TIERKREIS (ZODIAC) Trio Version (1975/83)

for clarinet, flute and piccolo, trumpet and piano, with a duration of about 27 min.

The composer (from the CD booklet):

"In 1975, I wrote TIERKREIS (ZODIAC), 12 melodies of the star signs for 12 music boxes, as part of the composition MUSIK IM BAUCH (MUSIC IN THE BELLY) for 6 percussionists and music boxes. TIERKREIS for melody and/or chordal instrument has been published separately, as have a version for chamber orchestra (1977) and a version for clarinet and piano (1981). All are published by the Stockhausen-Verlag.

"It is evident that TIERKREIS is a cycle of musical formulae for the 12 months of the year and the 12 human types, and that these formulae lend themselves to innumerable versions. The largest "version" of TIERKREIS to date is my composition SIRIUS, electronic music and trumpet, soprano, bass clarinet, bass (197577). Its duration is 96 minutes.

"A trio version was made in 1983 during rehearsals with Suzanne Stephens (clarinet), Kathinka Pasveer (flute and piccolo) and Markus Stockhausen (trumpet and piano). It begins with PISCES because it was performed for the first time for Doris Stockhausen's birthday on February 28th 1984 (Belgisches Haus, Cologne).

"The Trio Version is dedicated to Suzanne Stephens, Kathinka Pasveer, and Markus Stockhausen."

TIERKREIS has become a popular composition by Stockhausen, yet it has been dismissed by some modernist listeners: "How could the hardcore avantgarde composer who wrote GRUPPEN create such a simple collection of innocuous melodies?"

Well, the answer is: First, TIERKREIS, even though in itself maybe "unobtrusive sounding" (characterized as such by the composer himself on occasion of receiving the Siemens prize in 1986 where the work was played), is a high-quality composition and thus significant, as should be especially evident from the Trio Version which is reviewed here. Second and most importantly, the melodies of TIERKREIS are the model for the large-scale SIRIUS. This composition is every bit as sophisticated and hardcore avantgarde as GRUPPEN, and it too is revolutionary. Prove me wrong if you can! (I am not talking about its "influence on the avantgarde", but about what is intrinsic to the composition.)

Unprejudiced listening to TIERKREIS reveals how immensely beautiful and full of character this music actually is, and diving into its subtleties proves highly rewarding. The strong characterizations given by the melodies possibly unleash their fullest potential in the highly colorful Trio Version (reviewed here) and in the versions with voice (alas not available on CD).

The Trio version is available from Stockhausen-Verlag (CD 35) and is played by the musicians to whom the version is dedicated, see above. The 1991 performance heard on this CD perhaps is even more lively and confident than the already excellent 1985 performance by the same musicians, recorded on the Acanta label (not currently available). It sounds very vivid and etches out the characters of the presentations of melody with great energy and subtlety.

The recording quality is excellent as well, with lively, direct sounding presentation of instrumental colors. At times overtone resonances seem to occur in the recording that, to moderate effect, make a somewhat stinging impression. It may well be, however, that this a result of the acoustics of the recording venue, rather than a recording artefact.

The same CD 35 from Stockhausen-Verlag that contains the Trio Version of TIERKREIS also includes AVE and OBERLIPPENTANZ (version for piccolo trumpet, euphonium, 4 horns, 2 percussionists).

In a performance the musicians, playing by heart, clarify the instrumentation and musical structures by positions in space (for every section different!) and by many different gestures. This is a new way of playing chamber music. All the movements involved are exactly prescribed in the score and documented by numerous photographs.

Here follows a more detailed description of the textures of the Trio Version of TIERKREIS, a description that seeks to point the listener to the fine subtleties and powerful colorations found in this music. Quite a few elements of presentation in the Trio Version were already found in the version for clarinet and piano (1981), yet are here further elaborated upon.


A. An elegant duet of flute and clarinet opens the work, with the flute presenting the Pisces melody. The polyphonic wriggling of the melodic lines of the two instruments around each other beautifully corresponds to the character of the Pisces melody itself, wriggling like small fish in the water.

