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How did Stockhausen arrive at his organised music?

Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007)

  • One of the most important 20th century composers
  • Born in Kerpen near Cologne
  • Father: elementary school teacher, fell in the Second World War
  • Mother: murdered by the Nazis in 1941
  • Encouraged by Hermann Hesse, Stockhausen started out as a poet
  • Studied the piano, musicology, German and philosophy in Cologne

The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen polarises. Some people don’t understand his music at all, while others admire his innovative compositions. Numerous musicians, from Tangerine Dream through the Beatles to Björk, acknowledge his influence on their own work and see him as an absolute pioneer of electronic music. But what had already happened in 20th century music before Stockhausen came on the stage with his strictly organised and complex compositions?


First and foremost, 20th century music is marked by the parallel development and coexistence of a wide variety of different styles. Late Romantic composers like Sergei Rachmaninov, Jean Sibelius, Edward Elgar, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler were still in the process of pushing at the envelope of conventional tonality (the major/minor principle) when the impressionism of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel came to the fore, with is focus on the fleeting mood of the moment.

Claude Debussy: La Mer

The Great Wave of Kanagawa

Stockhausen at the 3rd Hamburg International Music Festival

The concerts

Parallel to this, Expressionist music combined extreme contrasts of pitch and volume, rhythmic freedom and new styles of instrumentation to convey intense passion and innermost feelings. Some of the Expressionist composers dissolved tonality completely, replacing it with different systems such as Arnold Schönberg’s twelve-tone technique, a method of composing where all twelve notes of the chromatic scale have equal value, and are related only to one another and not to a superordinate key.

Arnold Schönberg: Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31

Portrait: Arnold Schönberg

At the same time there were composers like Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev who weren’t ready to abandon classical aesthetics and tonality completely. In neo-classicism they returned to old genres and forms that they used in a new context.

Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony Nr.1 »Classical«

Sergej Prokofiev

Music of the 20th Century

  • Late Romantic (approx. 1860-1910)
  • Impressionism (approx. 1890-1920)
  • Expressionism (approx. 1906-1914)
  • Neo-Classicism (from approx. 1920)
  • Viennese School (Modern) / Twelve-Tone Music (from approx. 1920)
  • Serial and Electronic Music (from approx. 1948) --> Stockhausen

Taking the twelve-tone system established by Arnold Schönberg and his pupils as his starting point, Karlheinz Stockhausen subjected not only the melody, but all musical parameters to a serial organisation, hence the term »serial music«. In his serial music, the length and pitch of a note, likewise its loudness, were based on series of numbers or proportions with the aim of creating a music that was especially clear, free of redundancy, uncertainty and the arbitrariness of personal taste.

Parallel to this, he began to make increasing use of electronic instruments in his compositions. And he also changed the notation, in some cases even abandoning notation showing the pitch and length of the notes and depicting the notes in picture form instead.

Score / Studie 1
Score / Studie 1 © www.karlheinzstockhausen.org

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Studie 1 (1953)

Karlheinz Stockhausen

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Donnerstag from »Licht«

»Licht« (Light) is an opera cycle in seven parts, with a total running length of 29 hours, that Stockhausen composed between 1977 and 2003. It has never been performed in its entirety.


Stockhausen’s admirers in the 1970s included the Berlin New Age electronic group Tangerine Dream, which worked with noises – e.g. whips and greaseproof paper – and with free structures, later adding synthesizers and electronic instruments to the mix.

Other pop groups that were influenced by Stockhausen’s music included the synth-pop collective Kraftwerk from Düsseldorf, and Cologne krautrock veterans Can. The latter group made use, among other techniques, of a montage method inspired by Stockhausen, which was essentially a forerunner of later electronic groups that worked with scraps and cuttings.

Even the Beatles took an interest in Stockhausen, including the experimental piece Revolution #9 on their White Album.

The Beatles

To this day, Icelandic singer Björk is one of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s big fans. She once gave an interview to The Guardian in which she said: »For me, Stockhausen was a pioneer who broke completely new musical ground, namely electronic music with a very specific aesthetic and an organic interior all its own. (…) By transforming electricity into sound, Karlheinz showed us all that he made a sun shine that is still shining, and will continue to do so for a long time to come.«

Björk: Homogenic (Album)

Björk / Homogenic

Stockhausen at the 3rd Hamburg International Music Festival

To the concerts

Text: Julia Mahns

Festival 2018: Stockhausen Highlights