2007-12-08

Stockhausen 1928-2007

The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen died on December 5th at at the age of of 79 in his home in Kuerten-Kettenberg, according to worldwide published reports. The news was announced on the official Stockhausen web site by Suzanne Stephens and Kathinka Pasveer, longtime companions of the composer who often performed his compositions.

David Ward of the Guardian Unlimited UK describes the mystically-minded Stockhausen as 'a composer who never courted popularity or convention and in his later years continued to plough a lonely furrow.' He reports:
Prolific, whether in fashion or out of it, he composed 362 works, including the world's longest opera, Licht [Light], a sequence of seven pieces, one for every day of the week. The work lasts 29 hours. . . .

Born in 1928 in a village near Cologne, he trained with the Swiss composer Frank Martin before making one of the key decisions of his life: he headed to Paris in 1952 to study with Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud.

Works hailed by enthusiasts (among them the Beatles, who included him on the cover of the Sergeant Pepper album) as masterpieces included Gruppen (1955-57). The work is written for 109 players divided into three groups laid out before and to either side of the audience.

Stimmung, his 70-minute piece for six voices, was said by Paul Hillier - whose new recording of it was released last month - to have "completely refashioned the very idea of what a vocal ensemble might do and be".

Reviewing the disc, Guardian music critic Andrew Clements described the work as "a vast elaboration of a single six-note chord based on the overtones of the note B flat" and added: "Stimmung is one of the masterpieces of the last half century. Like all the greatest music it is unclassifiable - part meditation, part gigantic motet, part phonetic game - and totally resistant to imitation".

Ivan Hewitt in the Telegraph admits the difficulty facing anyone wishing to take stock of Stockhausen.

Few composers in history have attracted such furious controversy as Karlheinz Stockhausen, the composer who claimed to be descended from astral beings and described composition as "listening to the vibrations of the universe".

Some say he was just a high-class charlatan, his grandiose visions indulged by the generous German subsidy system and protected from the world by a bevy of ministering women and starry-eyed followers. Others say that he was the really the best of that great generation of composers who were born in the 20s and moulded by the traumatic experiences of war.

Hewitt regards each view as too extreme. He describes the composer's 'great period' as ranging 'roughly from the mid-1950s to the mid-70s.' The compositions dating from this period display 'one great radical leap after another', says Hewitt, and showed a new generation of composers that anything was possible.

Like his great contemporary Pierre Boulez, Stockhausen was inspired by the 12-note method created by the great Austrian/Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, and wanted to take it further. But unlike Boulez, his vision of music was essentially mystical. "May God help me to find the true path", he once wrote.

Stockhausen viewed serialism as a 'democratic' way of making music that acknowledged 'relativity' in the universe. Ward notes that 'the world moved on but Stockhausen refused to have anything to do with minimalists and postmodernists. And they chose to have nothing to do with him. '

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