Universal Edition - Karlheinz Stockhausen – About the Music

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Karlheinz Stockhausen

About the Music

Compositional metamorphoses

There are certain labels which – despite an inevitable tendency towards exaggeration – can nevertheless serve as preliminary indicators of a composer’s orientation. One such label is the phrase ‘conservative revolutionary’, used by Willi Reich to characterise Schoenberg. Among composers who left a significant mark on the second half of the twentieth century, this same description may most readily be applied to Karlheinz Stockhausen. The innovations for which he was responsible are manifold and, to a large extent, familiar also to a wider audience:

- decisive contributions to the development of serialist musical thinking; exemplary compositions with their accompanying theoretical concepts;

- the development of a form of electronic music derived from serialist thinking;

- attempts to emancipate the performer and to compose open forms susceptible to variant interpretations;

- ideas of a more inclusive musical language, which might serve as a bridge between traditional and novel structures, forms and styles.

Yet at the same time, right from the start of his career Stockhausen repeatedly tried to bridge tradition and innovation, and on a number of occasions had to defend himself against the charge of aesthetic and ideological conservatism. Things in Stockhausen’s development that, for many, might seem difficult to reconcile or even contradictory cannot simply be explained by the later changes of direction of the former avant-garde radical. In terms of the overall progress of his compositional development they make their appearance relatively early on.

The Stockhausen of the early 1950s is generally perceived as the radical representative of a ‘pointillist’, totally serialised style, surrounded by an atmosphere of scandal. Only shortly afterwards, however, he was already presenting himself as one of the first to attempt to replace the atomisation of early serial music by other compositional concepts. The radical anti-traditionalist who, as one of the pioneers of electronic music, for a time seemed to be contemplating the abandonment of instrumental music altogether, was already paying homage to instrumental music again in 1954, the year in which his first electronic works received their premières.

After starting out as a constructivist influenced by Olivier Messiaen and Karel Goeyvaerts, after studying the emancipation of noise in Edgard Varèse and the early music of John Cage, and after an intense theoretical/analytical involvement with the works of Anton Webern, Stockhausen began to establish a reputation for himself with his own original ideas. With instrumental works, whose serial rigour was mitigated by interpretative freedoms – which even today are frequently understood as a response to what were then the most novel experimental tendencies in the music of Cage and his pupils. With spatial music – with the result that Gruppen for three orchestras (1955–57) in particular inspired other composers such as Henri Pousseur and Pierre Boulez to produce spatially conceived compositions. With innovative concepts regarding the compositional integration of music and language – in which respect what Stockhausen attempted in Gesang der Jünglinge (1955–56) may, on the one hand, be understood as an alternative to Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître (1953–1955/57) and Luigi Nono’s Il canto sospeso (1955–56), while on the other hand – considered as electro-acoustic music – as exerting influences with regard to compositional technique that went beyond these pieces, as for example may be detected in Luciano Berio’s Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) of 1958. With various examples of aleatoric music – for example in Klavierstück 11 (1956), whose modular, variable form was for a while prized by Cage, but also criticised by a number of opponents and even supporters of the composer. While in his theoretical works of the 1950s, which are closely bound up with his compositional practice, Stockhausen established himself as one of the most important exponents of serial music and, indeed, of all new music since 1945.

Already in Kontake, completed in 1960, a composition that takes a particularly bold leap forward in the emancipation of noise, one detects that tendencies had developed in Stockhausen’s work which were not easy to reconcile with one another. The technique of electronic sound production – irrevocably fixed, highly involved technically and novel in terms of the sounding result – did not, at the time, permit the connections with spontaneous and variable instrumental performance Stockhausen had initially envisaged, nor the integration of familiar instrumental timbres with the electronic sound continuum which he had planned for this piece. This drove Stockhausen’s development towards a crucial borderline – and the alternative conceptions which he developed from this time onwards occasioned even Dieter Schnebel (a notable supporter of the Stockhausen of the 1950s) to make the distancing comment that Stockhausen’s music had ‘become different since 1960’.

The highly differentiated, serially organised rhythmic constructions on which Stockhausen had based his Gruppen for three orchestras were already to be abandoned in the subsequent spatial works for voices and instruments: Carré for four orchestras and four choirs (1959–60) is an expansive, meditative work in which the durations are notated only as approximate proportions. This emancipation from fixed conceptions of form also continues in the complex, variable ‘moment forms’ of the 1960s – in the formal sections of the cantata Momente (begun in 1962), which may be arranged in various ways and nested one inside the other, or the excessively ‘noise-like’ Mikrophonie I for tam-tam with live electronic manipulation (1963).

In general, however, it may be observed that in the 1960s Stockhausen – above all in his instrumental music – increasingly relaxed the abstract rigour of his earlier work. Schnebel complained that ‘private traits’ and ‘the lure of the monumental’ asserted themselves in Stockhausen’s music from this time onwards, from which he drew an extremely critical conclusion: ‘A sense of high-flown thoughts and of the all-embracing – as well as its correlative, the concentration on the inner world – emerges in Stockhausen’s later work. This reflects a specific ideological consciousness – that of domination.’

