Karlheinz Stockhausen

(22 August 1928, Mödrath - 5 December 2007, Kürten)


Karlheinz Stockhausen was a German composer, an important creator and theoretician of electronic and serial music who strongly influenced avant-garde composers from the 1950s through the 1980s. He is acknowledged by critics as one of the most important composers of the 20th century. His portfolio includes groundbreaking work in electronic music, aleatory (controlled chance) in serial composition, and musical spatialization.

He received his first music lessons at the age of 7 from the Protestant organist of the Altenberg Cathedral, Franz Josef Kloth. In 1942 Karlheinz became a boarder at the teachers' training college in Xanten, here he continued his piano training and also studied oboe and violin. In the autumn of 1944, he was conscripted to serve as a stretcher bearer in Bedburg. From 1947 to 1951, Stockhausen studied music pedagogy and piano at the Cologne Conservatory of Music, and musicology, philosophy, and Germanics at the University of Cologne. Although he studied harmony, and counterpoint with Hermann Schroeder, his interest in composition emerged only after 1950. At the end of that year, Stockhausen was admitted to the class of Swiss composer Frank Martin, who had just begun a 7-year tenure in Cologne. Following his goal to become a better composer, in 1952 he went to Paris to study composition. His main teacher was Olivier Messiaen, and for a few weeks he studied under Darius Milhaud as well.
In 1953, Stockhausen returned to Cologne and joined its celebrated electronic music studio West German Broadcasting (Westdeutscher Rundfunk) as an assistant to Herbert Eimert. His Studie I (1953; “Study”) was the first musical piece composed from sine-wave sounds, while Studie II (1954) was the first work of electronic music to be notated and published. From 1954 to 1956, he studied phonetics, acoustics, and information theory with Werner Meyer-Eppler at the University of Bonn, all of which had a great impact on his musical composition. Together with Eimert, Stockhausen edited the journal Die Reihe from 1955 to 1962. Having lectured at summer courses on new music in Darmstadt since 1953, he began teaching composition there in 1957 and established a similar series of workshops at Cologne in 1963 until 1968. Stockhausen lectured and gave concerts of his music throughout Europe and North America. From 1971 to 1977 he was professor of composition at the State Academy for Music in Cologne.

Stockhausen’s explorations of fundamental psychological and acoustical aspects of music were highly independent. Serialism (music based on a series of tones in an ordered arrangement without regard for traditional tonality) was a guiding principle for him, but whereas composers such as Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg had applied this concept only to pitch, Stockhausen, inspired largely by the work of Messiaen, sought to apply this to other musical elements. Thus, instrumentation, pitch register and intensity, melodic form, and time duration are deployed in musical pieces that assume an almost geometric level of organization.

Stockhausen also began using tape recorders and other machines in the 1950s to analyze and investigate sounds through the electronic manipulation of their fundamental elements, sine waves. From this point he set out to create a new, radically serial approach to the basic elements of music and their organization. He used both electronic and traditional instrumental means and buttressed his approach with rigorous theoretical speculations and radical innovations in musical notation. By the mid-'50s he had secured a spot in the vanguard of both electronic music and integral serialism (the application of the serialism concept to all musical elements).

Certain elements are played off against one another, simultaneously and successively. In Kontra-Punkte (Counter-Points; 1952–53; for 10 instruments), pairs of instruments and extremes of note values confront one another in a series of dramatic encounters; in Gruppen (Groups; 1955–57; for three orchestras), fanfares and passages of varying speed are flung from one orchestra to another, giving the impression of movement in space; while in Zeitmasze (Measures; 1955–56; for five woodwinds) various rates of acceleration and deceleration oppose one another.

In Stockhausen’s electronic music these juxtapositions are taken still further. In the early work Gesang der Jünglinge (1955–56; Song of the Youths), a recording of a boy’s voice is mixed with highly sophisticated electronic sounds. Kontakte (1958–60) is an encounter between electronic sounds and instrumental music, with an emphasis on their similarities of timbre. In Mikrophonie I (1964), performers produce an enormous variety of sounds on a large gong with the aid of highly amplified microphones and electronic filters.

During the next decade he forged relationships with some of the most prominent contemporaries, including Kagel, Ligeti, and Cage, and, taking over the reins at the Darmstadt school, mentored such innovative up-and-comers as Cornelius Cardew and La Monte Young. His influence extended into popular culture, as well: he appears on the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album. Stockhausen held various appointments during the rest of the twentieth century, and continued teaching summer seminars attended by important emerging composers.

Stockhausen’s views on music were presented in a 10-volume collection, Texte, published in German, as well as in a number of other publications, including Mya Tannenbaum’s Conversations with Stockhausen (translated from Italian, 1987), Jonathan Cott’s Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer (1974), and a compilation of his lectures and interviews, Stockhausen on Music, assembled by Robin Maconie (1989).

Stockhausen wrote 370 individual works. He often departs radically from musical tradition and his work is influenced by Olivier Messiaen, Edgard Varèse, and Anton Webern, as well as by film and by painters such as Piet Mondrian, and Paul Klee.

Here  you can find a list of compositions by Karlheinz Stockhausen.