B. Clarinet piano. The piano plays arpeggi in higher registers, accompanying the clarinet that plays the melody in full-blooded lower middle registers. The resulting combination of warmth (clarinet) and glassiness (piano) is beguiling.

C. Trumpet flute -clarinet. The glassy freshness from the previous texture is prolonged in the sound of the muted trumpet. The instrument presents the Pisces melody, and intense polyphony is created as the flute provides a companion voice. The clarinet adds to the texture with notes that are more sustained.

Aries. Spring begins.

A. Again trumpet, flute and clarinet play together. A different mute on the trumpet gives its sound a saucy character, in accord with the pronounced vividness of the pugnacious Aries melody. The presentation of the melody is created by collaboration of all three instruments, and all instruments participate in the polyphonic excursions as well. Those are tightly wrapped around the main melody, and this tightness emphasizes the energy emanating from the melody.

B. The trumpet plays solo and with no mutes. A vivid variation of the melody, sounding like improvisation, cuts through the air.

C. Piccolo trumpet clarinet. The excitement of the melodic texture is further highlighted when it acquires a piercing quality in its presentation by the piccolo. Trumpet and clarinet provide polyphonic enrichment.


A. The piano plays the melody solo in low registers, thus emphasizing the calm power of the bullish melody. Occasional accents in high registers underscore the pulse of the melody.

B. Clarinet piano. The clarinet plays the melody, again in relatively low registers, above the dark and subtle background of a chord on the piano from the previous presentation, fading away on continually depressed pedal. A short figure in the piano towards the end refuels the energy of the fading piano sound, resulting in another chord held on depressed pedal until the end. An elegant texture with quiet power from underneath.

C. Clarinet flute piano. The woodwinds, with strangely and beguilingly vibrating tones in the clarinet, created by flutter-tonguing, awaken the melody into higher registers than before, and the register range in the piano playing in unison with the clarinet shifts accordingly.

D. Again clarinet flute piano. The added vividness of the melody, as unleashed by its shifting into brighter colors just before, is now further enhanced by rhythmic accentuation. This accentuation is, in an impressive manner, intensified by a strongly sharpened timbral color the clarinet tone fuses in staccato with the piano tone and both play the melody in high registers in unison. The flute takes over the flutter-tonguing from the clarinet in the previous presentation, circling around the melody.


A. The saucy presentation of the capricious melody by the solo clarinet even incorporates a little zigzag glissando. The melody accelerates its rhythm towards the end in a beautiful, fluid way.

B. Clarinet piano. The clarinet sound fades out while the piano already has begun playing and presents the melody solo; the first half of the melody is played in a hesitant manner, keeping the tension in pauses alive through fading of notes on depressed pedal. The contrasting lack of pauses in the second half of the presentation further accentuates the fluidity through the accelerating passage (see above) a splendid device. Towards the end the clarinet plays a phrase which foreshadows the presentation of Cancer.

C. Flute clarinet piano. This presentation elaborates on the capricious character of the melody. It starts out in dense polyphony, but towards the middle again hesitation is heard and the melody refuses to play further. Moody, jumping figures in all instruments fill the vacuum, and finally a resumption of energy carried by the beautifully fluid acceleration, inherent to the second half of the melody, sets in. This drives the presentation to a most satisfying conclusion.

Cancer. Summer begins.

A. Clarinet flute. The clarinet presents the Cancer melody. To my ears, this and the Libra melody are the two melodies of TIERKREIS that are balanced in such a way that they are resting in harmonious equilibrium throughout. The harmonious impression here is intensified by the beautiful playing of the flute around the melody (the flute actually plays the Cancer melody in retrograde), resulting in riveting polyphony.

B. Flute trumpet clarinet. The melody is presented in slow motion, and a wonderful dreamy atmosphere reminiscent of lazy summer days outdoors, enjoying nature is introduced, building on the calm harmoniousness of the melody. The muted trumpet produces a pithy, golden tone, and the woodwinds radiate warmth as well.

