Karlheinz Stockhausen: Composer acclaimed as a genius for his work in electronic music


Karlheinz Stockhausen, composer and conductor: born Mdrath, Germany 22 August 1928; Artistic Director, Westdeutscher Rundfunk Electronic Music Studio 1963-77, Artistic Consultant 1977-90; Professor of Composition, Cologne State Conservatory 1971-77; married 1951 Doris Andreae (one son, three daughters; marriage dissolved), 1967 Mary Bauermeister (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Krten, Germany 5 December 2007.

Karlheinz Stockhausen was one of only a tiny number of composers born and working in the 20th century who transformed the field of music. Like most prominent composers of his time, what brought him to the fore was not so much his musical talent as his overall vision, intellectual brilliance and work-discipline.

As with many artists, his abilities were apparent in his infancy, but the path he would eventually take did not seem the obvious one. Simon, his father, was a primary school teacher. His mother, Gertrud, came from a prosperous farming family. When Karlheinz was born in 1928, in Mdrath a small mining village near Cologne Germany was a depressed country in the thick of inter-war turmoil. Simon Stockhausen was shunted from job to job and, each time, the family moved with him. When Karlheinz was scarcely four, his mother suffered a breakdown and was admitted to the local mental hospital.

Karlheinz's first piano studies were with the organist of Altenberg cathedral. He took to the instrument with such speed that within a year he played duets at local functions. After only one hearing, he could play back popular tunes or operatic themes.

The boy was spontaneously religious. Prayers were part of the daily routine at home. When Simon was "encouraged" to join the Nazi party, however, he had to discourage prayer at school, a discrepancy which made a lasting impact on his son.

Simon left for the front as an officer and Karlheinz Stockhausen was himself drafted in autumn 1944. As a stretcher-bearer he tended wounded soldiers from many different countries. "Death became something completely relative for me," he later recalled. He never saw his father again, and his mother along with other mental patients had been killed as an act of government policy.

As a post-war orphan he moved to Cologne and lived hand-to-mouth, working as a car park attendant and night-watchman. His first thought for a vocation was literature; he started to write poems and stories, inspired by Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game. Music seemed, improbably, a way to earn money. Stockhausen played the piano in cafs, restaurants and bars and, just after he decided to concentrate on music, he spent a year improvising accompaniments for Adrion the conjuror.

Music in post-war Europe was as much in ferment as society and politics. A quarter-century earlier, Arnold Schoenberg had sown the seeds, revolutionising music by devising (some would say discovering) "composition using 12 tones". He would rework a melodic idea until it used all 12 notes of the octave, then extrapolate the intervals from the sequence. This pattern served as the basis for the cohesion and comprehensibility of the music. While Schoenberg saw the method as a continuation of tradition, the rising generation wanted to break with the past. The young Europeans tried to do so by applying the 12-tone principle with conceptual rigour to other dimensions of the music, such as rhythm and tone-colour.

Stockhausen became a pioneer of this "total serialism". In Kreuzspiel (1951), not only were the pitches organised in a series, but the durations too. Kontra-Punkte (1952-53) uses six different groups of timbre, which drop out one by one, until only the piano is left. Six degrees of volume are gradually reduced to a continuously soft level, and a diversity of note lengths gradually slims down to similar durations.

Total serialism, as practised by Stockhausen and peers such as Pierre Boulez, was soon attacked as "Augenmusik" music for the eyes, not for the ears. If you wrote this way, it was argued, you took the notes from your intellectual schemes, not from what you heard in your head and listeners could not follow them.

Certainly, Stockhausen and his followers tended to couch descriptions of their work in terms of "research", and were constantly inventing scientific-sounding terminology such as "group" and "moment" form. When Stockhausen worked in Paris in one of the early electronic music studios, he proposed a study made up of tiny permutations of a single sound. "Don't do that," the studio director, Pierre Schaeffer, advised. "You'll only hear background noise." Stockhausen persevered, and eventually played the result to Schaeffer. "All you heard was 'shuuutt'," Schaeffer remembered. "He was terribly pleased with it."

