Monday, 17 July 2017

Eulogies #4

Stockhausen is a common figure in German cultural history. He is the idealistic individual filled with ambitious, monomanical, absurd and ridiculous goals. At its best, this Teutonic tendency produces the likes of Stockhausen. At its best, it produces Wagner and Beethoven. Stockhausen has lofty, demanding ideas which require strenuous rehearsal and patience.  (And a few helicopters would not go amiss.) The end result is usually cryptic, dense and indecipherable. At its worst, this tendency in the German consciousness results in Adolf Hitler. Hitler, too, filled his head - and the heads of the German people - with ambitious, impossible goals. He wanted to create an empire that lasted a thousand years. (It only lasted for thirteen years in the end.) He wanted to create state of the art buildings to accompany it. At the same time - and here the nastiness really comes through - he wanted to eradicate the Jewish people and create an Aryan race.

That is not to say that Stockhausen had this nasty streak. However, he was selfish, rude and arrogant. His selfishness bordered on solipsism. As time wore on, Stockhausen became quite the cranky hermit. He lived alone in a large house composing overblown Wagenerian pieces. He came to believe that he came from the star Sirius and that he would go back there once his life ended on Earth.

Post-war musical life was truly exciting. Its participants - people like Boulez, Kagel, Ligeti, Nono and, indeed, Stockhausen - were determined to take serious composition as far as it could possibly go. Their model was Anton Webern. Webern wrote serialist music where all twelve tones were ordered in series. This was to get away from the 'tonality' of earlier music - i.e. music played in specific keys. Stockhausen and his cohort took this further with 'total serialism.' In this manifestation, the duration and dynamics of the notes are subjected to the same order as well as the pitches. They often brought in theories from mathematics.

This might sound quite dry and cold. That was certainly embodied in Boulez. Boulez never had a wife - quite probably never had sex seeing as he was such a grouch - and led an ascetic life. Boulez thought that music was just controlled sound. Boulez also had a political agenda. He was determined that the new music would get into the concert hall. He wanted to blow up opera houses. (He was later investigated for this eruption later on.) Boulez was cold and he also was a political radical who wanted to change the destroy the old and replace it with the new.

Stockhausen was not like this. Even in the 50s, he was always passionate. Later on, he became quite the hippie mystic. His earliest music was innovative and radical - and certainly excited many people. One of his pieces was written for four concurrent orchestras. In the late sixties, he became mystical and religious. He started to wear garish clothes. He used hippie-dippie phrases. He started to write overblown pieces about everything is cosmic. (Of course it could never be as plain as that, it would have to be cryptic.) He often wrote large-scale pieces about dreams that he had experienced. The musical establishment became radicalised. They started to read Marxist literature and tried to break cars, hit street lamps and fight the police. Stockhausen became more hermetic than ever. He became persona non grata for these leftist twits.

Yet Stockhausen didn't want to destroy the canon. Sorry, Boulez the Mona Lisa will always be great. The enterprise of destroying things and tearing things up is asinine. May '68 was just a spoilt tantrum. Stockhausen's ideas were certainly radical. He ignored existing musical forms - and often invented his own. What he was trying to do was merely to simply add something new to the existing musical canon.

Stockhausen has been likened to a 20th century Beethoven. This kind of makes sense. Beethoven was the rugged individualist who tried to remake music and his pieces were grand and ambitious. Ditto Stockhausen, except that he was living in the age of technological progress, consumerism, two world wars and the holocaust. Some of his pieces I really like, others I just can't make out in the slightest. However, his attitude, his ideals and his sense of self excite me.

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