My journey through Stockhausen’s music

by Albrecht Moritz


This essay originally appeared in the Gedenkschrift für Stockhausen, pp. 136-149, Stockhausen-Stiftung für Musik, Kürten, Germany, 2008, and is reproduced here in a slightly modified form. It was written as part of a collection of texts by diverse authors scheduled to be published in celebration of Stockhausen’s 80th birthday. After the composer unexpectedly had passed away, the texts were instead published in memory of him.


For almost two decades my ‘knowledge’ of Stockhausen’s music was based on once or twice hearing – not listening to – some of his early works and reading excerpts from his Texte zur Musik (Texts on Music) 1 and 2. In fact, I had spent far more time reading Stockhausen than hearing his music. Unfortunately, to an uninitiated person like I had been, just reading the Texte without accompanying music, which is not the way it should be, strongly reinforced the idea that floats around about avantgarde music: that it is just a dry theoretical exercise – ‘paper music’, if you will. Not particularly helpful, I must confess, was also the comment by Stockhausen that Bruckner’s symphonies contain "breathers" ("Verschnaufpausen"; Texte 1, p. 194). Bruckner was – and still very much is – one of my favorite composers.

Had I only listened to Stockhausen’s music! Through intense discussions about classical music on the internet, starting in April 1998, I finally got to know modern composers of the last 50 years other than just Schnittke (who was a favorite at the time, and whose music I still find mostly excellent), driven by knowledgeable peers whose enthusiasm inflamed my own. This slowly opened my mind to the idea that athematic atonal music might be worthwhile to explore. Schnittke actually wrote also some of such music – which I loved – but that it was atonal and athematic had somehow escaped my attention.

Finally, in April 1999, the time was ripe for attending a live concert with the Ensemble Intercontemporain under the direction of David Robertson, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The music played was by Stockhausen, Stravinsky (L’Histoire d’ Une Soldat), Xenakis (Thallein) and Ligeti (Piano Concerto). I still remember vividly how my wife and I, after I had been stuck in traffic for a seemingly endless time before picking her up from work, were in a stressed hurry to eat some fast food, to try to find a parking space and the concert hall, and to still arrive at the concert in time. We almost missed the first work, but the entire strained effort to be on time had been worth it. That first work was KREUZSPIEL by Stockhausen.

I did not pay attention to the lack of ‘melody’, but simply was captivated by the strong atmosphere of the work, and by the sheer aural impact, as was my wife. Actually, she liked the Stockhausen work the best, while I was also impressed by the Xenakis and Ligeti works. I do not know if my interest in Stockhausen would have been raised as dramatically and in an instant, had we not made it in time to that concert.

The first two CDs I ordered from Stockhausen-Verlag were CD 1 with KREUZSPIEL and other early works, and the CD with GRUPPEN and CARRÉ (I was told by people on the internet discussion board that the latter two works were important). Again, I very much enjoyed KREUZSPIEL, while the other works grew on me more slowly. I distinctly remember, however, that, as abstract as GRUPPEN sounded to me at first, it also impressed me right away with its recurring gestures – a guide to listeners that clearly dispelled the notion of abstraction for its own sake. Over time, understanding and fascination set in.

A few months later, the next two CDs that I bought were MIXTUR (1964/67) and YLEM (1972). These threw the door wide open for me. I still recall the thrilling moment when for the first time I heard the first notes of MIXTUR, "High C", from the retrograde version. The visceral impact of this passage immediately captivated me, and so did that of the entire work – just that electronically modulated orchestral sound was incredible. YLEM similarly thrilled me, and I was stunned by the colorful musical depiction of a basic idea about the universe.

In the meantime, I had also become comfortable with the athematic atonal music of other composers, and could appreciate the originality of Stockhausen’s composing in context. The next music that I delved into, again a few months later, in February 2000, were the a cappella WELT-PARLAMENT (1995) and the opera MONTAG aus LICHT (1984–88). The former overwhelmed me from the start with its exciting textures, and confirmed Stockhausen as a composer of colorful, immediate, viscerally gripping music – so different from the image of dry, academic music that I had harbored in my mind for much too long. In fact, I quickly perceived WELT-PARLAMENT to be among the best of all art music, created over the centuries, that I had ever heard. MONTAG on the other hand grew on me more slowly. Yet finally, after two or three times listening, at once the subtlety of the choral textures, harmonies and timbres enthralled me to such an extent that it dawned on me that also this was not just great music, but music of rare, exceptional quality – an impression that eventually would hold for almost each work by Stockhausen which I would hear from then on, and a feeling that rapidly or over time would also extend to the earlier works which I already knew at this point.

From then on, my addiction to Stockhausen’s music was final. Almost each new work that I listened to was a revelation – if not right away, then over time. The compositional quality, depth and imagination of the music all equal the best in my opinion, and what makes the music so addictive for me are its colorfulness, originality and expressiveness – I do not mean ‘romantic’ expressiveness, but that the music is filled with an exciting and multi-layered inner life. The musical gestures, both pronounced and subtle ones, are of great strength that holds up upon repeated listening. A significant part of the vibrancy of the music is due to tension that arises from the rhythmically flexible, carefully composed temporal relationship between notes and phrases, at times accentuated by pauses.