Characteristically, Stockhausen carried on, taking no account of criticism. He saw total serialism through to its conclusion, in works such as Gruppen, for three orchestras (1955-57) and his piano pieces. Kontakte (1959-60), for piano, percussion, and tape, tackled the compositional problem of relating acoustic and electronic sounds, in a way which remains unsurpassed. Zyklus (1959), his percussion solo, took Stockhausen's electro-acoustic researches and applied them to an instrumental work.

At the end of the Fifties, Stockhausen was undoubtedly the national composer of Germany. Although he was barely 30, he employed a series of compositional assistants, and held a pivotal place in the major music summer schools in Darmstadt and later Cologne.

In 1951 he had married Doris Andreae, daughter of a wealthy Hamburg shipbuilder, and for the next decade she was "the ideal wife", looking after their domestic affairs, leaving him free to work, and keeping open house for visiting composer friends. Early in the Sixties, however, his artistic connections with the painter Mary Bauermeister spilled over into an affair.

Since Stockhausen's music is on the surface highly intellectual, it is easy to overlook his emotional life and its relation to his work. It is, though, there for all to see. He dramatised his conflict of loyalties, for instance, in his lengthy Momente (1961-64), for soprano, four choir groups, and 13 instrumentalists. The material is grouped into K (Klang, timbre), M (melody) and D (duration) moments, which also happen to stand for Karlheinz, Mary and Doris.

Beginning in the mid-Sixties, Stockhausen turned towards a more intuitive type of music-making, providing form but not content for the players. Scores such as Prozession (1967) and Kurzwellen (1968) consist of signs directing the musicians to transform sounds spontaneously in specific ways. He formed his own performance group, and coached its members to play his new pieces in what he felt was the appropriate way which from time to time led to clashes.

In May 1968 that time of global crisis Mary Bauermeister left him. Responding creatively as usual, he went into seclusion and wrote a series of text scores, elusive in their instructions. "Play a vibration in the rhythm of the universe" is the invitation of one text. "What shall I do with that?" asked Group Stockhausen's pianist, Aloys Kontarsky.

Mantra (1970), for two pianos, ring modulators and incidental percussion, marked a return to conventional notation, and a new approachability. Stockhausen later remembered with pride that while touring the work he and the pianists would often hum the motif which forms the basis for the work.

It was around this time that his spiritual leanings, which he had long fulfilled through Catholicism, intensified, latching on to an amalgam of apocalyptic thought and Eastern mysticism. Sirius (1974), for instance, is premissed on Jakob Lorber's pronouncement that the human race was founded thousands of years ago by benign space-travellers from the Dog Star. The piece begins and ends with the depiction of space-ship engines landing and taking off.

The early Seventies marked the zenith of Stockhausen's popularity (his standing among fellow-composers was at its greatest 10 years earlier). By the Eighties, the music establishment took him less and less seriously, and his influence dwindled.

This was partly due to his personality. Charming, albeit opinionated, as a young man, many felt that after his crisis in the Sixties he had become a megalomaniac. Some people were offended by his polygamous relations with his female interpreters (to whom he referred on occasion as his "squaws") and by the apparent nepotism of including family members in his performances. He fell out with his publisher and record company over what they felt were unreasonable demands.

Partly, too, his falling sign was the flip-side of his early success. For Stockhausen, as for many who made their name at an early age (consider Orson Welles), it was hard to satisfy public expectations when he had been acclaimed as a genius while still in his twenties. From 1977 onwards, he subsumed his compositional work in a single project Licht (Light), a cycle of seven operas, named after the days of the week. Stockhausen declared that he would devote the rest of his working life to its completion, straddling, he planned, the millennium. Commissions which came his way for short works could be the occasion to compose an individual scene. He could build up most of each opera in this piecemeal way, until a major opera house agreed to mount the whole.

It was an audacious ambition, taking his character and his way of working to their natural conclusion. Licht was eventually finished more than a quarter of a century later, in 2003, and Stockhausen embarked upon Klang (Sound), a still unfinished cycle based on the 24 hours of the day.

David Revill

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