.

Helmut Lethen has developed a physiognomy of the 20s in his book “Verhaltenslehren der Kälte – Lebensversuche zwischen den Kriegen”. At the center is the “cold persona”, in which a new image of man is condensed, characterized by surveillance, distance and emotional coldness. A “chronic state of alarm” prevails, whereby the fear that underlies it is removed from the consciousness; the ego appears armored, to “contain the pain” it puts on a “cold armor,” it observes sharply, always vigilant, it avoids relationships and remains distant; it should appear as sovereign and invulnerable as possible, everything emotional, the emotional life and its expression are devalued. It is not difficult to recognize behavior patterns here that soldiers had to learn as a survival strategy and that now, after the war, characterize civilian life – and art. Jonathan Shay counts among the symptoms of war-related post-traumatic stress disorder, among other things.

  • Constant mobilization of body and mind in the face of a perceived threat to life;
  • Continuing and activating survival techniques in combat situations in everyday life;
  • constant expectation of being cheated and exploited; destruction of the ability to build social trust

The “cold persona” described by Lethen seems to be the basic type of the 20s damaged by the traumas of war – surprising that Lethen does not even thematisize this connection. The representation would remain incomplete, however, without pointing to the shadow of the “cold persona” to what was then called “creature”: All the unsovereign, vulnerable people who have not managed to put on the necessary cold armor, often unable to survive (the Wozzeck in Berg’s opera corresponds to this type), all the war cripples and traumatized, who were met with contempt. Everything weak that the “cold persona” at perceives and hates in itself, is projected onto the “creature” and excluded with it. This “creature” musically lend a voice was the chance to break through the defenses and armor. But as Adorno wrote. “The inhumanity of art must surpass that of the world for the sake of the human.”

After 1945. The Material Concept

Can this “inhumanity” really serve the human? Is it not only another side of the “self-anesthetization” (W.G.Sebald), the insensibility of the German society after the Second World War, the “inability to mourn” ( Alexander Mitscherlich )? Instead of getting the chance to overcome the traumas of the First World War, people became victims of a renewed, most severe traumatization by the Second, by the defeat, by guilt, flight and expulsion. Hannah Arendt reported from Germany in 1949: ” (…) nowhere is this nightmare of destruction and horror less felt and nowhere
is it less talked about than in Germany. Everywhere one notices that there is no reaction to what has happened, but it is difficult to say whether this is somehow a deliberate refusal to mourn or the expression of a genuine inability to feel.” Mitscherlich speaks of the “striking emotional rigidity with which people responded to the piles of corpses in the concentration camps, the disappearance of the German armies in captivity, the news about the murder of millions of Jews, Poles, Russians, about the murder of political opponents from their own ranks.”

That this emotional rigidity spreads to music is obvious, but by no means inevitable. Schoenberg responds with “A Survivor from Warsaw,” where the twelve-tone technique finds its way back to its origins in the expression of fear and despair. Karl Amadeus Hartmann succeeds in transforming the experiences of the war and post-war period into highly expressive music, whereby – and this is not insignificant – he dispenses with the twelve-tone technique. He had a hard time with his expressive music, because it did not fit into the mainstream of the avant-garde after 1950, which relied on an extremely constructive emotionless music.

After the First World War came the twelve-tone technique, after the Second the “serial music”. It is interesting how in the years from 1948 the term avant-garde changed its reference. Until then, Stravinsky, Hindemith, and the Frenchmen of the Groupe des Six, with their coolly distanced classicism, had been the epitome of “avant-garde.” Hans Werner Henze reports on his piano concertino with wind instruments, “emphatically soulless, as Frau Mode in the form of the Baden-Baden radio music department head Strobel prescribed at the time. One wore the cold inhumanity look, (…) However, the fashion passed already in 1948, when the French composer René Leibowitz came to Darmstadt and familiarized us with the Schoenbergian series idea, (…)” But not only Schoenberg was discovered, but also Webern, in whom a possibility of twelve-tone technique appeared, which was free of the diction of a Schoenberg or Berg still reminiscent of Romanticism. The crystalline constructiveness of his twelve-tone works thus became the starting point for serial music, which served the need for a cold and emotionless art better than neoclassicism – so now this was the avant-garde.