Today I know nearly all of Stockhausen’s expansive oeuvre and, while I keep exploring and enjoying a great variety of other music, his music usually is the one I listen to the most. It never fails to draw me in with its colorful and inventive textures, its rich layering that always allows for new discoveries, and with its superbly composed structures.

The encounter with WELT-PARLAMENT and MONTAG also completely shattered the widespread myth that Stockhausen’s music has degraded in quality since the 1960s or at the latest around 1970. Here I sat, listening to some of the best choral music ever created, music of immense subtlety, richness and originality, and this was supposed to be a ‘composer in decline’? I was just shaking my head in disbelief how such an opinion was possible. Later I discovered that many of those who consider themselves knowledgeable on New Music literally had not heard a single note of Stockhausen’s music of the last 25 years, usually with the exception of the ‘infamous’ HELIKOPTER-STREICHQUARTETT, available on CD outside the Stockhausen-Verlag (now, with recent Stockhausen webcasts, the situation may have changed). I had several of these skeptics listen to WELT-PARLAMENT. They were all enthusiastic about the textures and their quality, and agreed that Stockhausen still wrote fantastic music.

After I had become convinced of the greatness of Stockhausen’s music as described above, I suggested to my wife that I would enjoy visiting the Stockhausen summer courses 2000 in Kürten for two days. So we did. Stockhausen already knew my name from the first essays that I had written about his works, and after the first evening concert he and I immediately engaged in a lively conversation. Stockhausen struck me as a very friendly, warm human being who was not arrogant, contrary to the myth – the lack of arrogance had already become clear in the afternoon composition seminar which showed that the composer could smile about himself. Also evident was that in the courses there was no atmosphere of ‘adoring discipleship’. Again, persistent Stockhausen myths were shattered by reality, something that did not surprise me any more by that time, given that I had already found out so much about the composer’s music that belied common myths. Stockhausen was also unusually energetic – not just by the standards of a man his age, but by any standards. My wife had the same impressions of Stockhausen’s personality. We visited the Kürten summer courses a few more times, and in 2006 together with my father, this time for their entire duration. My father and I had not talked beforehand about the composer’s personality, but he came to the same conclusions: a friendly, energetic man, who was not arrogant at all. Yes, it was clear that the composer very well knew his own worth, but both my father and I found this natural.

I suppose when you are not intimidated by Stockhausen being a great and famous composer, as we all had not been, but simply approach him as a human being like everyone else, with respect but not ‘adoration’, you can get to know who he really is – instead of judging from a distance. Certainly, we also found that Stockhausen could be very demanding with musicians and technicians, but, as my father suggested, Stockhausen may not have been unreasonable in this, and it may have been the best way for him to get for the performances what he expected. And once you witnessed a Stockhausen rehearsal, it became impressively clear that the composer knew exactly what the performance is supposed to be like in every detail – nothing escaped his attention. Also interesting is how he interacted with the performers he worked with closely; in most cases he criticized relatively little during rehearsal, and, after having pointed out a few things in the score, he usually trusted them to follow the suggestions without insisting on actually hearing the improvements before the evening performance.

Particularly noteworthy is the graceful attitude that Stockhausen showed in the farewell ceremony of the summer courses 2006, the first such ceremony that we had the opportunity to attend. After saying that the courses had been a wonderful event, and that the performers had been very happy about the strong support from the audience, he read quite a long list of all the names of the people involved in making the courses happening, including the janitors. His comment: "You could have read all these names in the program booklet, but I wanted to explicitly mention them here, because without them and this human interaction the event would not have been possible."

Musically the courses are a great learning experience. My favorites of the courses in the presence of Stockhausen were the dress rehearsals in the morning, the composition seminar in the afternoon, and the evening performances. The enthusiasm of the young performers in the "participants’ concerts" and the quality of their performances are a delight, the "faculty concerts" are always impressive, and the visual aspect of the music adds an extra dimension. Having known the works already from 2-channel CD, my encounter with the electronic KONTAKTE, TELEMUSIK, GESANG der JÜNGLINGE and OKTOPHONIE in multi-channel tape projection was unforgettable, as were the 8-channel projections of UNSICHTBARE CHÖRE and LICHTER – WASSER.

While I enjoyed several world premieres at the summer courses, the most memorable Stockhausen world premiere was for me the ‘big’ a cappella performance of ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on November 9, 2002, which my wife and I attended. The concert consisted of two performances of the work, with a break in between. The hall of about 2,000 seats was sold out, and amazingly, almost all people chose to stay for the second performance of the work. This appeared to make the event a triumph for Stockhausen’s music; applause after both performances was enthusiastic and extended. For my wife and me, the fact that the work was repeated in the same concert (finally someone brought this old, wonderful idea to realization) was actually a determining factor in the decision to attend this world premiere, since we had to travel far for it.

