Is there - or was there – an original “East German music”? Steffen Schleiermacher, who grew up in Halle an der Saale in the former German Democratic Republic, has set out in quest of its traces and selected his traveling companions. His teachers from Leipzig and his (East) Berlin study years such as Siegfried Thiele, Friedrich Goldmann, and Friedrich Schenker are among them as well as former and current friends of his and inspiring artistic personalities such as Reiner Bredemeyer, Hermann Keller, Nikolaus Richter de Vroe, Knut Müller, and Wolfgang Heisig. The result is a surprisingly rich and varied program thoroughly dispelling a number of mistaken notions about the East German music scene.
For starters, modern music in the German Democratic Republic was not at all out of touch with the rest of the world. Friedrich Goldmann, a Francophile throughout his life, engaged in intensive occupation with the works of Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez, and his third piano composition is an explicit homage to Messiaen. John Cage left profound traces on the work of Nikolaus Richter de Vroe, and Thomas Müller saw to it that music by Stockhausen, Kurtág, and Cage was performed – the avant-garde was at the top of the contemporary charts even in the German Democratic Republic.
And yet the political element was also always present. For example, when Friedrich Goldmann spoke of an “Idyll with Barbed Wire” in his fourth piano composition, the association with East German border controls was certainly not unintentional. Or the playing instructions for Reiner Bredemeyer’s “Klavierstück 3”: “The player complements, counters, comments on, and synchronizes while humming with his mouth closed” – who here would not think of limited freedom of speech? Friedrich Schenker entitled his piano composition of 1972 “Hommage à Arnold Schoenberg.” Although today this may be difficult to understand as a political statement, Schönberg was regarded as “formalistically undesirable” in the East until the mid-1970s. Bearing this in mind, we may get a latter-day inkling of the resolve not to be kept in leading strings by a cultural bureaucracy.
Wolfgang Heisig has gained renown above all for his advocacy of mechanical musical instruments and the music of Conlon Nancarrow. His piano pieces are of amazing simplicity: “Schade” consists merely of the tones indicated in the title (Es-C-H-A-D-E). And “Leuchtreklame” plays with the famous Leipzig “Löffelfamilie” pictured on a neon sign never in 100% working order – which of course is not a political statement! If there is a common denominator behind all the pieces brought together here by Steffen Schleiermacher, then it is their high compositional quality – a rewarding encounter!