Steph Power celebrates the German composer whose farsighted innovations forever changed our approaches to composing and listening
In 1988, the composer Brian Ferneyhough remarked on the pioneering innovation since youth of a goliath – not just of the postwar European avant garde, but of all western music: ‘I doubt that there has been a single composer of the intervening generation who, even if for a short time, did not see the world of music differently thanks to the work of Stockhausen.’
Few composers have shone so brightly, and with such intensity of vision, as this child of a Germany shattered following years of extremism and war. And few have ignited such controversy – or passion for and against their music.
Karlheinz Stockhausen was born in
1928 in Burg Mödrath, near Cologne, to fervently Catholic parents. Encouraged with piano lessons to develop his evident musical gifts, his early life was marked by personal as well as collective tragedy: while his schoolteacher father perished in battle, his mentally ill mother was ‘euthanised’ by the Nazis; as a teenaged stretcher-bearer he witnessed many horrors firsthand.
Wartime radio made a profound impact on Stockhausen and led to an enduring hatred of music with a regular or marching beat. Following the war, he undertook musical studies at the Hochschule für Musik and Cologne University, where he also studied philosophy and German. There, Stockhausen encountered previously censored composers such as Bartók, Hindemith and Stravinsky – and read Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game,a novel that would prove highly significant in its depiction of a future in which the profoundest expression of human understanding is a music informed by austere, ritualised games, philosophy and mathematics. This, and the discovery in 1949 of Schoenberg’s 12-tone (or serial) music, set the young composer on a path in which the search for unity – musical, human and divine – would lead him in radical new directions, yet place him firmly within the Central European tradition of Beethoven and Wagner.
It was Webern and Messiaen who provided the creative catalyst; in particular the Frenchman (with whom he would briefly study) and his Mode de valeurs et d’intensités, encountered by Stockhausen in 1951 during a revelatory first visit to Darmstadt. This was the site of a soon-to-become famous international summer school, founded in 1946 and which Stockhausen would come to dominate through the 1950s and ’60s as a pedagogue-cum-guru. What grabbed him in Messiaen’s ‘fantastic music of the stars’ was the numerical organisation, not just of musical pitch (as Schoenberg had done in his way), but of duration, dynamics and timbre, or intensity of attack.
Inspired by Webern’s abstract approach, Stockhausen – together with Boulez and other Darmstadt radicals – extended this into a ‘total serialism’ whereby every musical parameter was rigorously determined by a mathematically inspired compositional process.
Few composers have ignited such controversy – or passion for and against their music
An early work using these techniques was Kontra-punkte (1952-53). Here, dissociated ‘points’ of sound were transformed into ‘groups’ of notes. The composer later remarked that it comprised ‘not the same shapes in a changing light’ (à la Webern) but rather ‘different shapes in the same, all-pervading light’. For composer Berio, it was ‘an indisputable masterpiece’ – and the first of many.
Far from resting on his new-found ideas, Stockhausen produced innovations with each ensuing piece. Central to his thinking was a spirituality which stemmed from his religious youth and would grow into an all-embracing, sci-fi-inspired mysticism (he later claimed to come from the Sirius star system). While increasingly wackily expressed, that sensibility underlay Stockhausen’s endeavours from the start, including his pioneering exploration of the spatial dimension in music, a possibility beautifully afforded by electronics.
In 1953 he began work at the electronic studio at West German Radio in Cologne, rising to artistic director, 1963-77 (and consultant until 1990). There he composed Gesang der Jünglinge (1955-56). A seminal work for tape, it combined electronically generated sounds with musique concrète, or recordings of acoustic events; in this instance it’s the voice of a 12-year-old boy. One of the first ever multichannel experiences, the work places the listener inside an extraordinary field of sound made possible by technology – and the 360-degree nature of human hearing. At the same time, Stockhausen began to apply such thinking to acoustic music; most significantly in Gruppen (1955-56), a 20th-century landmark celebrated by figures from Stravinsky to Simon Rattle.
