Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of the most important and controversial postwar composers died last Wednesday at his home in western Germany at the age of 79. My suspicion is that, although many of this column’s readers will have heard of him, not many will know much about him or his lasting influence (although many may ‘suspect’ that they will not like his works).
Born in 1928, he had lost both his parents before the age of 20. At the age of 24 he moved to Paris to study with Messiaen and Milhaud. He only lasted there 18 months, but left to become an assistant at the newly established Electronic Music Studio of NWDR in Cologne. It was in this field that he then quickly established himself as one of the great visionaries of 20th-century music and helped shape a new understanding of sound through his electronic compositions.
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. He gained worldwide fame and became a beacon for many younger composers. His influence also crossed styles with rock and pop musicians such as John Lennon, Frank Zappa and David Bowie citing him as an influence.
After that his influence declined and since the 1980s he has seemed quite a lonely figure, although he went on composing right up to his death. In fact in 2002 he completed a monumental 29-hour piece called ‘Light’ consisting of seven operas that had taken him 25 years to write. I gather it is due to be performed for the first time in its entirety next October – at a cost of around 7 million pounds!
Now, the more adventurous of you may want to dip your toe into the water with a CD or two. Please bear in mind however that this is not particularly easy listening and to get anything out of this music you really need to gain some proper understanding of what is going on within it (which means at the very least studying the booklet and listening to it more than once). A lot of his recordings are not distributed to the trade and only available directly form the Stockhausen website. However, a number of commercial recordings have been made and you can view them all here. Recommended recordings of two of his most important works – Gruppen (1955-7) for three orchestras and Stimmung (1968) for six vocalists and six microphones are shown below.