Karlheinz Stockhausen: Supah Genius! (RIP)

In the previous post, I wrote about the passing of my first composition professor Andrew Imbrie on December 5th. It turns out two other important figures in classical music died on that same day: American musicologist H. Wiley Hitchcock and German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

I want to talk a little bit about Stockhausen, because he is one of an elite group of 20th century composers who, depending on your point of view, either ruined classical music by adopting new compositional methods that made it violently unlistenable, or took it to new heights of heretofore unimagined brilliance through the sheer force of his genius. ;) If you’re wondering which side of that debate Miss Music Nerd comes down on, I hope no one will be disappointed when I say, “neither.” Or maybe “both”! ;)

By the way, even if you haven’t heard of Stockhausen, you’ve probably seen his picture. He’s on the cover of Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, top row, fifth from the left. :)

Click Mr. Readmore for the rest of the story!

The question of whether classical music really was “ruined” during the 20th century, as some who love the standard repertoire claim, is a deep and complex one that I’ll save for another day. Or, maybe it’s a silly oversimplification that needs to be retired from the standard repertoire of musical commentary and criticism. I haven’t decided yet. Anyway, more about that later.

I’ve always thought of Stockhausen as a bit of a goofball. Lest you fault me for speaking ill of the dead, let me just say that I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing! But when his name comes up in conversation with other contemporary music-nerdy types, jokey references to his various eccentricities often come up as well. There was scuttlebutt that he believed he was from another planet, and/or received messages from extraterrestrial sources. After reading up on it a little bit, I’m not sure if that assessment is entirely fair. It’s true that he was deeply influenced by a text called the Urantia Book, whose publishers claim to have received its contents from “celestial beings appointed to the task of providing an ‘epochal’ spiritual revelation to humankind.” But he was influenced by a range of myths, stories and religious ideas throughout the course of his career; I honestly don’t know how literally he took the extraterrestrial angle.

Another quality he’s widely known for is egomania. I heard an anecdote from a composer friend once about a pianist who went to play one of Stockhausen’s pieces for him. The pianist was a bit nervous of course, very much hoping that the performance would pass muster with the composer. He finished playing and waited for a reaction. Stockhausen said, “Brilliant!” and the pianist said, “I’m so glad you liked my performance!” “No, I mean the piece!” Stockhausen replied. :P Okay, that may be apocryphal, but it’s a darn good story, isn’t it?

What struck me particularly while reading through various biographies and obituaries was the way he set things up for himself in the latter part of his life: he had a home specially designed and built in Kürten, near Cologne, Germany, which became the headquarters of a sort of Stockhausen Music and Media Empire: he began issuing his own scores and CD’s, after acquiring the rights from his former publishers, and he surrounded himself with a group of people who were dedicated to the cause of his music. The New York Times obituary describes it this way:

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.

I can’t help but contrast this with my experience of Professor Imbrie, who was about as non-egomaniacal as he could be — not that he lacked confidence in his music, of course. But Stockhausen evokes the stereotype of the Genius — someone who lives in his own bubble and is completely absorbed in his own artistic processes, producing great work but perhaps lacking in certain desirable qualities — social skills, a realistic perspective of oneself and the world in general… I think this disconnect between between brilliance and reality is what led to a controversy over remarks Stockhausen made about September 11 — remarks that were definitely taken out of context by journalists, but that were also ill-conceived and oblivious on his part.

Personally, I’d rather function well in society than be that distant genius — but fortunately I believe there’s a wide, welcoming middle ground between living on one’s own planet and being boringly ordinary.

But in the spirit of Imbrie’s advice — Compose first, argue later — let’s hear some of Stockhausen’s music! I’m happy to report that his own organization offers a webpage where you can listen to excerpts of many of his pieces. So you judge for yourself how much damage he’s done! ;)

2 Responses

  1. Stockhausen’s music disturbs me to the point of insanity.

    There. I’m insane now.

    “Himmelfahrt” seemed very strange at first, but after careful listening it seemed…..really, effing strange. Maybe Karlheinz WAS a brother from another planet.

    Thanks for, er, broading my musical horizons!

  2. Stockhausen really gave meaning to the simplest definition of music I know, i.e., “organized sound.” The most intriguing thing to me about Stockhausen’s music is trying to trying to explain to myself to my own satisfaction what is immediately recognizable as complex organization made simple (does that only make sense to me?). Stockhausen makes you listen with both ears; you cannot be a passive listener of Stockhausen’s music.

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