Hearing the work live brought out the great harmonic transparency of the music to the fullest, which allowed this feature to make an extraordinary impression. Many of the spatial effects, which included a game of near-far reminiscent of GESANG der JÜNGLINGE, could only be perceived in the live setting. They were astounding and changed with the seating position, which was different for us for the second performance (swapping seats was encouraged). The diverse single-colored costumes were of such exquisite and tasteful beauty as I seldom have seen, and looking at all the different colors – my wife also very much loved them – provided additional depth to the overall richness, almost voluptuousness, of the aural experience. It was a totally enveloping feast for the senses.

The second performance, after the break, was introduced by Stockhausen. His speech was likable, simple and brief, and raised a few smiles at appropriate moments. He was very happy and thanked the performers for an "extraordinarily harmonious collaboration". Total rehearsal time had been 5 weeks (!), apparently a necessity given the precision with which the complex textures had to be conquered in order to make the stunning effect that was heard – the performance of the Groot Omroepkoor (the Large Broadcast Choir) and the guest soloists was almost superhuman, as later confirmed by close listening to the CD. Reviews in the press were glowing. The concert was an amazing experience for both my wife and me – we wish we could have attended more of these events, which would have been easier if we would live in Europe.


Fascinating to me is that almost each one of the many works by Stockhausen is a new world in itself, not only because he was able to compose with high quality for a wide palette of musical forces – instrumental, electronic, vocal ones, all of very diverse kinds –, but also because every work tends to differ to a remarkable extent in its compositional design and character, and in the way the musical forces are used. This results in works that are so unique and distinct from one another that each one almost brings about an own ‘style’. This characteristic is an exceptional strength of Stockhausen’s artistic output, and to such an extreme extent it is hardly found in the work of any other composer (it also distinguishes the diverse parts of LICHT, even though they are all based on the same formula template, DER JAHRESLAUF excluded). Of course the feature allows for an almost unbelievable variety of music, which is also part of my enduring fascination with Stockhausen’s compositions. A new work practically never is ‘more of the same kind’.

The fact that nearly every work of Stockhausen is so different from the others can be quite challenging. To some extent, each new work requires adjustment of listening. But I have found the rewards almost always plentiful. A friend of mine fell in love with Stockhausen’s music since the very first work that he had heard (PIETÀ from DIENSTAG). As we discussed why we had such eerily similar musical tastes, Stockhausen and others, we agreed that a reason would be that our attitude towards music was similar. We did not want to be comforted by music, but challenged – music as an adventure.

Perhaps the need to adjust for each new work – something that my friend and I love, but others maybe less so – is one main reason that more than with practically any other composer, a lot of listeners have narrowly delimited favorite periods in Stockhausen’s output. Many prefer his early music from the 1950s, some may prefer a middle period (as one listener put it to me, "I like Stockhausen best from 1964 to 1975"), and others may find his output from LICHT onward the most attractive. Not all are drawn to his entire oeuvre.

While now I like almost all of Stockhausen’s music very much, I have had my difficulties too. I had a hard time getting used to the ‘rushing noises’ from wind instruments (sounds that are produced by partially blowing in and over, or to the side, of the instruments) – for example, I could not understand why the composer would so often disrupt or disturb the beautiful melodic flow in LICHTER – WASSER or AVE with these ‘grey’, ‘dead’ noises. Over time I got used to them, not just by passive acquaintance but also by consciously reflecting about their possible musical roles, and now I appreciate, and often even love, their function in the musical fabric – simply arresting is the sophisticated shaping of musical lines by incorporation of rushing noises in the opening duet between basset-horn and alto flute of ANTRAG (Proposal) from FREITAG. Others have had similar difficulties with these sounds as I did, while again other listeners did not have them at all. As one further example of struggling with appreciation I will mention the synthesizer timbres of SIRIUS. Many of them sounded somewhat ‘tacky’ with their bright, strong higher partials in the attack phase, and I did not find the use of the synthesizer particularly well-informed when it came to the production of timbres, especially compared with what musicians like Pete Townshend from The Who or Richard Wright from Pink Floyd were able to elicit from synthesizers a few years earlier or around the same time (Who’s Next, Quadrophenia, Wish You Were Here). How impressions change: while I still love the sounds on those classic rock albums, now I marvel at the subtlety, intricacy and inventiveness of the electronic sounds on SIRIUS each time I listen, and at the great insight of musical fantasy that gave birth to them.

Speaking about inventiveness, some claim that, after the first avantgarde years, Stockhausen has stopped pushing the boundaries of musical innovation. Those who make such an assertion apparently know little of the later music of the composer. From my experience with his music, the claim is simply not true. On the contrary, to my ears Stockhausen is one of the few composers I know who actually keep making truly new music, instead of comfortably settling into a ‘signature style’. As a reviewer put it after attending the world premiere of KATHINKAs GESANG for flute and electronic music: "Stockhausen remains determinedly avantgarde" (Mark Hunter, International Herald Tribune, May 15, 1985; reprinted in Stockhausen 70, Saarbrücken 1998, p. 155). Indeed, in the 1950s and 60s Stockhausen was an innovative force of then-‘modernism’, but he has moved on far beyond that, realizing that ‘modernism’ would soon become ‘traditionalist modernism’ for those composers continuing to write in its languages. Of course, there will always be those ‘progressive’ Stockhausen fans who wish that he had continued to write in the style of GRUPPEN, but the composer himself, after having created this masterpiece, fortunately was much cleverer than that – if he had continued on that path, he would at some point, instead of remaining progressive, have become regressive.