C. Clarinet trumpet. Fresh sounding liveliness is introduced, yet on the same kind of tone as before, thus beautifully keeping the connection to the dreamy atmosphere previously associated with this tone.

D. Flute clarinet trumpet. The dreamy atmosphere that never was quite lost now makes an even stronger return. Clarinet and trumpet lay out in long notes a harmonic carpet of golden radiance, above which the flute in warm tone very slowly plays the melody with relaxed, mellowing pauses in between. This is pure magic.

At the end of the melody, the long drawn tone of the flute melts into the golden harmonic carpet already laid out by the other instruments, and a suddenly rising melodic line in the clarinet above the sustained long-stretched tones of flute and trumpet brings this presentation to a most exquisite end.


A. The solo piano plays the melody, a melody which to me pictures the pride of the lion patrolling his territory. The melody is played in high registers; chords in middle registers provide rhythmic accentuation. It sounds like a fresh summer breeze. The use of high registers in the piano for the presentation of melodies in the Trio Version, but also in the version for piano and clarinet, seems to me a reminiscence of the timbre of music boxes (which TIERKREIS originally was written for).

B. Piano clarinet flute. The way the clarinet tone blends with the piano tone is astonishing it seems to resonantly extend the piano timbre. The warmth of the clarinet tone magically nestles in between the melody in high registers of the piano and the voice in the lower registers of that instrument. The glowing yet fresh tone of the flute towards the end splendidly opens up the timbral spectrum.

C. Clarinet flute trumpet. The switch to presentation by winds alone has a beguiling effect, since the pronounced rhythmic character of the melody, while still intact, now nonetheless is rounded in its edges. The melody is played by the clarinet while the muted trumpet slowly alternates between high and low notes, as if it wants to guard the pitch plane of the melody on either side. The contribution of the flute to the polyphony, even though not directly going hand in hand with the one of the trumpet, somewhat shadows its character.


A. Clarinet piano. The clarinet plays the tender and delicate melody while the piano accompanies with mostly arpeggi in high registers. This is reminiscent of the second presentation of the Pisces melody (see above), yet since now the clarinet plays in a higher register range than there, the timbres of the two instruments blend to a higher degree. A texture of warmth and crystalline luminosity is created.

B. Flute piano. In a marvelous way, warmth and luminosity now completely blend as flute and piano play the melody in unison. A sublime union between character of sound and character of melody is achieved.

C. Trumpet clarinet flute. The dreamy summer atmosphere, as heard in some of the presentations of Cancer, now makes a last return before the season ends. The instruments play the melody very slowly, relishing every melodic turn in a texture of warmth and light, with an unbelievably rich, saturated blend of harmony and instrumental color. In all three presentations of Virgo again magic abounds.

Libra. Fall begins.

A. Flute clarinet trumpet. The first, very fresh sounding presentation of the swaying melody divides its phrases in an alternating way between the pair of trumpet and flute on one hand, and clarinet on the other hand. Thus, the swaying of the melody is reflected in a swaying back and forth between instruments a colorful feature. Such a swaying of phrases back and forth between musical forces during the presentation of the melody is already heard in the section LIBRA in SIRIUS, written a few years earlier. As in SIRIUS, it is beautifully executed here. Muted trumpet and flute are closely joined yet not in unison, pausing every time when passing a phrase on to the clarinet. This instrument on the other hand plays more continuously. It holds on to sustained notes while the other instruments are playing, and swells to the foreground whenever it takes over a phrase of the Libra melody, playing alone.

B. The trumpet plays the melody while the clarinet provides a lively countervoice. Towards the end, the flute adds phrases of the melody played with rushing noises.

C. Flute and trumpet play the melody together exclusively on rushing noises, blowing over or to the side of the instruments. On these rushing noises the melody blows along like the wind; in SIRIUS, air (wind) is the element represented by Libra. The gradual transition at the end from rushing noise to tone in the flute is especially enchanting.

D. Piano clarinet flute. The piano plays the melody in relatively high registers, while clarinet and flute work together in weaving a dense web of more slowly moving polyphonic countervoices. The presentation ends with the last phrase again "blowing like the wind".


