Andrew Clements: Karlheinz Stockhausen was a giant who led a stylistic revolution

Andrew Clements: Through the 1950s and 60s Karlheinz Stockhausen was at the forefront of European music, one of its leading composers and most visible figures

Through the 1950s and 60s Karlheinz Stockhausen was at the forefront of European music, one of its leading composers and most visible figures. He was part of the generation of composers who had seen the old order in Europe come to catastrophe in the chaos of the second world war, and had determined that artistically they had to begin again.

Together with Pierre Boulez, Stockhausen led that stylistic revolution by example, not only establishing the new language of total serialism but developing it conceptually and formally in a series of dazzlingly effective works. Pieces like Gesang der Jünglinge, the 1956 work in which electronic music came of age, as well as Gruppen for three orchestras, and the semi-operatic choral work Momente, together with the later, very different masterpiece for six voices Stimmung, rank among the greatest achievements of music in the second half of the 20th century.

Subsequently Stockhausen took a very different musical path, especially with the composition of his gargantuan opera cycle Licht, seven full-length theatre works intended to be performed over a week, to which he devoted much of the last 30 years of his life. His music still came complete with elaborate technical explanations, but also with a strange, highly personalised Christian belief system on which the whole bizarre Licht edifice is founded.

It is the early works, though, that have proved so influential, not only to composers who studied with him, utterly dissimilar figures such as Gerald Barry and Wolfgang Rihm, but those of a slightly older generation like Harrison Birtwistle, for whom Stockhausen's music offered a genuinely new way forward in the late 1950s. He was always the most brilliant propagandist for his own ideas. He insisted on supervising performances of his music as much as he could, doing the electronic balancing himself and making notoriously exacting demands on his interpreters.

His lectures, always delivered, it seemed, in the same uniform of open-necked shirt and unmistakably Germanic frock coat, were compelling, theatrical affairs too. Whether appearing before a lecture theatre full of impressionable Cambridge students in the 1970s or a far more knowing and cynical London audience in the last five years, he was that rare thing in contemporary music, a cult figure, even when the achievements on which that status was based had been written more than 30 years ago.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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