A comparison of the vocal writing in the scenes of FREITAG aus LICHT that are sung live (composed in 1994), and of the one in DÜFTE – ZEICHEN (Scents – Signs) from SONNTAG aus LICHT (2002), with the vocal writing in some other recent contemporary ‘classical’ vocal music revealed to me Stockhausen’s tremendous innovation. Whereas some established avantgarde composers sound ‘conventionally’ atonal in their ‘traditionally progressive’ (an oxymoron, isn’t it?) vocal writing, others at times retreat into quasi-tonality. Stockhausen, however, transcends beyond either of these compositional paths by creating new languages in vocal lines that are both more melodically mellifluous and distinctive than in ‘conventional’ avantgarde music, but which, even though here and there featuring seemingly tonal elements (in DÜFTE-ZEICHEN), remain decidedly non-tonal – they still have that ‘floating’ quality associated with the lack of gravity towards certain tones, and are even ethereal at times. By a wide margin, Stockhausen’s more recent vocal writing sounds more original than that in most other New Music that I have listened to (and in the case of the live scenes of FREITAG, shockingly so). Not that constant innovation is per se demanded for making fine or even excellent music, but my observation specifically addresses the issue of originality. I am not implying that there are no other composers who more recently developed innovative non-tonal vocal languages, but I do hold that Stockhausen’s particular, ever-changing ways of doing this are unique. Also, I should mention that not all of the vocal writing in LICHT is mellifluous, though it is hardly ever ‘old-avantgarde’ – only LUZIFERs ABSCHIED contains, next to many new textures, elements that are reminiscent of this, even though the contexts are novel.

On the other hand, Stockhausen has continued to push further his explorations in musical languages that would more typically be recognized as ‘radically progressive’. The most striking example for this is perhaps the Electronic Music from FREITAG aus LICHT. The radical textures and compositional procedures there are unheard of, specifically in terms of systematic exploration of timbre – and again, transcend his former avantgarde work.

Stockhausen’s instrumental music has evolved far beyond early avantgarde as well. Just take INORI (1973–74) with its extraordinary process of development and its astonishing, immensely refined orchestral colors. Or take, on the other hand, LUZIFERs TANZ (1982), another highly original orchestral work which could not be more different from INORI. When it comes to more intimate instrumental music, two particularly striking examples of innovation, out of many, are in my opinion: AVE (1984/85) for basset-horn and alto flute, and the fluegelhorn part of PIETÀ (1990) for fluegelhorn, soprano and electronic music.

Certainly, there was a social element to avantgarde that facilitated the influence of composers on their peers, and this element diminished after the 1950s and 60s, during which the major avantgarde composers of the time had close contact with each other. Bonds of interest gradually loosened, even though some friendships may have continued. From this perspective it is only natural that a work like SIRIUS (1975–77) could never have been as influential as GRUPPEN (1955–57). Yet considered in itself, is SIRIUS, with its novel timbral processes and extensive, still unsurpassed melodic transformations, which in their specific manner are only possible in electronic music (among others, they involve stepless compressions and expansions of pitch scales and clustering within fast-moving melody bands), not just as revolutionary as GRUPPEN? I am inclined to think so, after having explored both works intensely.

Also the aural complexity of many passages of SIRIUS is, as I personally experience it, as high as that of the earlier work (which has its sparser moments as well). And in terms of textural complexity, well comparable to GRUPPEN are more recent works like LUZIFERs TANZ, WELT-PARLAMENT and wide stretches of MONTAG aus LICHT. Certainly, in some of the most complex passages of GRUPPEN, where swarms of tones ("Tonschwärme") play against each other, more notes are played within a given time frame than in these later works by Stockhausen, but the overall complexities are comparable. One should not forget that these swarms of tones produce textural density in which many notes cannot be, nor are supposed to be, heard as individually discernible entities (cf. Stockhausen, Von Webern zu Debussy – Bemerkungen zur statistischen Form (1954), Texte I, pp. 75-85). In contrast, the gestural or melodic complexity of WELT-PARLAMENT, LUZIFERs TANZ and others usually is transparent enough as to allow most notes to have a more immediately audible structural function in the polyphony. Density of a score and subjective density of the sounding music do not necessarily show a tight correlation.

An infatuation with complexity appears typical of a certain group of Stockhausen fans, who – wrongly, as we have just seen – believe to only find it in his earlier music. They also selectively gloss over the fact that in any of the composer’s periods there is, next to music that features a high density of notes, music that exhibits lesser density of this kind. Stockhausen is musician enough not to seek ‘complexity for its own sake’ (a widely propagated myth which I fell for as well, before actually starting to listen to the music).