In Gruppen, three independent small orchestras or ‘groups’ comprising different instrumental combinations are placed in stereo arrangement with their own conductor. Yielding spectacularly rich combinations of timbre, colour and rhythm, each plays at different speeds, occasionally coinciding but always remaining spatially discrete. The result is an uncanny cohesion of temporal and spatial elements that defies the work’s serial foundations to take flight in unbounded imagination.
The heady mix of intellectual and creative daring – and the audio-visual theatre that’s intrinsic to Gruppen – characterises all of Stockhausen’s output in different ways. In Kontakte (1958-60)
Stockhausen’s music possessed a heady mix of intellectual and creative daring
– one of the first works to combine instruments with live electronics – he melded pitched with unpitched sounds through ‘moment’ form; that is, a series of events or ‘moments’ designed to recast temporal perception by avoiding conventional, goal-directed motion. In Telemusik (1966), an electronic piece composed during a visit to Japan, he expanded this concept, desiring ‘to take a step further in the direction of composing not “my” music but a music of the whole Earth, of all countries and races’. Incipient megalomania, perhaps. But the results were musically breathtaking, with the ensuing elektronik-concrète work Hymnen (1966-67), a vast collage of sound created from national anthems around the globe.
Contrary to the fixed nature of purely electronic music, Stockhausen had already begun by the mid-1950s to explore how the performer(s) might determine aspects of a work’s form: his 1956 Klavierstück XI, for example, has an ‘open’ structure of 19 fragments from which the pianist is free to choose his or her starting point and direction. Zyklus (1959, for percussionist and electronics) is a groundbreaking graphic score in which sounds and processes not definable in conventional notation are accorded indeterminate signs; part of a new, music-pictorial symbolism for an age of new, non-traditional sounds.
Through the 1960s, Stockhausen’s aleatoric or ‘intuitive’ music proved in tune with the hippy zeitgeist, if not 1968-style political activism (his former pupil Cornelius Cardew later declared that ‘Stockhausen serves imperialism’). Works such as the vocal sextet Stimmung from that year – the first western piece to employ overtone singing as a core element – reflected a wider seeking of Europeans beyond their culture. 1970’s Mantra (for two pianists with percussion and electronics) hardly contradicted this impulse, but it did signal a return to thematic writing and conventional notation. This brilliantly playful work was derived from ‘one single musical figure or formula that would be expanded over
a very long period of time’. ★enceforth, all Stockhausen’s music would be based on a formula – or ‘super-formula’, as was the gargantuan project that would consume him for 27 years.
It seems entirely natural that Stockhausen should have been drawn to the world of opera. Indeed, he described his 1962-69 cantata Momente as ‘practically an opera of Mother Earth surrounded by her chicks’. In 1977 he embarked on a cycle that would out-wagner Wagner’s Ring: seven operas for seven days of the week, requiring vast resources and drawing on epic reservoirs of myth, fantasy and knowledge from antiquity to a projected techno-spiritual future.
Stockhausen’s LICHT cycle divides opinion like no other of his works. For
For some, LICHT is an overblown narrative fraught with cod-mysticism
some, it’s an ego indulgence too far; an overblown grand narrative fraught with cod-mysticism and his uncompromising personality, reflected in what seemed an increasingly closed family circle of collaborators (Kathinka Pasveer and Suzanne Stephens were musical and life partners; his son Markus is a brilliant trumpeter). For others, it’s the visionary culmination of a lifetime dedicated to the exploration of sound – and light – as vibration; the joyous physical fact of music as a transformational tool in a universe of possibility..
When Stockhausen died, of heart failure in Kürten-kettenburg in 2007, he was working on a new cycle, Klang: 24 pieces for each hour of the day, assigned particular colours and composed for a different small chamber combination of voice/instrument and electronics. For him, time-space simply never stood still.
Conducted by Maxime Pascal, Stockhausen’s Donnerstag aus LICHT is being performed at Royal Festival Hall, London, 21-22 May; see Live choice (UK edition) on p110 for details
Let there be light: a performance of MICHAELS REISE (part of the opera LICHT) in Cologne in 2008; Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game was a huge influence on Stockhausen