Friedrich Trautwein playing his Trautonium, circa 1933
Project (2016-2017)

German Radio and the Development of Electric Music in the 1920s and 1930s

I am currently working on a book-length study of the role of scientific instrument makers, physicists, and later electrical engineers in shaping musical aesthetics from the late eighteenth to the late twentieth century. It is a continuation of my early work, Harmonious Triads: Physicists, Musicians, and Instrument Makers in Nineteenth-Century Germany (MIT Press, 2006). Specifically, while at the MPIWG, I shall investigate how German radio was responsible for the creation of a new musical aesthetic in the 1920s and 1930s. Electric music began to appear in Germany during the 1920s.

Two Berlin institutions in particular were critical to the development of this new musical genre. The first was the Heinrich Hertz Institute for Research on Oscillations, established in 1928. Its founding director was a professor of electrical engineering renowned for his work on electronic filters, Karl Willy Wagner, who was assisted in its creation by Gustav Engelbert Leithäuser, a specialist in radio technology. The HHI had three areas of focus: acoustics (particularly the noise in major cities), telegraphy, and high frequency technology. This of course included telephone and radio research. German radio broadcasting was key to both producing the requisite technology and financially supporting the creation of electric musical instruments.

The second Berlin institution was the Staatlich-akademische Hochschule für Musik, now the Universität der Künste. On May 3, 1928, the Rundfunkversuchstelle was opened as a part of the Hochschule. Its goal was to research the technical and musical possibilities associated with the new medium of radio broadcasting. This including funding research on new electric musical instruments, including Friedrich Trautwein’s trautonium of the 1930s, which became one of the most important electric musical instruments of the period. Trautwein, who held degrees in physics and engineering, was a professor at the Hochschule and worked at the Rundfunkversuchstelle. While conceiving and designing his trautonium, he collaborated actively with the musician Oskar Sala and the composers Paul Hindemith and Georg Schünemann.