The city registry states that “Darmstadt has never made big history.” Adding: “… the city’s true history [was] the history of her culture, which still holds true today.” It is hard to find a more appropriate description of the enormous significance that art and culture have for our fair and fascinating city.
The cultural history of Darmstadt began to flourish with music and theatre at the elector’s court. In 1600, Landgrave Louis V established an orchestra and initiated first theatrical spectacles. Around 1670, the first German theatre was born in Darmstadt. Between 1771 and 1773, the “Great Landgravine” Caroline surrounded herself with the literary circle of sentimentalists. At the beginning of the 19th century, famous composers such as Carl Maria von Weber and Giacomo Meyerbeer were drawn to our city.
With “Peace to the cottages, war on the palaces!”, the most famous of Darmstadt’s writers, Georg Büchner, founded a culture of critical clamour against ignorance, injustice and oppression, which has lived on in Darmstadt to this day. Proof that Darmstadt also has the ability to wrap criticism in humour is given by Ernst Elias Niebergall, whose Datterich holds Eulenspiegel before the “Heiners” (locals).
At the beginning of the 20th century, drama flourished in Darmstadt. Under Gustav Hartung, Ernst Legal and Carl Ebert, the Darmstadt theatre gained the reputation of an avant-garde stage. The same period saw a boom in Darmstadt literature, where famous names like Mierendorff, Wolfskehl, Schiebelhuth, and Edschmid played an important role. All that came to an abrupt halt in 1933, a cultureless period in many respects – unfortunately in Darmstadt as well.
Only in the fifties, the Darmstadt theatre could live up to previous apogees again. In 1972, the newly constructed Hessian state theatre was inaugurated. In Darmstadt, the independent theatre scene counts about 32 groups and more than 250 performances per year. The Moller Haus theatre and the socio-cultural centre Bessunger Knabenschule are the most famous event locations of the independent scene. The playhouses “halbNeun” and “TAP die Komödie” complete the theatrical offering.
Darmstadt’s opera tradition is also of exceptional quality, where names like Karl Böhm and Hans Drewanz are closely linked with the state theatre orchestra. Chamber concerts and contributions by discerning choirs complete the picture. Events such as the Guitar Days and the Blues Week, concerts by Philharmonie Merck, as well as the Darmstadt Residenzfestspiele and the Promenadenkonzerte complement the musical life. For many years, the Schlossgrabenfest has given a wide latitude to the local heroes of the pop and rock scene.
The Academy of Musical Art stands in a long tradition and is held in high esteem. The German Chopin society (Chopin-Gesellschaft Darmstadt) opens the door to international careers for the best young pianists. The Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music with the International Music Institute Darmstadt as the global centre for new music have developed a broad international presence. The Jazzinstitut makes documents related to this significant music style accessible through its scientific work and, along with the Darmstadt Jazz Forum, represents a renowned international meeting point for researchers and jazz musicians.
From 1950, the tradition of critically analyzing the current themes was resumed by the “Darmstädter Gespräche” symposiums, which were perceived as an intellectual event in all of Germany. Great European minds such as Günter Grass debated the challenges of the new era.
Darmstadt is proud to be the seat of the German Polish Institute, which does ground-breaking work for international understanding in various cultural and scientific areas. The German P.E.N. Center is committed to persecuted writers and, every year, awards the Hermann Kesten Award for outstanding merits in this field. The Georg Büchner Prize, the most important German literature prize, is associated with the German Academy for Language and Literature. The German Literature Fund, based in Darmstadt, as well as the poetry competition “Literarischer März” are instances of the promotion of young poets and writers. Darmstadt also operates the Literaturhaus (house of literature), where authors are given a podium. The Literaturhaus also supports the “Zentrum junge Literatur” (centre for young literature) for the promotion of young talents and is the home of a great number of literary and cultural associations.
Georg Moller is one of the key names when it comes to Darmstadt’s building culture. The artist colony brought to life on the Mathildenhöhe by Grand Duke Ernest Louis around 1900 earned Darmstadt a significant artistic emergence. With the Jugendstil’s will for new forms and the life reform movement, the young architects and artisans in the following of Joseph Maria Olbrich and Peter Behrens have changed much more than just home décor. In its historical exhibition building, the Mathildenhöhe Institute presents internationally noted exhibitions on contemporary art as well as the art around 1900. The exhibitions of the Kunsthalle art gallery and the Darmstädter Sezession association, the “Vogelfrei” art biennial and the International Forest Art Association complement the spectrum of the visual arts, as do the activities of the artists’ workshop Atelierhaus Darmstadt and a multitude of independent artists. The developments in design become tangible in the Design House on the Mathildenhöhe as well as in the design faculty of the Darmstadt College. Darmstädter Tage der Fotografie is giving Darmstadt a discerning festival with international participation.
An article about the culture and cultural history of Darmstadt would be incomplete without the museums, so let me just mention the Hessian state museum as their representative, where, among others, you can see the world’s largest body of works by Joseph Beuys.
This albeit sketchy overview of Darmstadt’s past and present art and culture alone proves it: Darmstadt was and is … culture.
Walter Hoffmann was born in the Waldeck-Frankenberg district in 1952. He studied education in Kassel and completed postgraduate studies
at the Academy of Work in Frankfurt on the Main. After holding offices at the German trade union confederation and the lower house of the German parliament, Walter Hoffmann has been senior mayor of Darmstadt, the city of science, since 2005.