This work derives from the large-scale music-theatre composition SIRIUS, which is for electronic music and four soloists: bass, soprano, trumpet and bass clarinet, representing Capricorn (winter), Cancer (spring), Aries (summer) and Libra (autumn), respectively.
The composer (from the booklet to Stockhausen-Verlag CD 59 that contains the work, p. 18):
"In the composition SIRIUS the basso profundo is NORTH, earth, man, night, seed, winter. I have arranged a solo version for bass and electronic music, which begins, following the wind at the end of autumn – with the CAPRICORN melody of ZODIAC. The winter section lasts circa 13 ½ minutes, this leads into the Bridge after CAPRICORN (circa 5 ¾ minutes) and ends in the ANNUNCIATION (circa 7 minutes)."
The sung texts of the three winter melodies, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces, are reprinted in the CD booklet (both English and German; they are sung in both languages). The recording on Stockhausen-Verlag CD 59 features Nicholas Isherwood as soloist. It is divided into 51 tracks (20–70) that follow one another without breaks.
General characteristics of the music
The melodic material in CAPRICORN, as in SIRIUS from which the work is derived, comes from TIERKREIS (Zodiac). It is supplemented by variations and transformations. There are also inserts of material that is more oriented towards speech-song, as well as singing in declamatory tone that is mainly rhythm-based, such as in the run-up to the great climax. The melodies are mostly the ones of Winter, which are Capricorn (the main melody), Aquarius and Pisces. Later on the Aries melody (Spring) will feature prominently during an extended period of decrescendo following the great climax.
The dramatic, impressive part for bass voice includes extended passages of long-stretched notes sung at elevated volume, both during presentations of the Capricorn melody and during rhythm-based singing. Yet it features quite tender moments as well, such as in the presentation of the Aquarius and Pisces melodies. The inserts of speech-song display an engaging vividness.
The electronic music was composed on the large analog synthesizer Synthi-100 that had advanced sequencing capabilities remarkable for its time. The instrument allowed for extensive transformations of the music, such as gradual conversions of rhythm from one melody to another, pitch compressions along a continuous scale, presentation of pitch melody as mainly timbre melody, and vast accelerations of melodic material. Stockhausen, as ever, also here proves his sophistication in composing and realizing electronic music that breaks new grounds in sound texture and enables him to create novel musical structures.
Given that CAPRICORN, the season of winter, is assigned to the bass singer in SIRIUS, over vast stretches the electronic music is grounded in the bass register. Yet it also extends towards the high register, such as in ‘bell’ tones. These appear after the first climax ("Night of Christ"), as the electronic music plays alone for a while, and will continue until much later. The electronic presentation of the Aries melody in the last third of the work is in high register as well.
There are also ‘roof tones’ accompanying the fundamental tones of melody in lower register; they are in separate timbral strata that are disconnected from the fundamental tone that they overlaid on. At times they detach from the fundamental tones and perform their own melodic excursions around them. Stockhausen would later on further explore, in an extended manner, the concept of ‘roof tones’ in WELTRAUM, the electronic music of the opera FREITAG aus LICHT.
The large-scale form of the work is exciting and quite unique, building on vastly expanding arches of development. After a grand and extended presentation of the Capricorn melody, leading through temporal augmentations of parts of it to a climax, the music recedes dynamically and compresses in pitch expansion, with the electronic music for an significant time playing alone and transforming pitch to timbre melody. After the bass singer has presented the Aquarius and Pisces melodies at lower dynamics than at the beginning of the work, slowly the music will be preparing a large climax. The masterful build-up to the climax will last almost six minutes, from track 40 where the singer intonates a drawn-out "Ca – pri – corn" to the beginning of track 56. In terms of such vast reaches of large-scale architecture this music is reminiscent of the largest scales of preparation of climaxes in Bruckner’s music, e.g., in the Adagio of the Ninth Symphony.
The great climax is followed by an also unusually large-scale decrescendo, of about 2 and a half minutes, which introduces Aries. The structure of the decrescendo is unusual as well. Eventually, after the ‘stopping of the wheel’ (see below) the music ends with the ANNUNCIATION followed by the departure of spacecrafts.
