Stockhausen - Gesang der Jünglinge
Musical Analysis - Jon Brooks
Karlheinz Stockhausen began work on Gesang der Jünglinge (Song of the Youths) in 1955, completing it in 1956. At that time, he was located in the electronic music studio of North West German Radio, Cologne, which had been established in 1951. This was where he began to work seriously with electronic music and viewed it as the "essential future of music". Whilst working at the radio station he was given a scholarship to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Bonn with Werner Meyer-Eppler. Meyer-Eppler was researching phonetics and communication studies. Although Stockhausen did not complete his study there, he considered Meyer-Eppler to be one of his most influential tutors, having a profound impact on his compositions.
Stockhausen’s work at the University of Bonn sparked two life-long interests: an interest in the composition of language (which is immediately evident in Gesang der Jünglinge), and an interest in indeterminacy, later consuming much of his career.
In the years preceding Gesang der Jünglinge, Stockhausen created two electronic studies, where he refined his skills for the German model of synthesised sound in opposition to the French work of musique concréte. Stockhausen, after composing the electronic studies, longed to write something more substantial.
With the assistance of Gottfried Michael Koenig and Hugh Davies, Stockhausen realised Gesang der Jünglinge where his main objective was to to make ‘contact’ between familiar sounds (live) and unfamiliar sounds (electronic), drawing the listener’s attention to focus on the timbre or ‘sound’. Stockhausen wrote in his notes: (Ref 1)
"My work on the electronic composition Gesang der Jünglinge proceeded from the idea of bringing together into a single sound both sung notes and electronically produced ones: their speed, length, loudness, softness, density and complexity, the width and narrowness of pitch intervals and differentiations of timbre could all be made audible exactly as I imagined them, independent of the physical limitations of any singer ...... "
He wanted to use the ‘familiar’ and ‘unfamiliar’ timbres and fuse them into a single family of ‘sound’, allowing electronic sound to appear like it is sung and vice versa to achieve the contact he sought. The original plan was for a twenty-minute work. Due to time restrictions he only managed thirteen minutes, one-third longer than any of his previous electronic works.
Gesang der Jünglinge requires five loudspeakers for performance (simplified from six, in the original sketches). His work for five channel magnetic tape, uses the sound of a boy’s voice, subjected to electronic manipulation, as well as electronically produced sounds as its palate. The vocal text, ‘Song of Praise of the Three Youths’, is taken from the third chapter of the book of Daniel, Benedicite. It is a prayer sung by the children of Israel after being cast into Nebuchadnezzar’s Fiery Furnace in Babylon. The text is rarely identified because it is often split into individual phonemes. However, when it is, it praises God. The phrase ‘Preiset Herrn’, (‘Praise the Lord’), was deliberately selected by Stockhausen to act as a refrain throughout the work. Gesang der Jünglinge has often been called the first masterpiece in the electronic genre, holding a unique place, it was the first piece to combine synthesised sound with musique concréte.
The work is comprised of six sections identified by their texture. It was cast to be in seven, but, as mentioned earlier, it was cut short and completed before its premiere on May 30th, 1956. The structure does not differ greatly from his earlier pieces, especially the Electronic Study No. 2. Even though the work employs violent contrasts, they provide a shape for the piece, and become part of the larger form. These contrasts give the work its "alertness, its youthful, early-morning-visionary quality". (Ref 2)
The work is, in some respect, quite motivic. The final section combines and develops ideas stated in the previous sections, maybe due to the fact that Stockhausen had to complete the work rapidly before the premiere. Some say it just fizzles out and does not have the completeness like a Beethoven Symphony.
To organise the transitions, Stockhausen devised two sets of scales, one for the purely electronic sounds, the other for the voice of the boy. The electronic sounds range between dark and bright timbres, pure pitch and random noise bands, the darkest noise and the brightest noise; those for the voice between dark and light vowels, vowels and consonants, and the range of consonants produced by the voice.
Finally Stockhausen creates a scale between electronic sound and the human voice. This works in two ways. The first is blurring the line between human and electronic sounds and the second is blurring the line between meaning and abstraction. The scales are then serialised in pairs. For each vocal element, there is a synthesised one. These represent the interval relationships and can be used in any dimension, including harmonic and melodic ratios, sound and phonemes, sound groups and pitch regions and placement in space. The scales describe a continuum from the melodic to the harmonic, and the sequences can be folded over on themselves to form continuous cycles. Stockhausen was always seeking a system that was founded on scientific principles. As mentioned earlier, these sounds are not kept separate. Even though there are moments that initially seem like vocal sounds, they often turn out to be electronic ones, and vice versa; this portrays Stockhausen’s constant effort to bring points of ‘contact’ between the two sound worlds.
Most German speakers are likely to know the text of the Benedicite. What surprises listeners is the emergence of ‘new’ words formed from the dislocations. These dislocations, split up and rearranged form the words: ‘Schneewind’, ‘Eisglut’, and ‘Feuerreif` (snow-wind’, ‘ice—heat’, and ‘fire-ripe’). Stockhausen’s manipulation has created a kind of acoustic illusion of physical space. At one point the boy’s voice may appear to be close, later it has become a choir singing far away in the distance. The manipulation of physical space comes from the recording through the five loudspeakers. The sound can come from side to side, move clockwise or anticlockwise or from all sides. Some say spatial perspective is typical only in electronic music. Stockhausen points out: (Ref 3)
"Have we not already encountered it in a Mahler symphony where the composer says that the trumpets sound stand outside the hall?"
There can be little doubt that the work was a historic step in bringing together the concepts of musique concrete and pure electronic music. Throughout his career, Stockhausen felt that he was "establishing a new path". He felt the purpose of composing was not just the addition of new works to the repertoire, but to redefine the possibilities of composition itself. The motivation behind Stockhausen’s quest for the "not yet heard", were deeply religious (originally Catholicism), and a passion for innovation. Even with the microscopic details under his control, his real gift was his ability to remain in control of the large-scale shape of a composition.Gesang der Jünglinge is, in many respects, Stockhausen’s most perfectly formed electronic work, satisfactorily resolving his original intentions.
1: Wörner, Karl, H. (1973) Stockhausen: Life and Works, p. 40-41.
2: Harvey, Jonathan. (1975) The Music of Stockhausen. Chapter 8, p.80
3: Maconie, Robin. (1989) Stockhausen on Music, Lectures and Interviews. Part One, p.86
Cott, Jonathan. (1974) Stockhausen: Conversations with the composer. London, Robson Books Ltd.
Hall, Michael. (1996) Leaving Home: A conducted tour of twentieth-century music with Simon Rattle. London, Faber and Faber Ltd.
Harvey, Jonathan. (1975) The Music of Stockhausen. London, Faber and Faber Ltd.
Maconie, Robin. (1976) The Works of Stockhausen. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Maconie, Robin. (1989) Stockhausen on Music: Lectures and Interviews. London, Marion Boyars Publishers.
Tannenbaum, Mya. (1987) Conversations with Stockhausen. Oxford, Clarendon Press.
Worner, Karl H. (1973) Stockhausen: Life and Work. London, Faber and Faber Ltd.