Sometimes overlooked is the composer’s interest, from the very beginning, to shape the inner life of sounds, and to have his audience listen ‘into’ the sounds – something that particularly, and for evident reasons, permeates his electronic music. In this effort, he frequently trades density of tones for density within tones, which then are often extended. In order to enable the listener to dive into the sounds, he lets them stand more isolated (on other occasions, many sounds compete with each other in the music). An early and extreme instance, just three years after GRUPPEN, are the slow Structures II and III of KONTAKTE. To name another early example, some textures in Stockhausen’s KLAVIERSTÜCKE from the 1950s are sparse for the same purpose of highlighting the inner life of sounds. And then there is CARRÉ, completed in the same year as KONTAKTE, about which the composer says: "It is necessary to take time if one wishes to absorb this music; most of the changes take place very gently inside the sound."

Since shaping sounds from within, and listening into the sounds, is so important in much of Stockhausen’s music, I believe that those who show little interest in the composer’s electronic music – a part of his oeuvre which is a primary experimental and artistic field for shaping the inner life of sounds – will miss important clues to the composer’s way of thinking.

In discussions, some criticized a supposed lack of density in the Electronic Music from FREITAG aus LICHT. However, what these listeners overlook is the inner life of sounds, which makes them much more than just ‘drones’, and that this shaping of the sounds themselves provides a direct connection to the mentioned slow passages of KONTAKTE (or also to the Russian Anthem in Region III of HYMNEN).

To come back to the issue of textural versus melodic complexity: a three-voice melodic polyphony may, in its own way, be just as hard to follow as textural polyphony of, say, two or three times more voices. Apparent density is a relative concept. Stockhausen obviously knows that, and the significant portion of his newer music which features more expanded or connected melodic lines is therefore often composed with less ‘absolute density’ than some of his more textural scores.

I have found that, for example, even just following in detail the intricate two-part polyphony of AVE for basset-horn and alto flute can be quite demanding. Of course, you find similar phenomena in the music of other composers, just take Bach for instance. And again, as I pointed out, there are enough examples of later Stockhausen music that feature high ‘absolute density’ – in fact, one might say that the density of LUZIFERs TANZ is even more relentless than the one of GRUPPEN with its more frequent moments of sparseness and repose.

As to the just mentioned AVE: in the opera MONTAG the density of the music, which in the version for basset-horn and alto flute is a stand-alone work in its own right, is further magnified – at times to tremendous aural complexity – by a combination with choir polyphony above synthesizer chords (percussion is occasionally involved as well).

Some find Stockhausen’s music boring. While I can understand this to some degree, I have rarely felt that way, except upon initial encounter with a few of the works. Perhaps I was fortunate that the "meditative listening" (as the composer himself calls it), required for assimilating a lot of his music properly, came rather easy to me. My passion for classical music started, at age 19, with Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, and I quickly got used to the idea that also relatively ‘static’ music (at least, static compared to Beethoven) can be full of constantly unfolding inner drama. Sometimes the drama in Stockhausen’s music is quite overt and great tension is evident even on the surface, yet at other times the drama arises from a tension between subsequent events that only becomes obvious upon calm, concentrated listening. I have often marveled at the patience with which Stockhausen has his music develop, and the concentration that this requires from the listener – an effort that usually provides exceptional reward. However, upon revisiting Bach’s music, I have found a strong kinship between the two composers in this respect. The expansive breath with which, for example, the opening Kyrie of the Mass in B Minor gradually unfolds, or also certain parts of slow to moderate tempo in Bach’s cantatas, clearly foreshadows Stockhausen’s approach to composing in a familiar way – at least for a significant part of his output. On the other hand, both composers have written some of the most exuberant, extrovert music. Just like, for example, parts of the Gloria of the Mass in B Minor are among the liveliest music for choir with instrumentalists, so is ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN among the most vivid works written for a cappella choir.

Stockhausen obviously loved to think on vast scales, as, among others, the formula projections over entire works or their parts (for example, projections over opera scenes) show. An aspect of his large-scale thinking that fascinates me in particular is best introduced with an example from SIRIUS (Summer Version, as on CD): after the prolonged resting moment in the middle of ARIES the music gradually re-awakens, intensifies to a full unfolding and, beyond that, finally to more and more unleashing of relentless polyphonic energy throughout the BRIDGE after ARIES. It is a single process in its seamlessness and spans over an extraordinary length of time, a total of about eleven minutes, while going through a wide variety of stages – an imposing achievement.

There are several instances where Stockhausen composed such large-scale, unidirectional, completely unbroken architectural arches of tension, which unfold, in relative terms, over very long stretches of time. His achievements in this area rival the greatest past masters in the art and in their own way carry the art into new territories and dimensions. A few other examples of huge large-scale arches of unidirectional, unbroken tension in his music are some parts of HYMNEN, the entire long section POLYPHONY in INORI, extended stretches of HARLEKIN, a complex decrescendo process in LUZIFERs ABSCHIED that is drawn out over several minutes, a long wave unfolding in EVAS ERSTGEBURT from MONTAG aus LICHT, and in OKTOPHONIE the gradual emergence of a flood of music from the start of the section SYNTHI-FOU to the end of the work.

In general I believe that Stockhausen shows great mastery in what could be called traditional compositional craft, even though the implementations in his music are anything but traditional.