Without knowing Stockhausen’s background, a friend pointed out an important cultural connection as he was listening to CAPRICORN. He said that the build-up to the great climax, in which over an extended time the bass sings extremely drawn-out notes with little pitch variation, reminded him of Japanese Noh theatre. After having acquainted myself with Noh theatre I concur, and the connection seems natural given that the composer had been in Japan in 1966 and on a number of occasions spoke about the influence the country’s culture had had on him.
Detailed guide through the music
The work begins with a short introduction featuring the blowing of wind (CD 59, track 20), a bridge from the section LIBRA that precedes CAPRICORN in SIRUS. The electronic music commences in low register, playing the Capricorn melody, while the bass announces "Cancer, Aries, Libra, hört, ich komme" ("... hear, I am coming"). The three names refer to the three other protagonists, or seasons (spring, summer, autumn), in SIRIUS. Subsequently the bass synchronizes with the electronic music, with dramatic voice singing the expressive Capricorn melody, with lyrics first in English, then in German. As this develops, the electronic sounds playing the Capricorn melody gradually split in timbre. The bass layer remains, but there are ‘roof tones’ (see above) in higher register overlaid on it. These ‘roof tones’ form something closer to a timbre melody on top of the pitch melody in the bass layer. – Next to the electronic sounds carrying the melody, there are long-stretched ‘industrial’ sounds.
As the bass voice reverts to singing of stretched-out notes in declamatory tone (from track 24 onward), the electronic Capricorn melody plays on, yet is broken by brief pauses. In track 26 it starts to slow down considerably, and the ‘roof tone’ layer gains some independence, undergoing some pitch/timbre fluctuations at much faster speed. The bass sings beautiful lines that are based on dramatically lengthened notes (augmentations) of the Capricorn melody, and include a few successions of ascending lines derived from the melody (especially in track 27). After a climax in the bass voice ("Night of Christ", track 28), featuring the greatest lengthening of notes, dynamics swiftly recede (track 29) and the electronic music plays alone for a while, focusing on the original Capricorn melody with its moderate yet steady tempo. At this point, the leading layer is one in middle register that is compressed in pitch and paints melody as timbre, while there is a countermelody, just as in the original version of the 12 Zodiac melodies for music boxes. It plays diffusely in the bass register and will lose presence over time (compare track 31 with 29). In very slow tempo we hear isolated high-pitched electronic ‘bell’ sounds. These will continue from here on for an extended time.
As it keeps playing on its own, the electronic music becomes ever softer. We are now in a dynamic ‘valley’ from which the music gradually will rise again until eventually it will culminate in an enormous climax.
After some time, the bass sets in again (track 32), now singing at a more regular volume rather than the elevated one from before; in fragments he introduces the Aquarius melody. In track 33 he intonates the beautifully swaying melody proper. As he sings the second verse (track 34, 0’11"), the melody is halted by brief pauses, which are placeholders for omissions of text and melody. After the singer briefly exclaims, in wonderment, "Aquarius!", he continues the Aquarius melody, now singing in German.
All the while, through all these proceedings the electronic music had continued in the background with a pitch-compressed Capricorn melody, accompanied by lower counter voice. At the beginning of track 37, as another melodic fragment ‘peeks through’, the bass singer apparently reminds himself of the Capricorn melody and proclaims in resolute voice: "Capricornus, Sea goat, Steinbock, Sea goat, yes – ‘corn!"
Almost right away he then proceeds to the elegantly wriggling Pisces melody (track 38). The isolated high-pitched electronic ‘bell’ sounds now appear in shorter intervals, while the remainder of the electronic music at first consists just of stretched-out, glissandoing sounds, without melodic elements that sound familiar. At 0’35" of track 38 a few notes are heard that are played in the electronic bass timbre which had been used by the Capricorn melody in the beginning, but only in track 40 the melody picks up again firmly in the electronic bass register, as the bass singer intonates a very drawn-out "Ca – pri – corn", capping off the Pisces melody, the text of which he had first presented in English, then in German. This marks the first stage of the build-up to a great climax.