“Rigidity indicates emotional turning away; the past is de-realized in the sense of a withdrawal of all pleasurable and unpleasurable involvement in it, it sinks dreamlike,” Mitscherlich says. And when Pierre Boulez says: “I wanted to question everything, to make tabula rasa with the inheritance and to begin again at the zero point” (in “Will and Chance”), then one must not forget that this new beginning had a terrible price, it was only the reverseside “of a deeply rooted, stubborn and brutal refusal to face what had actually happened and to come to terms with it.” (Hannah Arendt) Thus, composers around Stockhausen and Boulez began to construct music from all historical and semantic references purified single tone and its physical properties. Pitch and tone duration, volume and occasionally even timbre were subjected to row principles that tend to kill any inner flow and liveliness. The individual tones no longer join to a “shape”, and the tone determined by its abstract, calculated duration value no longer enters into a connection with its neighbor. The creative freedom of composers was severely limited, a withdrawal that perhaps corresponds to the “sense of powerlessness and loss of control” (J. Herman) in trauma victims. In addition to this phenomenon of loss of subject and self, there is a separation from the body: “Traumatized feel no longer at home in their body” (J. Herman), because all feeling is split off and displaced from consciousness. Because there is now no perceptible beat, no pulse, no metre more, the serial music appears peculiarly disembodied. And it is very abstract, separated from the world of images, from physical gestures and from all emotions – also can be found in traumatized: They try – as a protection – to refrain from their own person and prefer an impersonal mode of expression. Of course, time is also dissociated in an unprecedented way, in trauma research occasionally falls the term of “frozen time” (J. Herman). What remains is “pure material,” a music that no longer wants to mean anything or express anything.

With regard to corresponding phenomena in the visual arts, pure formalism and abstract expressionism, Jean Claire wrote: “One was well advised to forget the subject, for it had become guilty. And since the subject was lost in a work whose meaning had dissolved, it was now possible to feast only on the pure play of forms and colors, reminiscent of nothing. Thus decontaminated, washed clean, purified, freed from any hint of humanity, humorless, without a trace of blood and tears, the work of art confirmed its triumphant autonomy as an object.”

When Adorno writes about the compositional material, “All its specific features are marks of a historical process,” he is perhaps right to a greater extent than he suspected. Only he never reflected on the connection of musical material with war experiences and war traumas, and yet the prohibitions formulated by him and his successors after 1950 ultimately find their justification in them. In the context of the traumas, it is indeed no longer possible to narrate, but memory remains fragmented, time shrinks to the now, feelings can no longer be expressed, fragments no longer make up a whole, and
the ego remains dissociated. But since this connection did not come to consciousness, a material concept emptied of all content laid as a veil over the expression that once produced this material.

So the question of “Today you can no longer…” is not one of material status, rather, the material concept is precisely that cool-distant mask that the avant-garde needs to be able to forget its origins in the pain of the world wars. The influence of the two world wars and the traumas they triggered are the blind spot of the aesthetic discussion based on Adorno. It was never discussed why the development of material always made a decisive step just after a world war. Adorno certainly developed his philosophy from “survivor’s guilt,” but apparently Auschwitz blinded him to all the other traumatizing experiences to which people were exposed. Since the traumas did not come into the field of vision of Adorno’s philosophy, there could also be no perspective on healing – that makes Adorno’s philosophy so depressingly hopeless.

But also demands such as “new music must be disturbing” or “new music must hurt” make sense only in the context of unhealed traumatic experiences, because often an unhealed trauma affects as a compulsion to pass on suffered injuries, to reenact the suffered violence in everyday life – and in art. This also explains the proximity of the avant-gardes to violence and terror, one thinks of André Breton’s text from the “Second Surrealist Manifesto”: “The simplest surrealist act consists in going out into the street with revolvers in your fists aand shooting blindly, as long as you can, into the crowd. “