Many of Stockhausen’s melodies are memorable. I still remember vividly how the presence of the INORI formula immediately caught my ear after a few seconds (the first few notes) when it appeared completely unexpected to me upon first listening to JAHRESLAUF from DIENSTAG aus LICHT, in the middle of an uninterrupted flow of music. After the fact I looked up that it is played there (by a soprano saxophone) under the humble title "2nd formula". There are extraordinary examples of ethereal, soaring, exquisitely flowing and expansive melodic lines in LICHTER – WASSER and DÜFTE – ZEICHEN. I personally feel that they possess more beauty and noblesse than some highly regarded ‘beautiful melodies’. Certainly, in Stockhausen’s earlier musical output the concept of melody is handled in a more abstract way, but upon re-listening to some of the M-Moments of MOMENTE, for example, I was taken aback not just by the originality, but also by the floating beauty of the melodic lines.

Important are not just melodies and motifs themselves, but how a composer is able to put them into ever-changing contexts, and to vary and transform them. In the section Genesis of Melody of INORI, there are six passages through the formula, gradually proceeding from a presentation, in which the shapes are ‘concealed’, to the full revelation of the formula melody. The treatment of the melody in the gentle, cautious approaches to its final form is mesmerizing in its effect. The illusion-inducing use and change of the refined orchestral colors marvelously aids in obscuring or ‘bending’ shapes. Stockhausen is a master of the small variation, as also works like HARLEKIN and KATHINKAs GESANG show. In HARLEKIN, a composition of 45 minutes duration, a single extended formula melody is repeated many times with just slight variations from one presentation to the next one (the proceedings in the work also evolve around gradients of tempo, and include ‘unwrapping’ and ‘wrapping’ of the melody at beginning and end, respectively). In KATHINKAs GESANG, there are several of the so-called exercises where only short phrases are the subject of numerous successive, yet varied, repetitions – the variations illuminate every aspect of a phrase, like a searchlight looking into every corner. In both works, however, the interest is kept high during all the varied repetitions, due to the quality and the timing of the variations. Once I became captivated by these works, which really take the concept of variation to an extreme, I kept on wanting to listen over and over – the fascination does not fade (just writing this made me wish to put on the HARLEKIN CD again, which I did). In HIMMELFAHRT (KLANG, First Hour), the organic fluidity with which variation of phrases is put into ever-changing context makes the music an arresting experience.

The Michael / Eve / Lucifer super formula (triple formula) of LICHT informs the composition of the entire opera cycle. It is amazing how melodic phrases and motifs from the super formula are constantly placed into greatly varying contexts. Also astonishing is how Stockhausen derives ever new overarching melodic lines from the super formula, by putting motifs or phrases – as such or transformed – into novel combinations. In fact, the expansive, soaring melodic lines of LICHTER – WASSER and DÜFTE – ZEICHEN that I pointed out are obtained in such a way. The fluid, graceful, ‘endless’ melodic lines of AVE for basset-horn and alto flute are another striking example. On the other hand, in several exercises of KATHINKAs GESANG the formula composition results in varied repetitions of short phrases (see above), as a particular implementation of formula expansion; most of the work develops as a 22-fold expansion of the Lucifer formula (see CD booklet). In LICHT-BILDER (2002/03), the playfulness, as well as utter ease and elegance with which the composer molds formula motifs and phrases into ever new contexts and textures borders on the uncanny. And the figure and its echo from bars 5–7 of the Eve-formula never has sounded more beautiful than in its gently swirling presentation in the moving passage towards the end of the work, which eventually culminates with the tenor singing "Licht-Bilder komponier ich für Gott am Sonnentag" – "I compose Light Pictures for God on Sunday" (Stockhausen-Verlag CD 68 A, track 16, from 1’12" onward).

The composer’s command of harmony and his inventiveness in handling it, thereby exploring novel territory of natural, organic musical expression, are exceptional. The above mentioned passages from INORI and LICHT-BILDER are so beautiful also because of their sublime harmonies. Upon listening to the choirs of MONTAG, I was captivated by the originality of harmonies which, in conjunction with the specific manner of singing, create timbral envelopes of a subtlety that is rarely found even in choral music. In UNSICHTBARE CHÖRE (INVISIBLE CHOIRS, from DONNERSTAG) on the other hand, the carefully chosen combination of harmony and vocal expression could not sound more different. There are enchanting tapestries of golden-glowing harmony in the Trio Version of TIERKREIS, and rich harmonic beauty in the polyphonies of DÜFTE – ZEICHEN, BASSETSU-TRIO, ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN, to name a few examples. How even dissonant drawn-out chords can create marvelous, hypnotizing textures is exemplified in DONNERSTAGS-ABSCHIED and in a section (‘long notes’) of MISSION und HIMMELFAHRT for trumpet and basset-horn. A good part of the apparent ease with which the uncommonly heterogeneous sounds of MOMENTE flow into a rich texture is likely due to Stockhausen’s extraordinary sense of harmony as well.