The electronic Capricorn melody at first starts very slowly, yet accelerates already during the singer’s stretched-out "Ca – pri – corn". Soon after, the acceleration picks up in speed (track 41), and continues until regular tempo is reached (track 42/43). The melody will further fluctuate in tempo.
In an extraordinarily drawn-out manner the bass continues, over the course of almost 3 minutes, the first two verses of Capricorn, with deviations from the original:
"Sea goat with" (tracks 42, 43),
"Saturn" (3 x, track 44 – 46),
"Erde, Mensch" ("Earth, the human", track 46),
"Earth, der Mann" ("…the man", track 47 – 49).
Towards the end of track 45, and intensified in track 46, the electronic Capricorn melody acquires a new emphasis, with more pronounced attack phases on the synthesizer tones. In track 47 the electronic music starts to overlay the Aries melody on the Capricorn rhythm. ‘Roof tones’ on top of the fundamentals become more prominent again.
Finally, after the drawn-out manner of the presentation of the first two verses of Capricorn, the singer quickly closes this part of the music with the last two verses of Capricorn: "striving for light / sun of mother sun Sirius" (track 50).
This marks the end of the section CAPRICORN, and is followed by the Bridge after CAPRICORN. Yet musically there is no incision at all, rather, the build-up towards a climax that had been underway seamlessly continues.
The bass singer carries on (track 51) with "Phoenix, Man, winter night, night of Christ, shows the heaven’s firmament, starry tent" and now proceeds through the full remainder of the lyrics (in English) of Capricorn, yet without the melody; instead he presents the text in forceful speech-song on almost a single pitch. The singer then proceeds via "and Aquarius" to the lyrics (in English) of Aquarius (track 52), temporarily raising the pitch of his voice for dramatic accentuation, yet quickly reverting to a lower pitch. During the second part of Aquarius (track 53) the singer then raises, in two steps, the pitch even more, inexorably working towards a great climax.
With "and Pisces" (track 54), proceeding through the lyrics of Pisces (also all in English), the music continues, with grand gesture, the binding together of all the lyrics of the CAPRICORN section, the lyrics of the Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces melodies. The pitch of the bass voice fluctuates somewhat yet remains in excited mode on higher pitches, each held through a number of syllables of the text.
As all this unfolds, the electronic music (since track 47 playing the Aries melody on the Capricorn rhythm) undergoes a dramatic transformation. In track 52 (as the lyrics of Aquarius are sung) it starts to dramatically speed up until melody becomes unrecognizable, and eventually consolidates into a rapidly fluctuating, dense sound band. There is a split into two timbral strata, an upper and a lower one. At some point this split becomes very obvious (track 54, about 15 seconds in), with the upper, silvery band reminiscent of the ‘roof tones’ heard earlier in the electronic music, against the lower band of ‘fundamentals’. This division of the electronic timbres will continue, while in a climactic manner the entire band of electronic music gradually, in a glissando, shifts to ever higher register (through track 55).
Track 55 sees a dramatic climax in the singing of the bass voice. He sing-shouts the last three verses of the Pisces lyrics, with almost each of the words from the English text followed by the corresponding word from the German text:
"sudden willfulness – Eigensinn
intuition – Intuition / dreams – Träume
wisdom – Weisheit / innocence – Kindlichkeit"
At the height of the climax (track 56) the singer shouts "Komm Aries!" ("Come Aries!"). Shortly afterwards, Aries as a melody indeed is coming, in the high register of the electronic music as the rapidly fluctuating sound band continues. At first Aries appears tentatively, and then as a more firm melodic statement. Initially the rhythm is complex, since other Zodiac rhythms are overlaid on the melody, yet quickly the original melody unfolds (during track 57).
The timbre of the electronic Aries melody is enchanting. It sounds somewhat like the chirping of birds, yet is also reminiscent of the sound of music boxes for which Stockhausen originally wrote the 12 Zodiac melodies. The rapidly fluctuating sound band remains a prominent layer of the electronic music and becomes compressed in pitch, a process that will continue.
