The German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen conducting a concert of his works in Budapest in 1984.
By PAUL GRIFFITHS
Published: December 8, 2007
Karlheinz Stockhausen, an original and influential German composer who began his career as an inventor of new musical systems and ended it making operas to express his spiritual vision of the cosmos, died on Wednesday at his home in Kuerten-Kettenberg, Germany. He was 79.
His death was announced on Friday by the Stockhausen Foundation; no cause was disclosed.
Mr. Stockhausen had secured his place in music history by the time he was 30. He had taken a leading part in the development of electronic music, and his early instrumental compositions similarly struck out in new directions, in terms of their formal abstraction, rhythmic complexity and startling sound.
More recently, he made news for his public reaction to the attack on the World Trade Center. Not widely known outside the modern-music world in 2001, he became infamous for calling the attack “the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos.” His comments drew widespread outrage, and he apologized, saying that his allegorical remarks had been misunderstood.
Mr. Stockhausen produced an astonishing succession of compositions in the 1950s and early ’60s: highly abstract works that were based on rigorous principles of ordering and combination but at the same time were vivid, bold and engaging.
In “Song of the Youths” (1956), he used a multichannel montage of electronic sound with a recorded singing voice to create an image of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego staying alive in Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace. In “Groups” (1957), he divided an orchestra into three ensembles that often played in different tempos and called to one another.
Such works answered the need felt in postwar Europe for reconstruction and logic, the logic to forestall any recurrence of war and genocide. They made Mr. Stockhausen a beacon to younger composers. Along with a few other musicians of his generation, notably Pierre Boulez and Luigi Nono, he had an enormous influence. Though performances of his works were never plentiful, his music was promoted by radio stations in Germany and abroad as well as by the record company Deutsche Grammophon, and he gave lectures all over the world.
By the 1960s his influence had reached rock musicians, and he was an international subject of acclaim and denigration.
The intellectual and physical excitement of his earlier music diminished in the later 1960s, when he devoted himself largely to performing semi-improvised music with a chosen group of performers. The tone of his lectures and essays also changed. Earlier he had based his thinking on psychoacoustics and the nature of musical time; now he presented himself as the receiver of messages about a spiritual drama being played out in the cosmos.
Between 1977 and 2002, he concentrated his creative efforts on “Light,” a cycle of seven operas intended to bring that cosmic drama to the human stage. The project was extravagantly egomaniacal. Mr. Stockhausen devised the music, the scenario and the words for his operas, and he made stipulations about sets, costumes and lighting. During the period of “Light” and after, Mr. Stockhausen was venerated within his own circle of performers and family members (often the same people) but largely ignored outside it. His home at Kuerten, which he designed, became the center of a publishing, recording and promoting enterprise removed from the wider world. Formerly a star, he had turned into a guru.
Karlheinz Stockhausen was born on Aug. 22, 1928, near Cologne, the first child of Simon Stockhausen, a schoolteacher, and his wife, Gertrud. His mother began suffering deep depressions when he was still a boy and was committed to a mental hospital, where, according to Mr. Stockhausen, she was “officially killed” in 1941. His father later volunteered for the army and was killed in Hungary.
The young Mr. Stockhausen himself served as an orderly to a military hospital during the last year of World War II, after which he studied at the State Academy of Music in Cologne. He took composition lessons from Frank Martin, but his training was as a music teacher. He also played jazz in Cologne bars, directed an amateur operetta theater and, as he later remembered, “prayed a lot.”
His ambitions changed in July 1951, when he attended a summer music course at Darmstadt and heard a recording of Olivier Messiaen’s piano piece “Mode of Values and Intensities,” which he described as “incredible star music.” On his return to Cologne, he began studying the music of Messiaen, writing his own similarly conceived work, “Crossplay,” for piano, percussion and two wind instruments.
As “Crossplay” shows, he understood at once how Messiaen’s single notes could be organized by applying Schoenberg’s serial principle to every dimension of sound: pitch, duration, loudness and tone color. A few formal rules would be set up, and the notes would fall into patterns as of themselves. Here his admiration for Hermann Hesse joined with his intense Roman Catholic faith to give him confidence in a kind of music that would be new and pure, reflecting the unity of the divine creation.
He arrived in Paris in January 1952 and stayed 14 months, during which he wrote two big orchestral scores; “Counter-Points,” an exuberant ensemble piece with instrumental flourishes; and the first four of a continuing series of piano pieces. He also composed his first electronic piece. When he went back to Cologne, it was to assist in the foundation of an electronic music studio, as well as to marry his student sweetheart, Doris Andreae, with whom he had four children during the next decade: Christel, Suja, Markus and Majella.
Between 1953 and 1955, he wrote more piano pieces (influenced by a first meeting with John Cage and with Cage’s regular pianist, David Tudor) and two electronic studies. Then came works on a more public scale: “Song of the Youths” and “Groups.” He was attracted by the idea that pitch, timbre, rhythm and even musical form could all be understood as forms of vibration, and by the notion of an entire musical work as a kind of photographic blowup of a single sound or sequence of sounds.
The first performance of “Groups,” in 1958, confirmed his dominant position within the European avant-garde. But he kept moving on. His music became slower and more enveloping in the electronic “Contacts” (1960) and in “Moments” for solo soprano, choir, brass, percussion and electric organs (1964). At the same time, his Catholic piety began giving way to a broader spirituality that embraced Eastern thought. He also fell in love with the American visual artist Mary Bauermeister. He divorced his first wife to marry her in 1967; they had two children, Simon and Julike.
His first visit to Japan, in 1966, was crucial to his artistic development. He was impressed by traditional Japanese culture and gained an awareness of himself as an artist in a global context. In Tokyo he composed the electronic piece “Telemusic,” in which recordings of music from around the world are made to intermingle. On his return to Cologne, he produced “Anthems” (1967), an electronic composition based on national anthems. For a few years after that, much of his work was devised for his own live-electronic performing group.
Working with his chosen musicians, he simplified his notation, until, in “From the Seven Days” (May 1968), he was offering his players only a text on which to meditate in performance. He spoke not of improvisation but of “intuitive music,” the idea being that his words would guide the performers to a metaphysical connection with music beyond themselves.
With “Mantra” for two pianos and electronics (1970) he returned to precise notation and introduced a new style, in which entire compositions were to be elaborated from basic melodies. The method gave him the means to fill long stretches of time, and from then on his major works were of full-evening length. They included “Starsound” for several groups in a public park (1971) and“Inori” for orchestra (1974).
Once again, a turn in Mr. Stockhausen’s music coincided with a new page in his emotional life. In 1974 the American clarinetist Suzanne Stephens entered his entourage, and she remained his companion to the end, joined from the early 1980s by the Dutch flutist Kathinka Pasveer. These two, along with his son Markus, a trumpeter, and his son Simon, on saxophone and synthesizer, gave him a new ensemble.
They also became the central performers of “Light”: Markus, who shared his father’s striking good looks, as the hero Michael; Ms. Stephens or Ms. Pasveer as the lover-mother figure, Eva; and often a trombonist as Lucifer, the spirit of negation.
The first three “Light” operas were introduced by La Scala, the next two by the Leipzig Opera; the remaining two have not been staged. Mr. Stockhausen’s final project was “Sound,” a sequence of compositions for the 24 hours of the day.
Mr. Stockhausen is survived by his companions, his six children and several grandchildren.
Right from his early 20s he never doubted that he was a great composer, and this conviction guided all his actions. It made him authoritarian in his dealings with others, whether fellow musicians or administrators. It pulled him through the creative challenges he set for himself as a young man. But it left him an isolated figure at the end.
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