Polyphony has always been a particular source of interest in Stockhausen’s music. Legendary is the polyphony of GRUPPEN, where the diverse musical strands collide with each other in different tempi. A few examples, where this kind of multi-tempo polyphony is also found, are such fascinating works as HOCH-ZEITEN and SONNTAGS-ABSCHIED with their five simultaneous tempi, HYMNEN, and HIMMELFAHRT (KLANG, First Hour), where the two hands of the keyboard player (organ or synthesizer) play in two different tempi.

On the other hand, Stockhausen is also a master of more contrapuntal polyphony (contrapuntal in the sense of ‘note against note’, in the same tempo). The first eight minutes of CANCER from SIRIUS, where the musical forces violently clash against one another in a sweeping, no-holds-barred torrent of music, which nonetheless streams along with organic ease, take the concept of counterpoint to a maximum (the electronic music partially plays in different realms of tempo than the four soloists, which makes for a engaging mixed form of polyphony). The passage also is for me one of the high points in all of polyphonic writing. So is the grandiose and colorful polyphony of LICHT-BILDER, which, in its utter uniqueness, particularly draws attention to the fact that, also when it comes to polyphonic writing, Stockhausen keeps exploring new paths.

Indeed, upon gradually getting to know diverse a cappella works from LICHT, like UNSICHTBARE CHÖRE, WELT-PARLAMENT, ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN and GEBURTSFEST (from MONTAG), I was repeatedly struck by the fact that, even in just this specific musical genre, the composer’s implementations of polyphony are all considerably different – aside from the other aspects of music.

Stockhausen has been celebrated as the radical pioneer in electronic music that he is, and much has been made – rightfully so – of his wizardry in technical procedures and tape manipulations. Yet it should not be forgotten that even with all this, the subtle melodic transformations and allusions in HYMNEN, a work so radically different from our concept of ‘traditional’ art music, would not be possible at all without Stockhausen’s mastery of the traditional tools of composing, apart from his immense musical imagination. This mastery, evident in his other electronic works as well, is what sets him miles apart from the limited capability of expression of many electronic artists.


Now that I know Stockhausen’s music, has my initially unfavorable impression of the Texte zur Musik (Texts on Music) changed? Certainly: I find them fascinating. Excerpts of the Texte have been used by the composer for the CD booklets, and studying these booklets is immensely useful.

Stockhausen’s music has the reputation of being ‘loaded with theory’. Do I find reading of the entire Texte (not just certain excerpts) essential to the understanding of the music? Do I find studying the scores essential to this understanding? My answer in both cases is: no. Like all other music that means anything, Stockhausen’s music is not ‘paper music’, but music to be listened to, and the essence of the music can be understood and enjoyed that way. In my view, studying by attentive listening, by consciously and closely following the development of the music in time, is the key, just like it is for all art music.

Of course, a certain amount of knowledge of the basic structural framework and aims of the compositions will in some cases be important to understanding, and can usually be obtained from simply studying the booklets that accompany the CDs from Stockhausen-Verlag. This is in agreement with the approach to any art music: for instance, understanding of classical music – beyond just enjoyment thereof on some level –, requires recognition of thematic development and of changes in color and tension due to harmonic development, and some familiarity with concepts like polyphony and fugue, among others. Nobody would reasonably claim that this is not the case.

Even as the essence of Stockhausen’s music may be accessible to mainly just listening, does study of the scores not enhance and deepen the understanding? Yes it does, just like with any other great music. While studying the scores is necessary for performers and music theorists for obvious reasons, I have found that listening to Stockhausen’s works with the score in hand is a great pleasure, makes me discover new things in the music, and deepens my respect for the composer’s tremendous musical achievements even more. The same holds for reading the Texte zur Musik.

But again, I do not believe that studying the scores is necessary to understand the essence of Stockhausens’ music. Yes, sometimes events, which may be perceived as being part of the essence of the musical message, may not be that obvious, but can be heard nonetheless. Let me give a rather extreme example:

Towards the end of LUZIFERs TANZ (during the last approximately 10 minutes), beginning with the KINNTANZ, a powerful symbolism recurs several times. The last two bars of the Michael formula appear prominently in the low brass – the instrumental domain of Lucifer – and the cadential effect in these phrases gives an, in this case defeating, sense of finality: Lucifer wins over Michael – for now, at least.

In the KINNTANZ (Stockhausen-Verlag CD 34 C, track 21), right after the bass singer has announced the dance, the piccolo alludes to this final Michael phrase while the low brass had already started to play it in temporal expansion. However, at 43" the brass stays shy of the very last tone – as if Michael’s defeat was hesitantly pending. The penultimate note that sounds at this point is held, and recedes into very low dynamics. It is almost silenced during the bass’ singing "Und Kinn gegen Zunge tanzen kann" ("And chin can dance against tongue"; the melody in the bass voice also appears to be derived from this Michael phrase), only to subsequently resurge at a low dynamic level again, around 57". At 1’01", after 18 seconds (!) ‘on hold’, finally the low brass bursts out with the last tone, ‘finishing off’ the Michael formula.

This defeat of Michael in music sounds spectacular, and is unique in its execution. It is remarkable how Stockhausen’s large-scale thinking, continually practiced in the vast expansions of his formulas over entire operatic scenes and on even larger scales, prompts him to arrive at solutions which would normally not seem within the temporal realm of music (here the 18 seconds during which the formula is ‘on hold’ on a single note).

