Dramaturgy of Sound: Bauhaus, Music, Technology

(This blog post is an introduction to the music and sound of the Bauhaus, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Please refer to the accompanying playlist on Apple Music and Spotify. I presented on this material at the international symposium “Bauhaus Beyond Borders: Exploring the Legacy in the 21st Century,” held at Northwestern University in April 2019. Many thanks to Prof. Ingrid Zeller for her outstanding help in organizing this symposium.)

Mladen Ovadija describes the dramaturgy of sound as theatrical performances that incorporate sound “not only as supporting music or incidental noise but also as an autonomous stage-building material” (Ovadija 2013, 4). Ovadija’s use of the word dramaturgy focuses on the theatrical event as a “live process” involving “moving bodies” and the “weaving together” of “kinetic masses of stage objects, changing lights, colors, voices, noises, sounds, and silences” (4). This understanding of the dramaturgy of sound is at the core of the Bauhaus—the school of art founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919 to combine art, design, and architecture. According to Bauhaus scholar Melissa Trimingham, theater simultaneously served as an “embodied realization of the formal thinking in the Bauhaus” and a “communal, festive performance… the manifestation and realization of a revolutionized, utopian society” (Trimingham 2016, 106-7). Even though there was no independent music course at the Bauhaus, music and sound played a key role in creating the communal space of the Bauhaus and exhibiting the school’s technological innovations to the public.

Oskar Schlemmer, Figurines in Space, Study for the Triadic Ballet (1924), gouache, ink, and cut-and-pasted gelatin silver prints on black paper

An early example of the Bauhaus theater is Oskar Schlemmer’s The Triadic Ballet, which featured elaborate geometric costumes that shaped the dancers’ gestures and movements. Schlemmer, who became the official director of the Bauhaus theater in 1924, staged several versions of this work, each with a different musical accompaniment. When Triadic Ballet was premiered in Stuttgart in 1922, Schlemmer used an assortment of eighteenth-century and contemporary classical music, including Haydn, Mozart, and Debussy. Unsatisfied with the outcome, Schlemmer approached Paul Hindemith, with whom he had collaborated on several projects and who was experimenting with mechanical pianos at the time. Schlemmer and Hindemith worked together to synchronize the dancers’ movements with a mechanical organ. Although no score or recording exists of Hindemith’s music for Triadic Ballet—the paper rolls were lost—a reconstruction of his Toccata for Mechanical Piano (1926) gives us a general impression of what the Triadic Ballet music may have sounded like.

While the early Bauhaus theater of Oskar Schlemmer incorporated mechanical instruments, the subsequent theatrical experimentation of László Moholy-Nagy turned to sound in a much broader sense. Thomas Patteson writes of Moholy-Nagy’s unconventional use of the phonograph as a media instrument—instead of treating the phonograph as a means of reproducing existing sounds, Moholy-Nagy created new sounds through direct inscription on the wax disc (Patteson 2015, 88). In his 1924 essay “Theater, Circus, Variety,” Moholy-Nagy envisions a “Theater of Totality,” a fully immersive multimedia experience in which the stage design, lighting, and sound are placed on an equal level with the written word and actor’s physical presence. He writes: “sound waves issuing from unexpected sources—for example, a speaking or singing lamp, loudspeakers under the seats or beneath the floor of the auditorium, the use of new amplifying systems—will raise the audience’s acoustic surprise-threshold” (Moholy-Nagy 2001, 24). Here is a reconstructed segment from Moholy-Nagy’s sound experiment Sound ABC (1932), which was produced by inscribing visual patterns directly onto optical sound film—another example of a media instrument:

Music and Bauhaus as a Communal Space

In addition to the use of music and sound in theatrical contexts, a number of the Bauhaus artists played musical instruments. Lyonel Feininger enjoyed practicing Bach fugues on the piano in his free time, as did Paul Klee the Mozart violin sonatas. A significant composer and pedagogue in the new music community at the time, Ferruccio Busoni’s Five Short Pieces for the Cultivation of Polyphonic Playing were premiered at a concert during the 1923 Bauhaus Exhibition. The fifth piece, marked “Adagio,” is based on a theme from Mozart’s Magic Flute and features the polyphonic style that Feininger and Klee enjoyed so much.

Music was an essential component of the Bauhaus parties, and the Bauhaus band often played into the early hours of the morning. The band’s repertory consisted mostly of jazz dance music, which as Jonathan Wipplinger states was “at the center of Weimar culture” and signaled modernity (Wipplinger 2017, 3). A prominent jazz artist in Germany at the time was the African American pianist and bandleader Sam Wooding, who performed with his eleven-man orchestra at the Admiralspalast in Berlin.

In the early days of the Bauhaus, Johannes Itten wrote a treatise on color theory incorporating the music of Josef Matthias Hauer. Hauer, who developed a method of twelve-tone composition independently of Schoenberg, remained an influence on Bauhaus artists for many years.

Stefan Wolpe is an outstanding figure in the musical legacy of the Bauhaus movement. Wolpe participated in the Preliminary Course of Itten and Klee, collaborated with Schlemmer, and attended many of the Bauhaus lectures. Sonata No. 1, Stehende Musik features strong gestural motions, which are in keeping with the mechanical music then popular at the Bauhaus.

The Bauhaus Concerts

At the 1923 Bauhaus Exhibition, Walter Gropius curated a number of contemporary music concerts to showcase the Bauhaus’s commitment to the latest artistic trends (Trimingham 216, 107). Hermann Scherchen conducted Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale and Krenek’s Concerto Grosso No. 1, and there were also performances of Hindemith’s Das Marienleben and Busoni’s Five Short Pieces.

Concert programming for the 1923 Bauhaus Exhibition (Bauhauswoche), reproduced from Clement Jewitt (2000, 7)

In addition to these concerts, Clement Jewitt refers to performances by guest artists and Leipzig Conservatory students in 1930, including an appearance by the American composer Henry Cowell—the latter of whom “presented his ‘mechanic motion’ with elbows and fists as an action” (quoted in Jewitt 2000, 8).

From the innovative use of sound and mechanical music in the Bauhaus theater to the concerts at the 1923 Bauhaus Exhibition, music was at the heart of the Bauhaus. Although there was no independent music course, music and sound helped to create a communal space for Bauhaus artists and communicate their innovative ideas to the public.

Further Reading

Jewitt, Clement. “Music at the Bauhaus, 1919-1933.” Tempo 213 (2000): 5-11.

Koss, Juliet. “Bauhaus Theater of Human Dolls.” The Art Bulletin 85, no. 4 (2003): 724-745.

Maholy-Nagy, László. “Theater, Circus, Variety.” In Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality, ed. Randall Packer and Ken Jordan, 16-26. New York: Norton, 2001.

Monchick, Alexandra. “Paul Hindemith and the Cinematic Imagination.” The Musical Quarterly 95, no. 4 (2012): 510-548.

Ovadija, Mladen. Dramaturgy of Sound in the Avant-Garde and Postdramatic Theatre. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013.

Patteson, Thomas. Instruments for New Music: Sound, Technology, and Modernism. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.

Trimingham, Melissa. “Gesamtkunstwerk, Gestaltung, and the Bauhaus stage.” In The Total Work of Art: Foundations, Articulations, Inspirations, edited by David Imhoof, Margaret Eleanor Menninger, and Anthony J. Steinhoff, 95-114. New York: Berghahn Books, 2016.

Wipplinger, Jonathan O. The Jazz Republic: Music, Race, and American Culture in Weinar Germany. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017.