It is striking to what extent violence is re-staged in the happening scene since about 1960. There, as Marianne Kesting wrote in “Melos” in 1969, “an almost compulsive desire for destruction makes itself felt.” Wolf Vostell reports: “I experienced my first happenings when I was eight or nine years old. During an air raid alert, we all had to run a kilometer out of school into the open countryside, and each child, left to his own devices, had to hide alone under a tree.” Marianne Kesting continues, “During happenings, he (Wolf Vostell) liked to compose car accidents. In the destructive tendency, the musician Nam June Paik corresponds to him, who became known, not to say famous, for systematically demolishing musical instruments, hacking up pianos, sawing up and breaking violins (…).” She rightly recognizes in this “a deliberate provocation that can sometimes take on terrorist features.” Thus, Stockhausen’s statements on the attack of September 11 are also entirely in the unfortunate tradition of the avant-garde to replay and pass on the traumatically experienced violence: “So, what happened there is of course (…) the greatest work of art that has ever existed.”

It would not be wrong to now briefly take a look at the personal experiences of some composers of those years. Karel Goeyvaerts, a companion of Stockhausen’s admitted in his autobiography “that the rational structural determination of the early fifties was a reaction to post-war anxiety.” Bernd Alois Zimmermann reports in his diary (August 23, 1941) about life-threatening situations as a soldier in Russia: “On the 21st at noon, the Russians shelled us for ten hours with such a savage artillery fire (…). The shell splinters hissed around our heads that it just had a way of happening.” Terrible things Stockhausen had to experience; not only did he lose his parents during the war, but he also found himself in mortal danger on several occasions: “At the age of 16, I experienced thousands who were dying. Death became something completely relative for me. I myself was often in direct danger of my life – one hundred percent, I could say: the projectiles of the planes hit the earth all around me (… )” Later he worked in a war hospital behind the Western Front: “The heads of most of them were like balls of foam rubber, and often I tried to find a hole up to the mouth with a straw to pour in some liquid to feed such a person who was still moving – but there was only a yellow spherical mass with no sign of a face.” Perhaps most jarring is how Stockhausen interrupts the interviewer’s question, ” … do you have to put up with all these trials and these horrors of war, all these terrible things that you told…” “I don’t even know if they are really so terrible.”

To mention this is not to attribute the development of music after 1945 to individual pathologies of its main representatives. The society as a whole suffered from the traumas of war, defeat, guilt, flight and expulsion. A composer need not also exhibit as a person the symptoms that his music absorbs from the society that surrounds him; nevertheless, it is remarkable that Stockhausen in particular, who was indeed personally affected, became the outstanding exponent of the new music. Peter Niklas Wilson wrote: “Only music that refrained from all entanglements with the conventional, according to the ‘opinion leaders’ of the serial avant-garde, could lay claim to embodying the spirit of the new.” And it is no coincidence that it is Stockhausen who went the furthest: “In Stockhausen’s case, the furor of deconstruction soon after went so far as to negate not only historical and semantic conventions of music, but even to unhinge and recode the physiological preconditions of listening in a coup de grâce.”

Can this succeed?
Does one do Stockhausen’s “groups” wrong, if one perceives the echo of the catastrophe at the culmination? If one is frightened by the abrupt breaks in continuity? Here, too, the expression that is not wanted can creep in again as a “traumatic subtext,” but the composers resisted this – the subtext had to be suppressed from consciousness. The “New Listening” should perceive the sounds as pure material, expectations of musical contexts and meanings should not even be awakened. Hanz Zender speaks of the fact that the new music “negates time. It avoids contexts by developing strategies to form formation in the old sense not come about allow.” And Eva-Maria Houben says: “In the composition, the material atomized, so that it can be used as a building block, so that it is purified from the flak of its origin, its meaning, its message.” In the “New Listening” the listener should therefore expect no connections and no meanings, he should fragmentation and incoherence may not perceive as an expression of a traumatically dissociated time and as inability to coherent narrative, he should not be allowed to hear the dissonances, the wild gestures and discontinuous structure as cries and as an expression of fear and disturbance, in short: the “New Hearing” should prevent deciphering the subtext as a mirror of a traumatized consciousness.

