The composer, theologian, teacher and musicologist Dieter Schnebel was born March 14, 1930, in Lahr/Baden, Germany. He studied music in Freiburg, then theology, philosophy and musicology in Tübingen, graduating with a doctoral thesis on “Dynamics in Schönberg”. Schnebel’s formative experiences as a young composer came at the Kranichsteiner (today Darmstädter) Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, where he met Adorno, Boulez, Messiaen, Nono, Stockhausen and Varèse, among others. His first personal encounter with Cage was in Hamburg in 1961. Among the decisive influences on Schnebel’s reform theological thinking were Karl Barth, Martin Buber, Ernst Bloch and Albert Schweitzer. Following his student years, Schnebel worked as a pastor and teacher in Kaiserslautern, Frankfurt a. M. and Munich. In 1976, a professorship in experimental music was established especially for Schnebel at the Hochschule der Künste Berlin (today Berlin University of the Arts), a post he held until retirement in 1995.
Schnebel is among the most innovative and influential avant-garde composers of the second half of the 20th century. Even in compositions from the early 1950s (Versuche I-IV), he already had unleashed open sound processes between tone and noise, and strove to use space in new ways. He composed many influential conceptual pieces from the 1960s to 1980s, and his sound and language compositions from the 1950s to 1980s pioneered a new treatment of vocal articulation and mute physical gesture as music theater. Among these innovative compositions are the choral cycle Für Stimmen (…missa est) (1959-69), Glossolalie (1960-61), Visible Music I for conductor and instrumentalist, Ki-no (1963-67), a soundless picture-music presentation conceived as a slide-show, Laut-Gesten-Laute (1984-85) and Zeichen-Sprache (1987-89).
Yet Schnebel has always been an innovator linked with tradition. In works such as Schubert-Phantasie (1978, rev. 1989), B-Dur-Quintett (1976-77) and Beethoven-Simphonie (1985), he draws on historical forms to rediscover, reveal, expose, re-compose and further extend musical tools both traditional and new. Schnebel’s large-scale late works from the 1990s and the early 21st century bear witness to his continuing effort to set out all-embracing testaments to his musical language and music-theological world view.
In 1991 Schnebel was awarded the Lahr Cultural Prize, and in 1999 the European Church Music Prize, which was awarded for the first time. His works have been premiered at the major international festivals of new music including the Berliner Festspiele, Biennale di Venezia, Donaueschinger Musiktage, Festival d`Automne Paris, and Warschauer Herbst. Concert tours with his ensemble “Die Maulwerker” have taken him to Brazil, Canada, Japan, Korea, the USA, and elsewhere. Schnebel has also published several books on new music (Mauricio Kagel, Denkbare Musik, Anschläge-Ausschläge and Signatur 33) and has written numerous musicological lectures and essays on Beethoven, Janáçek, Schubert, Wagner, Mahler, Webern and Cage.
Excerpts from the music of Dieter Schnebel: