Schott Music

Skip to Main Content »


Dieter Schnebel – music without limits. On the death of the composer

There must be no victors, not even in the arts… This was the credo Dieter Schnebel shared with artists like John Cage and remained faithful to his whole life. The arts and the world, music and everyday life – these were no contrasts to the composer, church minister, musicologist and teacher who had been born in Lahr in Baden. With compositions like Ki-No, visible music and anschläge – ausschläge he created a new open concept of work which left boundaries in space and time behind and saw the composer as creative trigger, not as completer of the work. As Schnebel understood the performance situation as a truly democratic event, he brought street noise into the concert hall. Even in key works like the vocal work Ekstasis or the opera Majakowskis Tod – Totentanz he consequently denied aesthetic dogmatism any influence. Dieter Schnebel died in Berlin at the age of 88.

In the 1960s, the first performances of his early works, which could only be vaguely described by the notions of concept art and fluxus, were surrounded by scandal. The more Schnebel understood music as almost unconditioned action in experimental and archetypal situations, the more the performer emancipated him- or herself from the composition. No longer did the performer function as servant of an oeuvre completed in itself, but rather the moment when the music was produced became the true content of the work. ‘Not the tones or other acoustic elements make up the musical material but rather the processes of their production,’ Schnebel once outlined his approach.

Schnebel also broke with traditional listening expectations in other respects. In his works, the human voice often became an unleashed organ. All possibilities to produce sounds were allowed – singing, speaking, croaking, but also absolute silence. Concept titles like Körper – Sprachen [Body – Languages] or Laut – Gesten – Laute [Sound – Gestures – Noises] testify to that dissolution of boundaries of the musical material. In addition, the gestures of the performers played an ever-growing role in Schnebel’s art: The frontal concert situation was eliminated. Musicians began to move through the room, while the beginning and end of the concert were no longer discernible as such. ‘The music that once let in its environment in time and space, the sounds and noises of everyday life, … takes to the street and ends who-knows-where.’

In the 1970s the composer began to tour with the ensemble ‘Maulwerker’. As part of his work as teacher of music and religion, he organized concerts of pupils and amateurs, elementary educational approaches which Schnebel refined as professor of experimental music, a chair specially created for him at the Berlin Hochschule der Künste. With his radical open concept of work, however, the composer came up against limiting factors: In 1978 the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Cologne deliberately provoked the failure of a performance of the Orchestra project.

Schnebel’s artistic openness also included openness to tonality. He did not reject tradition at all, but rather interpreted it as a living process ‘…which includes the contemplation of the past, a look at the hidden sources and their lively continuous flow, as well as the openness to what could become of it, a look ahead to the future.’ With his cycle Re-Visionen (Beethoven-Symphonie, Schubert-Phantasie and Wagner-Idyll) he approached the tradition in a creative and ironic way. Schnebel understood musicology as part of a collective memory the relevance of which to today would always have to be verified anew. Schnebel also moved between philosophy and playful humour in the musical chamber theatre work Utopien which, despite all its ironic ease, is characterized by an almost confessional tone. Many things in this work can be explained with the life of a person who always lived transversely to their time, both as a member of the 1968 generation and at the same time as a committed Christian. In the work itself, he understood such utopias as musical abstractions which he did not depict as an artist; however, Schnebel himself never ceased to hold onto utopias which always meant hope to him.

The methods once developed – aleatorics, the experiment as principle, the use of spatial sound – survived until well into the late works. Major works like Ekstasis based on a multi-lingual text collage or the monumental Sinfonie X are the late essence of his oeuvre. Church music was of special concern to the trained theologian throughout his life. Musical art – to Schnebel, this always was an ethic concept, a possible connection between inner and outer world, individual and society – ultimately a universal idea of the possibilities of human existence, too. Most recently, he was in the process of writing a new orchestral work for the hr-Sinfonieorchester, and for the upcoming months several new works were scheduled to be premiered. In a phase of rich and blossoming creativity, Schnebel passed away after short illness on Sunday of Pentecost 2018.

photo: Astrid Kargεr