Although such positions are still held today, more and more composers have freed themselves from this rigid attitude and found contact with the feelings again. In his opera “Die Soldaten” (The Soldiers), Bernd Alois Zimmermann seeks to come to terms with the experiences of war. His music seems to be under tremendous inner pressure, and extreme expression with large interval leaps, sharp dissonances and harsh sounds is omnipresent, even where it would not be dramaturgically necessary. Thus, a permanent expression of fear and panic – possibly not intended at all – covers the work, everything is permeated by the “traumatic subtext”, and perhaps this is what makes the opera such an authentic expression of its time.

That the “traumatic subtext” overlaps the intended expression seems to be the problem of many composers of the postwar period. Roger Scruton writes in his music aesthetics: “Atonal music expresses ( … ) states of consciousness that are always negative as well; every lyrical passage is interspersed with fear; every gesture of love is at the same time one of betrayal; there is no affirmation of life that does not conceal a will to negation. It is as if fear were inscribed in this music and could never be entirely removed from it.” This general feeling of insecurity is likely to be evident even among composers who, like Henze, have long since been able to break free from serial torpor; it corresponded to the basic feeling of the era, against which hardly anyone could defend themselves, it was, after all, the time of the Cold War, in which one had to live permanently under the threat of a new war.

At the beginning of the 60s György Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki appeared, their works with the notes frozen into clusters still fit well into the time. But they were not constructed serially, and especially in Ligeti’s “Atmosphères” one can observe how the ability to narrate returned to the music, for despite all coldness and detachment, the piece develops a coherent dramaturgy of sounds. Gradually, in Ligeti’s work, lines and characteristic structures began to break up the cold facade, allowing the music to become more lively. This led Ligeti – and more strongly Penderecki, who increasingly incorporated tonality and a quasi “romantic”
language – to the point where he was accused of “betraying the avant-garde.” But what can happen to the avant-garde better than “betrayal”? – it means to find the way back to liveliness, to the feelings, the awakening from the rigidity of the traumatic shock.

Ligeti and Henze have both, in their own way, opposed the purity cult of the avant-garde a “musica impura”. They wanted expression and meanings again, and so also like to talk about a “resemantization” of music. The work with quotations and collage-like techniques, as in Zimmermann’s work, might be another indication of the desire to break open the armor, to allow feelings again, but at the same time also an indication of the inability to create space within one’s own musical language for a rich authentic range of expression. Quotations still keep the emotions at a distance, put them in quotation marks – the connection to them has not yet really been restored. Collages can hurt a lot when the quoted materials are forcibly assembled into other contexts. A look at the development in the GDR may prove this, where Paul Dessau in his “Einstein” opera through extremely hard sounds and distorted quotations creates a coldness that is little inferior to the Western avant-garde, even if he ties more to the music of the “cold persona” of the 20s. In the “postmodern” expression of feelings is often still kept at a distance by working with style quotationsand with its aesthetics of ruptures, it is considerably closer to the avant-garde than it might be – think of the rubble landscape of stylistic quotations in Hans-Jürgen von Bose’s opera “Schlachthof 5”, which is about the destruction of Dresden, war trauma and dissociated time.

The second generation. Posttraumatic growth?

With Hans-Jürgen von Bose, the “second generation” has meanwhile entered the stage: the children of people who still experienced the time of National Socialism and the war. Born after the war, the “second generation” grew up in the silence of the 50s and 60s.

Even if in individual cases no involvement of the parents on the perpetrator or victim side can be found, it is also true for “the second generation” that the overall social situation must have shaped them very much. In the meantime, psychology (Jürgen Müller-Hohagen et al.) knows about the intergenerational effect of traumas, how fears or behaviors learned under traumatizing circumstances are passed on to the children, and especially how the silence about the experiences, about guilt and entanglement burdens the children.

