Born on August 22, 1928, in Mödrath, Germany; son of Simon (a teacher) and Gertrud (Stupp) Stockhausen; married Doris Andreae, 1951; divorced; married Mary Bauermeister, 1967; divorced; children: (with Andreae) Suja, Christel, Markus, Majella; (with Bauermeister) Julika, Simon. Education: Stadtliche Hofschule für Musik (State Academy for Music), Cologne, and the University of Cologne, Germany, 1947-51; studied music composition with Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud in Paris, 1952; studied phonetics, acoustics, and information and communication theory at the University of Bonn, 1954-56. Memberships: Free Academy of the Arts, Hamburg, 1968; Royal Swedish Academy, 1970; Academy of the Arts, Berlin, 1973; Philharmonic Academy of Rome, 1977; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1979; European Academy of Science, Arts and Letters, 1980; Free Academy of the Arts Leipzig, 1996. Addresses: Office--Stockhausen-Verlag, Kettenberg 15, 51515 Kürten, Germany, website:

During his official seventieth birthday celebrations in 1998, Karlheinz Stockhausen was heralded in some quarters as Germany's greatest living composer. A pioneer in electronic music in the early 1950s, Stockhausen and his avant-garde compositions followed in the footsteps of Austrian modernist Arthur Schoenberg and Anton von Webern, creating works of aleatory (chance-based), serial, and intuitive music. "Stockhausen is one of the great figures in modern composition," asserted Guardian writer John O'Mahony, "a revolutionary whose shadow stretches across contemporary music in all its incarnations."

Stockhausen was born on August 22, 1928, in Mödrath, a German town near the great cathedral city of Cologne. His early life was marked by tragedy: when he was four his mother suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to a psychiatric hospital where she was later killed as a result of Nazi-mandated euthanasia for the mentally ill. His father, a schoolteacher, later remarried.

Stockhausen's musical gift was apparent at an early age, and he was performing in piano recitals by the age of eight. When World War II erupted, his father left to serve in the German army and was killed in Hungary during the final year of the war. Stockhausen, by then a teenager, was pressed into service as a stretcher-bearer for the military, work in which he witnessed horrific injuries. After the war, his economic situation was dire for a time, and he supported himself by playing piano in bars.

Initially, Stockhausen harbored literary aspirations, especially after reading Herman Hesse's acclaimed 1943 novel, The Glass Bead Game. He even wrote his own work of fiction, Geburt im Tot (Birth in Death), in 1949. By this time, however, he had already been enrolled two years in the Hochschule für Musik (Academy for Music) in Cologne where he studied piano and music education. He finished composing his first piece, Drei Lieder (Three Songs), just before his studies concluded. He submitted it to a summer program in Darmstadt that he was planning to attend, but the piece was rejected. He attended the school anyway, where he took some classes with Arthur Schoenberg, a pioneer in serial music (compositions based on an arrangement, termed a series, or row, that was a radical departure from the seven-tone diatonic scale of Western music).

"This Is Crazy"

In 1951 Stockhausen married music student Doris Andreae. The following year he went to Paris to study with avant-garde French composers Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud. While there he also developed a professional kinship with another avant-garde composer, Pierre Boulez. During this time Stockhausen began using electronic instruments for the first time in an attempt to create his own sounds, working in a small studio with a sine-wave generator. He recorded tones onto magnetic tape and then spliced the tape to create an étude (study) or musical piece designed to develop a player's technique. His first work to be performed publicly was Kreuzspiel (Crossplay), which premiered in Darmstadt in 1952. "People thought, 'This is no music, this is crazy,'" Stockhausen recalled in the Guardian interview with O'Mahony. "For the first time in the history of music, a piece was made up of individual notes. There were no melodies." Even the orchestra disliked it, one clarinetist departing from the score to sound a note of protest during a quieter moment.

