Born in 1928, Karlheinz Stockhausen was eleven at the start of World War II and was old enough to experience the ensuing years with the consciousness of a premature child and adolescent. That consciousness was heightened by tragedies in his family which must have left an indelible mark on his mind. Here is how he himself described it:
“Both parents came from a rural background. The mother, bearing three children in just three years and living in utter poverty, began suffering deep depressions and was committed to a mental hospital, where she was officially killed in 1941. The father managed for a few years with housekeepers, marrying one of them, who bore him two more children; he then volunteered for the army in 1939, dying a ‘heroic death’ somewhere in Hungary”.
“Stockhausen attended school, became a field hand on a farm, learning Latin at night and was accepted at the State Academy of Music in Cologne in 1947 for Hans-Otto Schmidt-Neuhaus’ piano class. Studied music education from 1948 to 1951, received his teacher’s licence summa cum laude, all the while played in Cologne bars almost every night, as well as for dancing classes, toured as an improvisational musician with the magician Adrion for a year, directed an amateur operetta theatre, spent his vacations working in a factory, or as a parking lot attendant, or guarding homes of occupation troops. Prayed a lot.”
Although written in the third personal singular, that fragment of an autobiography was written by the composer. It has been quoted partly for the dates listed there. For it is a veritable miracle that as early as 1951, with the background he had, Stockhausen should have composed Kreuzspiel for oboe, bass clarinet, piano, and three percussionists – a work that was to become an integral part of the international repertoire. He was only 23 years old. And in the years that followed, there emerged further compositions which were to serve as examples for other composers to follow, to study, to take their cue from: Spiel for orchestra 1952, Punkte for orchestra 1952/1962, Kontra-Punkte for ten instruments (1952/1953), Piano Pieces 1-4(1952/1953), and most amazingly of all, Gruppen (1955/1957) for three orchestras. A genius was at work, one who in the years following World War II when composers were determined to break with the past and start anew, lit a torch and showed the way to generations. The torch was not to go out for decades, with one masterpiece following close on the heels of another: in 1953, at the age of 25, Stockhausen composed Studie I for sinus tones - the first purely electronic music. It was followed up by Gesang der Jünglinge, electronic music with a boy’s voice in 1955/1957. There came Zyklus (1959), Refrain in the same year, both versions of Kontakte also in 1959 and so it continued in the sixties (Hymnen and Stimmung among many other important contributions to new music).
Back in 1951, there came to an encounter which was to prove of decisive significance for the 23-year-old composer’s development. This is how he described it:
“In Darmstadt, in 1951, at the ‘Summer Courses for New Music’, a French music critic played a record of Messiaen’s Quatre études de rythme. One of the etudes is entitled Mode de valeurs et d’intensités. I asked him there and then to play the piece again and again and a whole new world opened up before me – an inner world – in listening to this ‘point music’, this ‘star music’, as I called it at the time. After the Darmstadt Summer Courses were over, I returned to Cologne and told a music critic of this experience. He asked: ‘What does this music sound like?’ And I repeated: ‘It sounds like the stars in the sky.’
At these Summer Courses I also met a Belgian pupil of Messiaen’s, Goeyvaerts, and he explained how Messiaen had composed the piece. It clarified many things for me, because I had written twelve-tone music before but it had never occurred to me that rhythm could be just as non-periodic as pitches could be non-tonal or that the intensities of the pitches could also be so different.
Later on when I heard it again, the piece did not have such a strong effect on me. However, it was thanks to that experience that four months later, in January 1952, I moved to Paris because I was determined to study with Messiaen. I attended his courses on aesthetics and rhythm for a whole year”.
The throwaway statement in the autobiography “I prayed a lot” and the association of Messiaen’s “point music” with the stars shows an early predilection for the transcendental. It was an undercurrent in works with a great deal of music-theoretical thinking determining the parameters – like in Stimmung, where the title refers as much to just intonation with the singers singing the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th and 9th overtones of the deep B flat as it does to atmosphere or aura. “Surely, ‘Stimmung’ is meditative music. Time has been suspended. One listens to the heart of the sound, of the harmonic spectrum, of a vowel, to the inner heart.”
The same is true of Mantra for two pianists where in addition to complex theoretical
considerations and the use of 'ringmodulation' which enabled Stockhausen to create a new system of harmonic relationships, there was also a higher goal: the composer considered the unified construction of “Mantra” to be a musical miniature of the unified macro-structure of the universe, in addition to the projection into the acoustic time field of the unified micro-structure of the harmonic oscillations in the tone itself.´
The transcendental aspect was to acquire growing significance in Stockhausen’s thinking and it manifested itself in compositions with which Universal Edition was no longer associated.
It had been Alfred Schlee, a long-time director of UE, who after a concert went up to Stockhausen and announced to him “I am your publisher”. And it ended in the late 1960’s when the composer decided to publish his music himself.
Now that Stockhausen is no longer with us, time – which he succeeded in suspending in so many of his compositions – will assume the role of Judge to decide on the future of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s oeuvre. While the Judge is deliberating, many of the pieces which he assigned over half a century ago to Universal Edition, are being played as a matter of course.