Despite being so stretched-out, the above process became quite clear to me upon close listening, without looking at the score, by virtue of expectation of the final cadential note. Might I not have found this more easily through score study? Perhaps – but would the emotional impact of the discovery have been the same? I doubt it.

Only two rare instances come to my mind where score study is necessary to grasp the essence of the music. One of these is, paradoxically, the recognition of the ‘simple melody’ in the fifth and last formula cycle in LUZIFERs TRAUM. The ‘simple melody’ does not stand out from the music at all, and is also not evidently ‘simple’. Perhaps Lucifer, on whom hearing the melody has a dramatic effect, is a better listener than humans, and thus can recognize it easily (the visual clues in an operatic performance may make the passage more intelligible than on CD alone). The other instance involves understanding of the proceedings in the integral version of SPIRAL, which requires following the form scheme, even though pure enjoyment of the music is easily possible without that, certainly in the immensely engaging – and intelligently entertaining – interpretation by Michael Vetter on Stockhausen-Verlag CD 46 (the form scheme is reprinted in the booklet).

Finally, I will give an example where an important characteristic of a work by Stockhausen, which some would, wrongly, call a ‘theoretical’ concept, could only be discovered by listening, and not by score study or music-theoretical musings alone. KURZWELLEN is one of the works that Stockhausen described as a "process composition", and it has been extensively studied as such. Upon listening to the work, I strongly felt that at least partially it had the character of moment form, a character that some might feel as being opposed to the concept of process composition. After asking the composer directly, he replied: "KURZWELLEN sind eine Momentform" ("SHORT-WAVES are a moment form"; letter from May 14, 2005 to the author). Thus, the work is both, process composition and moment form.

Stockhausen himself clearly sees the essence of his music in what can be experienced by listening, not in the theory behind it. In a conversation with me in the summer of 2001 he was not impressed with music theorists who are "only interested in numbers" – apparently, with "numbers" he meant the serial proportions (of course, there are music theorists who are excellent and enthusiastic listeners as well).

In the Questions & Answers session following one of the afternoon composition seminars on SIRIUS (July 31) during the 2000 summer courses in Kürten, I asked the composer how important it was that the listener recognizes the formulas. I said that at times the melodies are obvious, and at other times I do not hear them at all, for example in UNSICHTBARE CHÖRE.

Stockhausen answered that sometimes he composed the formulas in such a way that they stretch over a long period of time, an hour for example. He said if a single musical event lasts more than eight seconds, the human mind has difficulties in putting a sequence of such events into connection. Therefore it was no surprise if we cannot perceive the formulas anymore when they move so slowly. Our ears have to get accustomed to go beyond the normal scheme of exposition, development of a theme and so on. He intended his music to help expand our awareness beyond that and in some works he had composed the formulas over such long stretches of time, not for present listeners, but for future generations to be heard. If you can compose a formula over a period of one or two minutes, you also can compose it over the length of an hour. He commented on his own statement: "Why not?" He added that UNSICHTBARE CHÖRE, which I had mentioned, is a work where the superformula of LICHT is stretched over the entire duration of the music, about 50 minutes.

Furthermore, Stockhausen pointed out that in his everyday life he was surrounded by all kinds of persons, ranging from musicians, who can recognize every detail in his music, to people who cannot hear any formulas, but who all like his music.

After the evening concert I asked Stockhausen (in German): "Does your answer in the afternoon imply that any music lover can appreciate your music sufficiently even if he or she does not hear the formulas at all?" With vivid facial expression and voice, his firm reply was: "Ja selbstverständlich!" ("Of course, absolutely!") Then I asked him, but what about the symbolic meaning of the formulas? As an example I mentioned the episode towards the end of MICHAELs REISE where Michael (trumpet) and Eve (basset-horn) kind of learn each other’s formulas. Being able to hear the formulas would be necessary to grasp the symbolic meaning of that passage. Stockhausen answered: "Yet you can also understand the symbolic meaning intuitively."

I do not go out of my way to explore all intellectual aspects of the music. Yet to a certain extent, for me personally emotional impact and intellectual understanding go hand in hand. My favorite example, out of many possible ones, to explain why this is the case: If you do not intellectually recognize a variation of a melody as such, that is, in its relation to the original melody, how can you emotionally appreciate its beauty – as variation, not just as melody in itself?

Understanding of music thus can considerably heighten its emotional impact. The human experience is a whole. One cannot neatly compartmentalize it into 'rational' and 'emotional' parts. Attempts to do so miss out on the richness of life.

But again, just like with any other music, the experience of the living sound, through listening, is for me the main key to Stockhausen's works. And the expressive range of this oeuvre never ceases to amaze me. Marveling at the extremes of the fantastic 'noise piece' MIKROPHONIE I on one hand, and the sublime, ethereal, even angelic beauty of several parts of DÜFTE - ZEICHEN on the other, the question arises: while some other composers may have come close to this bandwidth of expression, has any of them ever equaled it?

© Albrecht Moritz 2008