Stockhausen: A Biography 
by Michael Kurtz, translated by Richard Toop.
Faber, 259 pp., £25, March 1992, 0 571 14323 7
Show More
Show More

One of my fondest memories of the two years I spent as Stockhausen’s teaching assistant was observing him direct two unfortunate locals on tall ladders as to the precise positioning of the coloured lights on a gigantic Christmas tree which had been planted on his estate at Kürten, outside Cologne. This was all taking place in a high wind to which Stockhausen (KS) was completely oblivious. The lights had to be perfect and they had to have an architectural structure. It even crossed my mind that he might have been working according to the Fibonacci series.

Another, to me less amusing occasion was a rehearsal of KS’s ensemble one afternoon in Cologne, in the course of which a young, vaguely familiar Californian strode in to say hullo. He turned out to be Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead. He had come over from Düsseldorf to invite the whole group onstage for the Dead’s concert that night. I was overjoyed, being something of a devotee. KS thanked him and the rehearsal continued. And continued, and continued ... KS was going into the most fantastic detail about how to scrape a tam-tam with a spaghetti fork, which way the loudspeakers were pointing, the precise movement of an electronic filter. Hope began to fade. Of course, we never made it. Later, I heard that it had been one of the Dead’s greatest concerts, lasting over four hours.

One Easter Sunday morning, there was a large family gathering at Kürten, with all KS’s six children in attendance and the traditional hunting for the hidden painted eggs taking place in the grounds. When all the eggs had been tracked down, everyone assumed that the ‘finders-keepers’ principle would obtain. But no. The master insisted that all the eggs be surrendered into his basket so that he could decide how they would be distributed, thereby reducing his (already adult) eldest daughter to tears of outrage and shame.

These anecdotes bear directly on KS’s music. Everything he has done is taken to the limit. There are absolutely no half-measures. His ability to concentrate for seemingly limitless periods has resulted in an oeuvre of phenomenal range and intensity. The negative side is that while talking about freedom and intuition, he will never actually relinquish control.

My first encounter with the intensity and dedication of KS’s approach was in 1963 at Darmstadt where he lectured on Gruppen and Carré. What I was not expecting was that the lectures would last up to four hours. At first I was utterly bewildered, but because of KS’s originality, clarity and persistency, the pfennig finally dropped. In the middle of a recording of Carré, everything started to make sense. I realised that KS had invented a whole new musical language and was using it in a powerfully expressive way. I am still convinced that Gruppen and Carré are two of the greatest works of the 20th century. But it doesn’t stop there. What about Gesang der Jünglinge, and the piano pieces Zietmasse, Kontakte, Momente, Telemusik etc etc?

The extent of KS’s achievements emerges clearly from Michael Kurtz’s biography which appears in an excellent translation by Richard Toop. Kurtz records meticulously the genesis of all KS’s works to date and gives details of his global concert-giving activity. We may not be as aware of this in the UK now as we were twenty years ago. But he still circles the globe giving concerts almost incessantly. Oddly enough, the main centre for KS performance seems to be Milan, as each new instalment of his gigantic Opera cycle Licht is premiered at La Scala. This cycle of seven operas, one for each day of the week, is now KS’s sole compositional concern. KS, as I have already pointed out, never does anything by halves, but Licht really takes the biscuit. KS estimates that it will take him twenty-five years to complete, bringing us well into the next millennium. It must be the most massive musical project ever undertaken (discounting Pink Floyd tours) and it is a particular strength of Kurtz’s book that he gives such a full account of the cycle as it exists to date. Here he goes into the music in some detail, but most of the book steers clear of musical analysis.

The other major strength of the biography is Kurtz’s account of KS’s extreme youth. We get a strong sense of his upbringing, his relationship with his parents and a quite frank account of what things were like in rural North Germany during the Nazi period. KS was born in 1928, and already by the time he was seven, his father, a secondary school teacher, had become regional ‘block-leader’ for the NSDAP. This post involved making collections for Party funds and various Nazi schemes and activities but it was always the very young KS who did the rounds and collected the money. It was, however, very much a case of ‘Heil Hitler’ by day, and prayer by night.

