Stockhausen gets a second windby Norman Lebrecht
/ February 12, 2008
When a composer dies, so does
his music. Performances tend to fade out in the decade after the funeral,
allowing the reputation to find its place in the canon and musicians
to reassess the work without the overbearing presence of its creator.
So it was with Britten, with Shostakovich, with Messiaen, with Ligeti
– just don’t expect Karlheinz Stockhausen to play by the same rules.
The German composer, who died at
the weekend aged 79, spent the last third of his life clawing back his
music from public consumption. He broke with his publisher, Universal,
then with his record label, Deutsche Grammophon, insisting that he alone
had the right to exploit his genius. Scores and records could still
be obtained from his own Stockhausen Verlag, based in a muddy village
outside Cologne, where the composer lived with two adoring female companions,
the clarinetist Suzanne Stephens and flautist Kathinka Pasveer, in the
manner of the Indian maharishis he once admired.
Laying hands on the music was neither
cheap nor easy. The cost of a two-CD opera can run to $85, and the Stockhausen
website does not accept credit cards. Arranging a live performance involved
personal permission from the master and his handmaidens. One of the
formative catalogues of post-War culture was being dragged into oblivion,
while its composer enjoyed increasing celebrity.
Some 7.8 million people have visited
his website over the past decade, demonstrating the immensity of his
influence over such diverse forms of music as Miles Davis, Bjork, Frank
Zappa and the Beatles. Yet the bigger his myth, the less the world heard
of his music.
What happens next is life in reverse.
The Stockhausen estate will be assessed for probate for the benefit
of six children, two ex-wives, members of the commune and other claimants.
Auditors will find that his copyrights have been seriously under-utilised
and the executors will come under pressure to seek music industry partnerships
for the exploitation of 362 works. There will be a spate of international
bids and a flood of unheard Stockhausen, starting at what would have
been his 80th birthday next August. It may be that Karlheinz Stockhausen
had to die in order that his music might live.
How much of it is worth hearing
is a matter of contention. Posterity will remember Stockhausen chiefly
as the man who wrote the first piece of electronic music that did not
sound like a bad telephone line in a thunderstorm. It will also remember
him for a megalomania so vast that it sought to outstrip Richard Wagner
with an opera lasting 29 hours and played over seven nights, a proposition
so out of tune with the rhythms of its century that major houses lost
interest before it was halfway done.
This was the core paradox of Stockhausen
– a genius at simplifying extreme complexity and, at the same time,
in dressing up the simplest of ideas in a monumentally superfluous construction.
Raised under a Nazi regime which murdered his mentally ill mother in
its euthanasia programme, he saw the light of modernism at the Darmstadt
summer school in 1951. He became a pupil of the French mystic Olivier
Messiaen, who proclaimed him, with Pierre Boulez, as leaders of the
Unlike Boulez, who retreated into
ever-tinier cells of atonal mathematics, Stockhausen explored the physics
of music. In Gesang der Junglinge (the small boy’s song), he
modulated the voice of a boy chorister from Cologne Cathedral against
an electronic track to the point where one became indistinguishable
from the other, achieving a magical fusion of real and surreal.
Its impact was universal. Gyorgy
Ligeti, hearing the first broadcast in 1956 as Soviet tanks rolled through
Budapest, fled the country and turned up at Stockhausen’s apartment,
where he lived for several months, The Beatles, a decade later, included
the head of Stockhausen on the jacket of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely
Hearts Club Band album (back row, fifth from left). West German Radio
built him a studio for personal use in Cologne, but Stockhausen was
not to be confined to electronics.
In 1959, he explored the spatial
dimensions of the concert hall in Gruppen, written for a scattered
ensemble with three conductors in different parts of the hall. In
Mikrophonie (1964) he introduced live electronics; in Hymnen
(1968) he experimented with Indian mantras and Californian minimalism.
Like many post-modern artists he
delegated some of the details of composition to assistants in his ménage.
Boulez, as chief conductor at the BBC and the New York Philharmonic,
showered him with opportunities but Stockhausen’s mind was turning
to his magnum opus, the seven-day opera cycle Licht, which, in
early episodes at La Scala and Covent Garden, mingled attractive music
with stretches of interminable tedium. In the segment known as Thursday,
a trumpet played on the opera house roof. In Wednesday, a string
quartet tried to make itself heard from an airborne helicopter.
Stockhausen was drifting by now
beyond rational discourse. When I proposed a newspaper interview with
him 15 years ago, he accepted with alacrity – only to add that any
tapes I made and the very words he spoke would have to remain his property
in perpetuity, because a man of his singularity possessed an ‘aura’
that could not be relinquished. In September 2001 he attracted widespread
condemnation for describing the attack on the New York twin towers as
‘the greatest work of art imaginable’. Isolated, adulated, fenced
in by his own myth, he left the final two days of his opera unfinished
and apparently unwanted. Yet, with his death, the story of Stockhausen
is about to begin all over again. n