A. The clarinet presents the stinging melody with an icy, strident tone while the piano intensifies the atmosphere with forceful chords of bright sound, mainly on strong beats.

B. The melody acquires a warmer, softer tone in its presentation in lower registers of the piccolo. The attacks of sound now come from the muted trumpet which lures in the background with soft sustained tones that from time to time lead into dynamic outbreaks, with a few of them almost assault-like in character.

C. The piccolo switches to stinging high registers, playing the melody, while the clarinet adds to the timbral intensification with sporadic tone pulses and the trumpet again lures in the background on sustained sounds. Towards the middle, suddenly the trumpet forcefully breaks out with loud improvisation-like phrases, while the piccolo simultaneously plays repeats of a very high note the character of stinging is driven to its maximum at this point. After this short episode, the music returns to its previous texture, with the last two notes of the melody blasted out by the trumpet.


A. A laid-back presentation by the warm-sounding clarinet, accompanied by arpeggi in the piano, concentrates on the rhythmic elegance and fluidity of the bouncy, leaping melody.

B. Trumpet clarinet flute. The leaping character of the melody is emphasized when all instruments jump together through its phrases with accentuated rhythm, while leaving enough room for the development of polyphony.

C. The melody leaps about happy as a sandboy when the solo flute plays while simultaneously the female player sings through the instrument. The blending of the flute tone and the singing into one timbre is quite unbelievable.

D. As in the first presentation, the clarinet renders the melody, accompanied by the piano. The clarinet now plays less laid-back and with more lively rhythmic accentuation, an accentuation enriched by the melodic accompaniment in the piano. In fascinating contrast to the warm vividness of presentation, the melodic flow sometimes pauses on sustained notes.

Capricorn. Winter begins.

A. Piano. The piano plays the melody with an ice-cold, wintery tone in high registers. The accompaniment in middle registers provides resonance to the texture, due to the pedaling that affects this register range to a greater extent.

B. Flute clarinet piano. In this presentation which sounds much warmer, the flute plays the melody while the clarinet extensively plays diverse trills, thus nicely mimicking in character the diverse zigzag lines in the contours of the melody. From time to time the piano provides chordal accents.

C. Trumpet flute clarinet. The muted trumpet plays the melody while the polyphonic web woven around it by the woodwinds moves in a much slower time layer, yet at a volume comparable to that of the trumpet a fascinating texture. The presentation ends with key noises from the woodwinds again mimicking the zigzag lines in the melody.


A. Flute piano. Flute and the upper voice of the piano play the dancing melody in unison, while the rhythm in the lower voice of the piano supports the swaying motion generated by the melody. The warmth of the flute tone gives the presentation a gentle character.

B. Clarinet flute piano. In this rendition in very leisurely tempo, the warmth of tone heard before is further intensified to a great extent. The melody is presented in the lower registers of the clarinet, the lower voice in the piano now gains more prominence than the less continuously sounding upper voice, and the flute, providing a slow moving counterpart, plays in lower registers as well.

C. Again clarinet flute piano. The presentation of the melody, now focused on sparkling clarity in the fresh-sounding higher middle register of the clarinet, elegantly changes the balance between outspoken vividness and gentleness of tone as it proceeds. In fascinating contrast, the accompaniment in the piano and accents in the flute provide a more settled, even-paced countersphere.

D. Clarinet piano. Now the swaying of the melody is elevated from earth, like friendly, ghost-like elves dancing in the air. The leading clarinet only plays a few notes of the melody, like points in musical space, notes enough however to suggest the complete contours of the melody that still linger in the listener's memory. The sparse accompaniment of the piano adds some more shadows of the original melody.

The Trio Version is brought full circle by another presentation of the Pisces melody, a presentation identical to the third one at the beginning of the work.

© Albrecht Moritz 2002, text edited 2005


Additional links:

Tierkreis (Stockhausen) - Wikipedia

Stockhausen: Sounds in Space: MUSIK IM BAUCH, TIERKREIS