The family was deeply religious and their religious activity continued well into the Nazi period. KS attended his First Communion at Altenberg Cathedral in 1938 and it made an indelible impression on him.

The whole teaching of confession marked a new phase of my life ... To be at confession is like being at a musical rehearsal ... And then I still know for certain that during the whole celebration of the first Holy Communion. I was in a trance ... 1 have never forgotten this pure state of trance.

It is right for Kurtz to stress the importance of trance and dream in KS’s mental universe. It has enabled KS to make the link between his youthful Catholicism and the other religions of the world so that his thinking now is global, if not cosmic.

But back in 1943, KS was going around in uniform with a swastika on his arm, first in the capacity of ‘Fire-Guard’, and then as a stretcher-bearer, witnessing the hideous consequences of Allied phosphorous-bombing. (‘The heads of the injured men,’ he said, ‘were like balls of foam rubber.’) KS’s mother, who was mentally unstable, fell victim to Nazi ‘euthanasia policy’. His father was lost in action in the East in 1945, so by the end of the war, the 16-year-old orphan had experienced more horrors than most do in a lifetime.

In 1946, with Germany still at ‘zero-hour’, the orphan KS was struggling to make a living from farm-labouring by day and studying Latin long into the night in order to be able to continue his education. (Things were not made easy for the block-leader’s son.) Kurtz draws a good parallel here with the musical ‘zero hour’ which obtained a few years later when artistic activity started to pick up again. A feeling of having no language, of being in a complete vacuum was shared by several composers, among whom were Boulez in Paris and Ligeti in Budapest. Boulez wrote of his Structures I: ‘I wanted to question everything, to make a tabula rasa of the whole musical inheritance and begin again at degree zero, so as to see how one could arrive at a new way of writing, starting from a phenomenon that lay outside one’s own experience.’

For several years KS shied away from these problems and Kurtz is very interesting about the way he eventually came to address them. He played piano in bars at night, studied school music and wrote only poetry, stories and plays. There was little evidence that this was the man who one day would write Gruppen, Kontakte and Licht. The trigger came in 1948 when, while still studying at the Cologne Music High School, KS read Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game. Hesse cited the Cologne Music High School as the place where the bead-game was invented and this made a profound impression of KS ‘because it connects the musician with the spiritual servant. I found it prophetic, for I realised that the highest calling of mankind can only be to become a musician in the profoundest sense; to conceive and shape the world musically.’

And so the real story begins. First, the single, isolated note, then groups, then ‘moments’, then live-electronics, ‘intuitive music’, music theatre, and now transcendental opera. On the way, Kurtz comes up with some important insights into the workings of KS’s compositional mind. Take the example of Kreuzspiel of 1951, possibly KS’s first wholly original piece. KS himself writes of its genesis: ‘you see a written score and hear the overall sound without being able to say what comes next or how it will look in detail. But you hear it as a whole, as a landscape or mountain is seen from a great distance, and that is what is most important.’ Kurtz, extrapolates: ‘At the start the idea for the piece is like a vision, its processes grasped only in an intuitive way. Then it is sketched out, often undergoing minor transformations of detail.’ And then he comes up with the most extraordinary fact: ‘KS’s initial plan for Kreuzspiel was to write it for high soprano and piano. The phonemes of the name Doris’ – KS’s first wife – ‘transformed in various ways, were to be incorporated into the construction. Then he thought of piano, high female voice and male voice, before finally deciding on oboe, bass-clarinet, piano and three percussionists!’ Poor Doris!

Up till now, I have ignored the short-comings of the book, but it has to be said that it is fatally flawed. In fact it is not really a biography in the sense that de la Grange’s Mahler or Heyworth’s Klemperer are. It is more an officially sanctioned chronicle of the master’s life and work; meticulous, thorough and apparently accurate. We get no picture of the man as he might be seen from diverse points of view. There is no dissent, irony, humour or independence. Where are the voices of the thwarted women in the composer’s life? Of the publishers, the fellow composers, the collaborators? I don’t know for sure, but I sense that Kurtz is basically more a mouthpiece than an independent voice. For a true picture of KS, I should want to see him as tyrant, visionary, Stakhanovite, guru, charmer, father, lover, child, as well as one of the great musical geniuses of the 20th century.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences