An introduction to Stockhausen

by Albrecht Moritz


© Albrecht Moritz 2000
web links updated 2022

Karlheinz Stockhausen

(German composer, b. 1928)

Stockhausen's development as a composer experienced a turning point when he studied the music of Anton Webern and attended the classes of Olivier Messiaen in Paris in the 50s. Those experiences were also important for Pierre Boulez who became Stockhausen's friend.

The first work written with the unmistakable imprint of Stockhausen as the composer he was to emerge is KREUZSPIEL (Cross-play) from 1951. It is a serial work, and Stockhausen used and extensively further developed serial parameters in his compositions (going far beyond the traditional pitch series from earlier serial music). His opera-cycle LICHT which was started in 1977 uses "formula composition" and "super-formula composition", an extension of his earlier serial techniques. The formulas also express recognizable motivic / melodic structures. Stockhausen is also a pioneer in electronic music and he has used electronics for many of his compositions. His work in electronic music has had a huge influence in contemporary music. For types of music composed by Stockhausen, also see his official short biography.

From KREUZSPIEL (1951) on, which produced a scandal at its first performance, Stockhausen became the archetype of progress in classical music for many, and the scary bogyman of classical music for many others (keyword chaotic plinky-plonky music). Most certainly, he has had a huge impact on the classical music scene in the last 50 years! Stockhausen himself has quite some humor about his role as scary bogyman: on his former official webpage the Stockhausen cartoons can make your smile of the day, cartoons collected by the musician and collaborator for many years, Kathinka Pasveer.

Stockhausen works differently from many other composers. Many great composers, once they make a unique musical statement which points to their having arrived at an own voice, expand that statement into their distinct style throughout many successive works. Stockhausen on the other hand makes one statement, and then moves on to the next work which again is a statement in itself. For example, there is no GRUPPEN style, CARRÉ style, MIXTUR style, YLEM style and so on. Each "style" comprises mostly one single work and that's it (for the characteristics of all these works, see my reviews). Of course, however, like with all great composers Stockhausen's personal voice is immediately recognizable in most of his works throughout his career.

From an interview with the composer:
"I Composed Kreuzspiel, or Crossplay [1951], and I knew when I wrote it that it would sound like nothing else in the world. People were quite upset when they heard it for the first time at the national summer courses for contemporary music in Darmstadt, where I conducted the piece; it was violently interrupted by the public. And since then I have composed works from one to the next, always waiting until I've found something that I had never imagined before, or that sounded like anything existing."

It is self-explanatory that this approach to composing results in an incredible variety of musical output, when it is executed by a composer as great as Stockhausen. Since each work comprises a statement in itself, I simply find every single work which I've heard so far by Stockhausen extremely important for my listening catalog.

From an interview with Björk, made in 1996:
"I have 253 individually performable works now, in scores, and about 70 or 80 Cds with different works on them, all different, so there is a lot to discover. It's like a world in a world, and there's so many different aspects. That's probably what they like: all of the pieces are very different. I don't like to repeat myself."

Stockhausen also has had a great influence on pop music. From an interview by David Paul:
"It seems that recently many Pop Musicians admit that they have learned a lot from my work because they are so interested now in Electronic Music and electronic sound synthesis. Most of them sample music, but they transform the samples. As a matter of fact, the most famous ones know my work quite well. Several of them have been my students. Even in America, the musicians of the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane were in my composition classes in Davis, California in 1966-67. Et cetera."

Stockhausen can be found on the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper Hearts Club Band, and the cover of the first EP of Sonic Youth, "TV Shit", contains a reference to GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE. John Lennon appears to have used HYMNEN as a model for his "Revolution 9". Since the end of the Sixties Miles Davis, the famous jazz/rock-jazz trumpetist, was influenced by Stockhausen's music. In some circles Stockhausen is called "The Father of Techno", an honorary title which he reluctantly responds to, saying that use of new technical means is one thing and musical innovation another. Björk is a huge Stockhausen fan and has made a very good interview with him.

Stockhausen is not only a composer but also works in many other fields successfully. He is an accomplished conductor, shown by the fact he also is able to conduct his own INORI, which the important conductor of contemporary music, Peter Eötvös, called the most difficult work he ever conducted. Stockhausen regularly conducts many of his ensemble and orchestral works. From the official biography on his former website:
"Stockhausen is the perfect example of the composer who - at nearly all world premières and in innumerable exemplary performances and recordings of his works world-wide - either personally conducted, or performed or directed the performance as sound projectionist."

Stockhausen is also a librettist for his operas, he writes all the texts himself, and even invents new words, word combinations or word-sounds (he studied phonetics from 1954 - 56).

He is also a teacher of music. He taught at Darmstadt for 22 years until 1974, founded the Cologne Courses for New Music (1963 - 1968) and was professor at several universities (regular or guest). Since 1998 he teaches the international Stockhausen Courses Kürten during summer (Kürten is the secluded little community near Cologne where Stockhausen lives since more than 30 years). Among his students were also Wolfgang Rihm and Kevin Volans.

Stockhausen is also a determined entrepeneur. He bought the rights to all the old DG recordings in the 80s and has reissued them on his own private label (Stockhausen-Verlag) and has recorded all of his newer works on that label (for a total of close to 90 CDs). This ensures that all his works are available to the interested listener at all times, a situation rather unique for a contemporary composer (or for the majority of all great composers for that matter). Moreover, since 1969, Stockhausen has self-published all of his own scores. And he self-publishes his Texte zur Musik, volumes 1 through 10, which comprise a total of more than 5000 pages. This also makes him a very prolific writer on music.

Furthermore, Stockhausen is a great sound mixer. For many performances of his electronic or semi-electronic music he has taken over the task of sound projection and mixing, and he mixes and masters all the CDs issued by the Stockhausen-Verlag. Also the older ones originally issued on Deutsche Grammophon all have an astonishing transparency of sound, often sounding like they were recorded yesterday (except for some tape hiss of course).

Stockhausen's music is still able to attract audiences. From the March 1998 report by Suzanne Stephens on the former official Stockhausen page about a performance of INORI in Munich, Germany in Januari 1998:
"The concert, which took place in the legendary Herkulessaal ("legendary" because of its excellent acoustics), was sold out two weeks ahead of time and hundreds of people who were standing in line for the standing places had to be sent away. Stockhausen had suggested giving two performances to accommodate the many people who wanted to attend, but the orchestra refused. Luckily the concert was broadcast live, so many people who could not get tickets could at least hear the work. Of course the visual aspect plays such a large role in this _ as in most of Stockhausen's works _ that "only" listening is like looking at a postcard, but is better than nothing. Reviews from all over Germany were ecstatic."

This remark about the performance of INORI also points to the importance of the visual aspect in Stockhausen's music. On CD that aspect is lacking, and certainly in the operas most likely the length and character of a few passages can be appreciated best in a live performance. But with the help of the excellent booklets to the operas (actually they are real mini-books!) containing a detailed description of the scenes and also nice color pictures, the imagination of the listener can at least partially fill in the visual aspect pretty well. It is clear that Stockhausen conceived his operas not just as scenes based on music as the most important component, but as a Gesamtkunstwerk - as a German opera composer deeply rooted in the German cultural tradition and taking it to its extreme.

Another aspect of Stockhausen's music which can be experienced on CD only in a limited way or not at all, is the spatial aspect of his music, an aspect very important to the composer. When his music is performed live, the listener often can experience diagonal, rotational or even vertical and spiral movements of sound [the latter two since OCTOPHONY (opera TUESDAY from LIGHT, 1993)]. Talking in an interview about the octophonic sound system in the musicology department of the University of Cologne he commented: "So this has changed tremendously the outlook of his [the professor's] students, they think in new terms about space, and now they realise that space, or the location of sound in space is as important as the pitch, dynamics, timbre etc.". The electronic music of FRIDAY from LIGHT (1999) even employs a dodecaphonic (!) sound system.

Stockhausen most certainly is one of those artists who do not work out an artistic idea within the confines of what their cultural environment views as practically achievable, but rather fantasize on an idea without limits and after that fact look for possibilities to realize it. Stockhausen's operas are very difficult to realize, both in terms of demands from the performers and in terms of staging. Stockhausen works hard with the artists in order to achieve something close to the ideal model performance, and hopes that this and the few follow-up performances serve as model for future performances in the faith that others will put as much time, work, energy and resources into it as required. He is aware that many scenes are not ideally realizable in traditional opera houses, and hopes that in the future opera houses will be built capable of meeting the demands of his staging.

Given the fact that special theaters for certain musicals are built these days, it certainly would be a nice idea to have Stockhausen theaters built instead. For sure they would feature better music than the schnulzi-pulzi one played in those musical theaters!

For a great biographical essay (followed by an interesting interview), visit the Malcolm Ball link.


With thanks to Joseph Henry for valuable input.