Philip Hensher: Silly, self-indulgent, subsidised and a musical giant

Stockhausen's least popular music is also that most possessed of true greatness

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My last encounter with a new piece by Karlheinz Stockhausen must have been five or so years ago. The Barbican put on the semi-staged premiere of one of the operas from his seven-opera cycle, Licht. "One of the later operas," my composer friend Richard Baker said in tones of warning, issuing the invitation.

Looking it up just now, I've concluded that what we went to see must have been Friday, and a dismal experience it was. All I remember about it is interminable two-part counterpoint, a flute tune over a bassoon tune going on for 10 minutes. What, if anything, happened on stage I have no recollection of at all, and doubt if it engaged my interest at the time. We left at the interval.

I include myself in the ranks of those with goodwill towards Stockhausen, and yet, like most such people, I completely lost patience with him from time to time, and permanently towards the end of his career. It was surprising, however, on his death, to hear all the old philistinism surfacing, quite unmodified in the 60 years since he first burst on our ears. The Today programme played 15 seconds of, I think, Kreuzspiel it was randomly chosen, but the rapturous magic of its sound asserted itself instantly. And then John Humphrys asked Brian Eno, "But is it music?"

Of course it's music. Laying aside that dismal last encounter, I would say that some of the most thrilling and transforming musical experiences of my life have been at the expert hands of Stockhausen. A rare live performance of his 1957 piece for three orchestras, Gruppen, in the 1990s, under Simon Rattle, John Carew and Daniel Harding, fulfilled every expectation which had been raised by decades of commentary. The climax of the piece, in which brass fanfares are swung round the hall from one orchestra to another, must be the most exciting passage of new music since the Rite of Spring.

And then there is Stimmung, 90 minutes of the sung overtones of a bass B flat, mixed with recited incantations and mystic statements. No account of it really conveys the transformations of so grand an exposition of the power of natural harmony; it is a piece with the psychological effect of staring at a clear sky at night. Even listening to Thursday, the first of the ill-fated opera cycle, at Covent Garden in the 1980s, your impatience at the undoubted absurdities and clumsy humour gave way, and its strangeness and beauty took over. One of the high musical pleasures of my entire life, I think, was leaving the opera house and hearing the trumpet "Farewells" sounding from the roof to a puzzled London.

Nothing, however, will ever quite compare to coming across an old record of Kontakte for electronics, piano and percussion. I was fourteen; it was sitting in the school's record library. I know now, or at any rate have been promised, that it is the most rigorous of Stockhausen's exercises in serial control. But what struck me then was the sheer refined beauty of the exchanges, the boldness of the invention. You never knew what this music was going to do next.

Would Stockhausen have written more conventionally and less ambitiously, both in scale and in experimental terms, if he hadn't been supported most of his life by a lavish public arts programme? No doubt. The degree of support which Stockhausen enjoyed certainly let him journey into areas of enormous self-indulgence. If he had had to engage a little more with a paying audience, he might have thought twice about the value of the Licht cycle he started it in 1978, saying it would take 25 years, and he finished it bang on time in 2003, to, alas, almost no interest.

And yet, paradoxically, the music that he wrote which was and is least likely to command any kind of popular enjoyment is also the music most possessed of true greatness. The music of tremendous, muscular rumpus from the 1950s from Kreuzspiel to the first version of Momente will live forever; the weird fantasies of the 1960s and 1970s created an entire world of sound and thought.

I've been as sardonic as anyone about some of Stockhausen's odder inventions. But to be honest, I wouldn't want to live in a world where nobody thought it might be interesting to ask a Japanese priest to kneel in purple light in front of an orchestra playing a melody 70 minutes long.

For some peculiar reason, Stockhausen was defended, immediately after the news of his death, on the grounds that he inspired a lot of pop music. "Without Stockhausen, there would be no Radiohead," was one claim. That, I must say, is an unambitious approach to the subject, like suggesting that without the ocean, there would be no sandcastles. Stockhausen was a giant silliness, cacophony, public subsidy and all. I don't think it would be allowed to happen again.

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