Continuing his work back in Cologne, Stockhausen composed Elektronische Studien I und II, which premiered in Darmstadt in 1954. Wholly electronic, these were some of the first compositions to be performed without musicians. The iconoclastic American composer John Cage attended the performance and met Stockhausen. This meeting ignited Stockhausen's interest in aleatory, or chance-based, music. In aleatory music, an orchestra might toss its score into the air, then pick up the pages at random and begin playing from them. In a 1951 Cage piece, 12 radios were placed onstage and tuned to 12 different stations.

Over the next decade, Stockhausen continued to pioneer atonal music, often with innovative electronic elements. One work from 1956, Gesang der jünglinge (Song of the Youths), was described by O'Mahony as "neurotically beautiful"; a piece "in which a young boy's hymn is periodically dipped in what can only be described as an electronic groan." Stockhausen ventured further into the avant-garde as the decade progressed. Perhaps his most daring work was Gruppen (Groups), first performed in May of 1956, in which three separate orchestras, each with its own conductor, played simultaneously; at other times one remained silent and two competed against one another. O'Mahony described that first performance as both "a triumph and a scandal; it produced turbulent protests as well as comparisons with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring." A later composition, Originale, debuted in 1961, reflected his relationship with artist Mary Bauermeister, the woman who would become his second wife. It was composed as a score to a theater performance piece for members of the German Fluxus artists' group; at one point Korean artist Nam June Paik covered himself in shaving cream, then jumped into a vat of red paint.

Creative, Temperamental, and Eccentric

Stockhausen's personal life was as storied as his creative eccentricities. He lived with Bauermeister and his first wife for a time, and a piece from 1962, Momente, possesses three musical elements: K-moments (for "klang," or timbre), M-moments (melody), and D-moments (duration); the trio of letters also corresponded to the initials of the three. Mikrophonie I, from 1964, was one of the first-ever performances of live electronic music. Hymnen, published in 1966-67, combined radio static, electronically generated shrieks, and various European national anthems spliced together.

Stockhausen became known as a decidedly unconventional, if clearly gifted, composer. His temperamental bent made rehearsing with him notoriously difficult, particularly given the abstruse in his scores: "Stop playing when you start thinking," read one, or "Play a sound with the certainty that you have an infinite amount of time and space." Preferring to record and perform with his own small group of select musicians, he acquired land outside of Cologne, near the town of Kürten, in the mid-1960s. There he built what would come to be known as the Stockhausen complex, a place where he and Bauermeister, whom he wed in 1967, hoped to create a commune for avant-garde musical devotees. Stockhausen had seen such cooperatives in the Far East, where temple musicians lived together.

Stockhausen's marriage to Bauermeister began to fall apart when she was pregnant with their second child. She went to San Francisco, where she became a devotee of an Indian mystic named Sri Aurobindo. When she formally severed their relationship in a 1968 letter, Stockhausen began a hunger strike, a seven-day fast that coincided with the famed street riots and strikes in Paris in May of 1968. "During the seven days I had wonderful visions and sound experiences," the composer recalled to O'Mahony. "Every so often I would sit down by the piano and play a single note. I changed a lot during this time."

From this experience Stockhausen wrote Aus den sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days). Its musicians were expected to fast, then play improvisations based on his instructions. Such radical experiments made Stockhausen a favorite with a new generation of musicians. John Lennon, still a musical innovator at the time, was a great fan. Stockhausen's face appears on the cover of their Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band album, and two Beatles' tracks from this era, "A Day in the Life" and "Revolution Number 9," contained elements that were directly inspired by the anthems in Hymnen. There was even talk of a joint concert by Stockhausen and the Beatles; after they broke up, Lennon would sometimes telephone Stockhausen to discuss modern music.