But this ideological criticism – coloured as it is by overtones of personal attack – does not suffice to explain why Stockhausen’s music underwent such dramatic changes as early as the 1960s. Why – one has to ask oneself – did Stockhausen return to minutely crafted tape compositions such as Telemusik (1966) and Hymnen (1966–67), only to turn afterwards increasingly to laconic ‘conceptual art’ pieces for his live electronic ensemble? Why did he create scores for extended pieces whose notation was drastically reduced to sparse symbols or verbal texts? Why – it must also be asked – did Stockhausen then turn his back so swiftly on the extreme manifestations of this type of composition, e.g. Aus den sieben Tagen (1968), and return to fixed scores, indeed to traditional notation – particularly remarkably after his 1970 live electronic work for two pianists Mantra?

When one examines Stockhausen’s development, one must engage with the fact that positions already attained are subjected to radical questioning before the search for a synthesis of apparently irreconcilable opposites can begin. It would be rash, therefore, to try to categorise Stockhausen’s manifold attempts at compositional synthesis according to similar labels derived from ideological criticism – whether it is a matter of synthesising semantically organised sound and speech materials with electronic sounds, or determined music with music that permits interpretative freedom; instrumental with electronic music, or more abstract music with music of more semantic character; or purely aural music with music synaesthetically integrated. In the 1960s and 1970s it became clear that the search for synthesis in Stockhausen’s music was extending further: a synthesis between ‘tonal’ and ‘non-tonal’ compositional techniques was also being attempted. What was particularly remarkable about these attempts at synthesis was that tone rows, which had remained concealed in the complex stratifications of the earlier works, after Mantra (1970) suddenly made their appearance as readily recognisable, easily singable melodic forms. Stockhausen’s development had led ‘from the row to the melody’, from atonal structures to wholly thematic forms that, once again, possessed a strongly tonal character; from a continuation of Webern’s total serialism to a resurrection of thematic craft in the spirit of mid-period Beethoven or Bach’s polyphony.

The obvious simplification of compositional technique and audible thematic connections to which this gave rise have often been criticised – not least, once again, by those who prefer the older works with their more complex structures. By no means the least provocation for rebarbative attacks in this critical discussion was the fact that it was precisely these melodic works which Stockhausen was particularly insistent on presenting as strictly constructed programme music, as composed allegories. Thus the programme note for Mantra already proclaims a synthesis between a conception of the work typical of ‘absolute music’ (ideational unity between the structure of details and larger formal connections) and its programmatic, symbolic meaning as cosmic allegory: "The integrated construction of 'Mantra' is a miniaturised musical replica of the integrated macrostructure of the cosmos, and at the same time a magnification into the realm of acoustic time of the integrated microstructures of the harmonic oscillations within sound itself."

In Inori (1973–74), the extra-musical intentions behind the developments of different parameters expressed instrumentally in the orchestral part are given explicit visual expression: as gestures of prayer, the organisation of whose various dimensions parallels that of the music. The four main melodies of the expansively conceived Sirius for electronic sounds and four soloists (1975–77) are explained in the sung texts as polysemic musical symbols – for example as symbols for the four points of the compass, the four elements of the ancients, four times of day, four seasons, four stages of biological growth.

Licht – the music-theatrical cycle begun in 1977 and intended for seven performance spaces – is conceived as an allegory of the seven days of the week, in which the three principal melodies dominating the whole cycle are to be understood as musical symbols for the principal characters Michael, Eva and Lucifer. Stockhausen – who, in his readiness to offer explicit, aesthetically and analytically defensive self-commentary certainly has much in common with Richard Wagner – attempts here to undertake a summa of his previous compositional activity – already spanning more than a quarter century – in the shape of a monumental work calculated to require around twenty five years’ compositional elaboration: a second stocktaking, begun a decade after the first performance of Hymnen, which was intended to perform a similar function for its own time. However, while the dedications of Hymnen point to an engagement with alternative aesthetic positions in modern music (the first ‘region’ of the piece, developed with formal rigour, was dedicated to Pierre Boulez; the second – with its blunt political references – to Henri Pousseur; the third – colourful and collage-like – to John Cage; and the fourth – richly differentiated in terms of timbre – to Luciano Berio), the melodic constellations in Licht are to be understood in the first instance as a consequence of Stockhausen’s own (compositional and aesthetic) development in the 1970s. Whereas the older thematic works of the 1970s were organised monothematically, the ‘superformula’ imposed on the three melodies of Licht is intended as a basis for music containing a multitude of themes and aesthetic perspectives. Thus a compositional development that took Webern as its starting point ended up developing into an orientation towards Bach in the spirit of Wagner.

Rudolph Frisius
Translation by Peter Burt