With increasing temporal distance, the effect of the traumas can become weaker. Serialism in its strict form has not lived too long, but its cold, unemotional constructiveness still seems to be an attractive “archetype” of radical modern music for many – think of the “New Complexity” of the circle around Brian Ferneyhough. From 1970 on, many composers found their home in a kind of new expressionism, which took up again the themes of music at the beginning of the 20th century: loneliness, fear, the exploration of the unconscious into the realms of madness on the one hand, and the archaic world on the other. Wolfgang Rihm may
with his chamber opera “Lenz” stand for the first, with his Mexico pieces “Tutuguri” and “The Conquest of Mexico” for the second tendency. It seems that many composers feel bound to these themes and, for reasons that are not clear to them, hardly get beyond them – this is true even for representatives of the “third generation” such as Matthias Pintscher and Jörg Widmann. Their music – by no means emotionless, but often still very discontinuous, detail-loving and in the detail, however, often tonally interesting, dissonant and jumpy in the gestures, tonal only indirectly, quote-like inserting – flirts with the fragmentary and still
seems to have great difficulty with fulfilled time and form.

Even if it should soon be possible again to express feelings in music authentically, without ironic refraction and without distance established by quotations, in the whole breadth of the expressive spectrum, to be free for a new approach to melodic and tonal, it is difficult to imagine that the music of the 21st century, bypassing the problematic 20th, will tie directly to the 19th. We must not lose sight of the crucial differentiation: The discovery of the unconscious levels, the “personal unconscious” with Schoenberg in expressionism, and the “collective unconscious” with Stravinsky of the archaizing Russian period were important steps for music, a kind of self-exploration of people in the medium of sounds. This can have a very fruitful further effect. So the problem is not the expression of loneliness, pain and despair, not the cry, but the torpor, the denial of feelings through coldness and distance, their disappearance behind an inscrutable construction. 

Repetitively, the aspect of a possible integration or even healing of the traumas came up. If one wanted to transfer the considerations of trauma therapy to music, it would be important under this aspect that the music regains an organic flow, finds contact to the body, to breathing and to the emotions, and can build up a time horizon again. In psychology, trauma healing usually contains the following components: In a protected space among compassionate people who do not judge, the traumatized is introduced to the fragmented and partially inaccessible memories, the time horizon is reconstructed, and he learns to tell again. In the process, he comes into contact with his feelings anew and finds again the ability to mourn – and to trust. “Literally all healing methods direct the survivor to construct a personal narrative at some point in recovery.” (Shay) Narrative means “socializing the trauma” for the individual, and for that the emotions of the listener must also be touched. “Without the triggering of emotions in the listener, there is no socialization of trauma.” And yet, nothing will be the same before. “In terms of regaining innocence, post-traumatic personality change is definitely incurable.” “Forgetting the frontal trauma does not constitute a legitimate therapeutic goal.” (Shay) Thus, even in the case of traumatic experiences that radiate out to society as a whole,the condition will not be recovered beforehand. The experiences of the 20th century, the world wars and the Holocaust, must not be forgotten, and also in the music these memories will leave traces forever.

Would it have been possible for an artist not to be touched by the experiences of the 20th century, or at least to resist the torpor? The former would hardly have been possible without becoming insincere and without paying the price of inner damage, which is noticeable in the music of many composers who are bound to tradition. In this respect, the conservative cultural critics who oppose twelve-tone music and the avant-garde after 1950 with good, principally correct arguments, and yet have not understood the logic of the development, fall short, because it was precisely those critics who never got involved in the confrontation with the war traumas. Perhaps Adorno is not quite wrong when he writes about the new music: “It has taken all the darkness and guilt of the world upon itself.” Well , guilt? But darkness very well, which may now again not prevent the new music once again on the search for the light.

In psychology, one knows the phenomenon of “posttraumatic growth”, the experience that people after the most severe traumas not only become viable again in society, but grow psychologically beyond their state before the traumatization, often into spiritual dimensions; in this area one meets “The spiritual dimension of trauma therapy”, the title of an essay by Ursula Wirtz.