Massive Opera Cycle

In 1977, Stockhausen began writing his massive opus Licht: Die sieben Tage der Woche (Light: The Seven Days of the Week), a semiautobiographical opera that sought to portray humankind's struggle with evil. Its main characters, Michael and Eve, battled Lucifer and his armies, which in some cases were armed with trombones. Each of the segments, or days, contains about four hours of music; Stockhausen expects to complete the seventh day by 2005. The first, Donnerstag (Thursday), premiered at Milan's La Scala opera house in 1981. In Freitag (Friday), dancing couples were costumed as Cat and Dog, Football and Boot, Arm and Syringe. Another of Stockhausen's works challenged its audience in a way that few composers had done before: 1995's Helikopter streichquartett (Helicopter String Quartet) was an outdoor piece in which the performers were inside four helicopters that hovered above the audience.

Parts of Licht were heard in an electronic music festival series at London's Barbican Hall in October of 2001, along with Hymnen. A reviewer for London's Independent newspaper, Robert Maycock, granted that at first Stockhausen's music was somewhat difficult for the listener to appreciate. He noted, however, that once a listener adjusted, "the main soundscapes and adventures still have an unmistakable power and range, from brilliance and wit, to grandeur, to a sense of hovering above a tiny planet whose frantic activities, so competitive down below, seem all of a piece when you're up there. It's easy to see why Stockhausen's electronic pieces spawned a whole world of academic music studios."

Vilified for Remarks

Stockhausen attracted some measure of controversy for remarks he made after the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. At a Hamburg press conference, he pondered how "characters can bring about in one act what we in music cannot dream of, that people practice madly for ten years, completely fanatically, for a concert and then die. That is the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos. Against that, we composers are nothing." The statement was widely disseminated, often in truncated form using only "the greatest work of art" phrase, and he was roundly criticized for it.

Already famously reclusive, Stockhausen canceled further interviews and was predicted to retreat even further after the media criticism over his remarks. His outlook, like his work, was infused with a deep personal spiritualism. "All my life I have been convinced that there is an angel constantly guiding me," he declared in the Guardian interview with O'Mahony. "Depending on the tasks I have set myself, and that have been set for me, the angel changes. They specialize in particular subjects, stages of life, and also particular kinds of creative activity. My angel is highly experienced in questions of music."

Stockhausen lives at his complex in Kürten, which is also home to a summer school for electronic music fans, with two women for whom he has composed works: American saxophonist Suzanne Stephens and Dutch flautist Kathinka Pasveer. On his seventieth birthday formal celebrations honoring his achievements took place in Paris, Zurich, Cologne, and on Frankfurt's Hessischer Rundfunk radio. A perfectionist, he still makes his own high-quality compact discs. (Recordings of his work are difficult to find, since most are released by his own Stockhausen-Verlag and must be ordered.) Experts point out, however, that his work is best appreciated live. "Impossible to reproduce on disc, Stockhausen's music in concert exerts a physical, sculptural sense of space and time in constant flux," noted Tim Cumming in the Guardian.

by Carol Brennan

Karlheinz Stockhausen's Career

First work, Kreuzspiel(Crossplay), premiered in Darmstadt, Germany, 1952; composer of more than 290 compositions and 100 recorded works; has held guest professorships at the University of Pennsylvania, PA, 1965; University of California, Davis, 1966-67; Musikhochschule, Cologne, 1971-77.

Karlheinz Stockhausen's Awards

Grand Art Prize for Music of the State of North Rhine-Westfalia, 1968; Grand Prix du Disque, 1968; Nederlandse Vereniging van Producenten en Importeurs van beeld- en geluidsdragers (Dutch Association of Producers and Importers of Image and Sound Media), Edison Prize, 1968-69, 1971, 1996; Distinguished Service Cross, first class (Germany), 1974; Italian music critics' prize, 1981; German Gramophonemagazine, Gramophone Prize, 1982; Diapason d'or (France), 1983; Commandeur dans l'ordre des arts et des lettres (France), 1985; Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, 1986; Cologne Culture Prize (Germany), 1996; International Festival for Animated Film Golden Dove Award for the film In Absentia, 2000; German Music Publishers Society Award, 2000, 2001; Royal Swedish Academy of Music Polar Music Prize, 2001.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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