Karlheinz Stockhausen

1928 2007

Karlheinz Stockhausen



The German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen is widely regarded as the most important composer of the post-World War II era. Consistently at the forefront of the avant-garde movement, he is known for his innovative use of electronics in music and for practically reinventing serialism.

Stockhausen grew up near Cologne, in the harsh environment of Nazi Germany. His mother, an amateur singer, was sent to a sanatorium when he was only five. Less than ten years later she died, presumably murdered by the regime due to her status as an “undesirable.” Stockhausen’s father died soon after while fighting on the Hungarian front in 1945. During this time, Stockhausen spent most of the war in Bedburg, near the Belgian front, where he worked in a military hospital.

Upon finally returning to Cologne after the war, the now orphaned and destitute Stockhausen was fortunately able to enroll in the Cologne Musikhochschule, where he studied piano with Hans-Otto Schmidt-Neuhaus and composition with Frank Martin. It was also during this time that he met and married Doris Andreae, a fellow classmate at the Cologne Musikhochschule. In 1951 Stockhausen continued his education at the Darmstadt Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, a critical period of his musical development during which he would meet almost all of the major players in the contemporary avant-garde scene. During a year-long trip to Paris he studied withOlivier Messiaen, who Stockhausen highly regarded, and Darius Milhaud, an experience that he was less enthusiastic about. He also metPierre Boulez, who introduced him to various other composers involved with the Parisian avant-garde.

By the time Stockhausen returned to Cologne in 1953 to accept a position at the brand new Studio für Elektronische Musik, he had become well acquainted with serialism, all of the composers of note of his generation and had written his first piece for tape,Konkrete Etüde (1952). Very soon he was at the forefront of the Cologne avant-garde scene, which would also welcome artists such as Mauricio Kagel andGyörgy Ligeti. However, Stockhausen did have several detractors, mostly after invitingJohn Cage to give a lecture in 1958. Stockhausen was a great proponent of Cage and looked up to him to a certain degree. Certainly, Cage’s aleatoric techniques and experimentation with controlled chance had a profound impact on Stockhausen, second only to the influence of Messiaen. However, Boulez and several other composers did not share these views.

Stylistically, much of Stockhausen’s music is built around the twin pillars of serialism and electronic music, and in each of these areas he pushed the genre to new limits. Whereas traditional serialist composers such asAnton Webern andArnold Schoenberg manipulated pitch as the main element (hence the term “twelve-tone music”), Stockhausen followed in the footsteps of Messiaen by applying these rigorous procedures to parameters including form, rhythm, instrumentation and intensity, an approach known as total serialism. His first piece to use this wasKreuzspiel (1951), in which he adopted a compositional style heavily influenced by mathematics and in particular, geometry.

In the electronic music world, Stockhausen would often start by manipulating the most basic element of sound: the sine wave. An example isStudie I (1953), which was the first composition ever to use sine-waves. Incidentally, hisStudie II from the following year was the first electronic piece to be completely written out and published. Another favorite effect of Stockhausen was to use tape recorders to sample sounds that he could later alter in his studio. Alternatively, in other pieces the electronics would be rendered live, such as inMikrophonie I (1964), which features numerous performers eliciting sounds from a highly amplified gong.

A favorite technique of Stockhausen is to experiment with different simultaneous speeds, allowing this to create tension and resolution between different parts of the ensemble. He has described this technique as “superimposing the music of different groups of musicians, of singers, instrumentalists who play and sing in different tempos simultaneously and then meet every now and then in the same tempo.” A good example of this isGruppen (1955-1957), which was written for three orchestras and, often, three different tempi.

In his personal life as well as his music, Stockhausen was well-known as an unconventional person. Lifestyle choices such as having two simultaneous wives (he married the second, Mary Bauermeister, in 1967) raised eyebrows, even amongst his friends. His frequent claim to being an alien from the star Sirius, rather than the more traditional homeland of Earth, surely has led him to be dismissed by many. Nevertheless or perhaps because of these eccentricities, his influence on popular culture has been immense, as is evidenced by his inclusion on the cover of the Beatles’ albumSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), and his innovations in the world of the musical avant-garde have elevated him to nearly legendary status.

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Many of Stockhausen’s pieces employed inventive forms of alternative notations, although unlike many of his contemporaries, these were usually highly practical and essential to the correct interpretation of the piece. Early examples are Zyklus, a spiral bound score which can start almost anywhere in the piece, and Refrain which used a form of circular notation not seen since the middle ages. Often, this works hand in hand with his aleatoric techniques, ensuring that no two performances will be the same.

From 1977 until 2003, a large part of Stockhausen’s creative energies were devoted to his magnum opus,Licht: Die sieben Tage der Woche. This seven-part opera cycle, rife with biblical as well as cosmic references, is truly one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by any composer. Although categorized as an opera,Licht is truly in a class of its own. There are large sections in which there are no vocals featured at all, with the protagonists represented by dancers, mimes or instruments from the orchestra.Licht also marks a period of real development for Stockhausen, because parts of the cycle represent his first use of extended techniques, which he had previously shied away from, and microtonality, which he made heavy use of from the third segment onwards.