After the introduction of the Aries melody in the electronic music the bass singer enters again, once more with a voice that is elevated in volume, yet not quite as much as in the climax. He sings the melody (track 58, lyrics in German) while simultaneously it still continues in the high register of the electronic music (it will do so until track 62). In track 59 the bass settles on a single pitch (A), singing "A –ri –es" at a somewhat softer volume.
At the same time, the electronic sound band has further compressed and also settles on a (quasi) A that rapidly oscillates in a periodic manner. Over time the oscillations will become slower and slower. In track 60 the bass sings just an "a" vowel that gradually, in a vowel glissando morphs into the "i" of "Aries" and back, with further permutations (into track 61). This is an extraordinary moment: the bass singer completely merges with the electronic music, vanishing in it as it were, still singing at a considerable volume.
Towards the end of track 61, the continuous oscillating sound in the electronic tape is supplemented with quasi morse code, based on rhythms of Zodiac melodies; this will continue for a while.
A swelling synthesizer tone leads to the announcement of the bass singer (track 62): "Friends, we stop the Wheel, North and South thank you for your open ears!" The singer follows up with (from Capricorn): "Striving for light, sun of Sirius", and then continues from before with "East and West thank you for your open hearts!" (track 64).
[The "stopping of the Wheel" refers to the wheel of the four seasons; in the Spring Version of SIRIUS, where the Bridge after CAPRICORN is played, that season (winter) is the last one. The four cardinal directions symbolize the four seasons.]
The bass then sings, on its melody, the last verse of Libra, "lovely harmonious peaceful / dancing swaying in love", (track 65).
The ANNUNCIATION follows, on a text by Jakob Lorber from the middle of the 19th century. It features impressively advanced thinking for its time when it comes to expressing the link between the very local event of the creator’s incarnation and the immensely vast universe that he created:
'...Only this period of creation has the virtue – still indiscernible for you – that in the entire eternal infinite it is the only one in which I, creator of all worlds, have completely taken on the nature of the human flesh.
I have chosen for Myself within the entire, immense Universe, this particular cosmic capsule, and within this, the local universe whose central sun is SIRIUS, and amongst the 200 million suns rotating around SIRIUS, I have chosen just your Earth where I would incarnate as human being...
Here I will raise, for all times and eternities to come, children completely similar to Me, who, together with Me, will someday reign over the total infinite...'
While a piano plays the Pisces melody in the background, the bass sings most of the text in declamatory style, with only some allusions to the melody in rhythmic phrasing and pitch excursions. The last two verses switch to the Aquarius melody in the piano, which now is emulated to a greater extent by the bass singer. The electronic reverberation of the piano makes the instrument blend well with the electronic music surrounding it.
As the bass finishes the Annunciation, the sound of slow ‘rotorblades’ softly appears in the background, followed by a deep rumble, in anticipation of events shortly to occur.
Subsequently, there are beautiful electronic sounds in the treble register that make the impression that giant triangles are struck. There are four events of such 'triangle strikes', separated in time, either as single 'strike' or in quick succession of two or three, followed by extensive decay.
The rumble resurfaces from the background noise; it is that of an engine of a large space ship. Subsequently, four smaller ships lift off towards the mother ship, one by one, each for one of the four protagonists of SIRIUS (in four-channel projection, heard in live performances of the work, this sounds spectacular), and eventually the rumble of the mother ship, lifting off from Earth, fades in the distance.
Performance and recording
The performance by Nicolas Isherwood is excellent; he obviously relishes the dramatic score for bass voice and renders it with great expression. A particular feat is his ability to ‘vanish’, at full volume, in the electronic music after the great climax (see above). Sound is of high quality too, and on a good speaker system the palpability of the singer’s voice standing in front of the listener can be astonishing.
The other work on the CD is RECHTER AUGENBRAUENTANZ (Right Eye Brow Dance), a colorful adaptation for woodwinds, synthesizer and percussion of music from LUCIFER’S DANCE, an orchestral scene from the opera SATURDAY from LIGHT.
For those who want to study the electronic music on its own, it is contained on the CD set Stockhausen-Verlag CD 76 (Spring Version).
© Albrecht Moritz 2017
Wikipedia page on SIRIUS
Essay on SIRIUS
Stockhausen: Sounds in Space: Sirius, Aries, Libra, Capricorn