The destruction of a firmly established world view, the dissociation of the ego, the opening of consciousness to the unconscious and all its demons, stepping out of the usual time processes – all this also holds opportunities for growth. “Traumatized people have to emerge from the underworld, from the realm of the dead, to become alive again after deadly torpor (…)” In the most favorable case, people emerge from a trauma healing or trauma transformation. In the most favorable case, people emerge from a trauma healing or trauma transformation who, aware of their own vulnerability, find compassion and humor, who, aware of the fragility of their own ego, become open to transcending the ego toward spiritual growth and transpersonal experiences, who see their own suffering as “part of the greater suffering”, “that all beings share with each other” ( Wirtz ), who from the experience of the collapse of the time horizon think beyond everyday time and integrate timelessness in the spiritual sense in their lives, but nevertheless have the time experience of the everyday ego again.

Whether the potential for a further development of music in another direction is hidden here, the future will show. Reflection on its entanglements in the traumatic experiences of the 20th century could lead the ossified avant-garde out of the impasse and clear the way for a contemporary music beyond the avant-garde, without the avant-garde having to be forgotten.

Wolfgang-Andreas Schultz: Damit die Musik nicht aufhört …, Eisenach-Schneverdingen 1997,
K. D.Wagner
Wolfgang-Andreas Schultz: Das Ineinander der Zeiten, Berlin 2001, Weidler
Theodor W. Adorno: Philosophie der neuen Musik, Frankfurt a.M.1976, Suhrkamp
Aaron Antonovsky: Salutogenesis, Tübingen 1997, dgvt-Verlag
Hannah Arendt: Visit to Germany, Berlin 1993, Rotbuch
Pierre Boulez: Will and Chance, Stuttgart 1977, Belser
Jean Claire: Die Verantwortung des Künstlers, Cologne 1998, DuMont
Fischer / Riedesser: Lehrbuch der Psychotraumatologie, Munich-Basel 1999, Reinhardt
Anselm Gerhard: Die Verstädterung der Oper, Stuttgart 1992, Metzler
Hans Werner Henze: Reiselieder mit böhmischen Quinten, Frankfurt a. M. 1996, Fischer
Judith Herman: Die Narben der Gewalt, Paderborn 2003, Junfermann
Eva-Maria Houben: gelb – Neues Hören, Saarbrücken 1996, Pfa
Helmut Lethen: Verhaltenslehren der Kälte, Frankfurt a.M. 1994, Suhrkamp
Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich: Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern, Munich 1967, Piper
Jürgen Müller-Hohagen: Verleugnet, verdrängt, verschwiegen, Munich 2005, Kösel
Gerhard Scheit: Dramaturgie der Geschlechter, Frankfurt a.M. 1995, Fischer
Roger Scruton: The Aesthetics of Music, Oxford 1997, Oxford University Press
Jonathan Shay: Achill in Vietnam, Hamburg 1998, Hamburger Ed. HIS
Karlheinz Stockhausen: Texte zur Musik, vol. 4, Cologne 1978, DuMont
Peter Niklas Wilson: Filtering, Structuring, Storing, in: Musiktexte 99, Cologne 2003
Ursula Wirtz: The Spiritual Dimension of Trauma Therapy, in: Transpersonal Psychology and
Psychotherapy 2003 / 1
Hans Zender: Happy New Ears, Freiburg 1991, Herder
The primordial catastrophe of the century, Spiegel special 1/2004 ( Bruno Schrep et al. a. )

Published with the kind permission of Dr. Wolfgang-Andreas Schultz. 

This text is published in the book: Wolfgang-Andreas Schultz: Avantgarde.Trauma.Spirituality – Preliminary Studies for a New Music Aesthetics, Schott-Verlag.

Copyright: Dr. Wolfgang-Andreas Schultz



Dr. Wolfgang-Andreas Schultz is a German composer, university lecturer and writer.

Born in Hamburg in 1948, he studied musicology, philosophy and German language and literature at the University of Hamburg as well as composition and music theory with Ernst Gernot Klussmann at the Hamburg Academy of Music. In 1977 he became a lecturer at the Hamburg Academy of Music and Ligeti’s assistant, and in 1988 professor of music theory and composition. As a composer and theorist, Wolfgang-Andreas Schultz is committed to an evolutionary aesthetic and a holistic view of man. For his music he uses elements of the occidental tradition as well as those of modernity and non-European cultures. He has published numerous essays as well as three books on questions of music aesthetics, music philosophy and compositional technique.