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Mantra for 2 pianos by Stockhausen: iconic masterpiece

By 1970, Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007) had run out of 'intuitive' compositions in which the performer had to choose his or her own path from a series of written instructions. Like, for example Intensity, whose score consists of this text:

Play the individual tones
with such dedication to
you feel the warmth
radiating from you.
Play on and keep them on
As long as you can.

Not only did the performers sometimes turn out to achieve a different result than Stockhausen had envisaged (ears), but also the musicians believed that with so much freedom of interpretation, they should at least be considered co-composers. - With the accompanying financial compensation.

Back to complete control, then. And voilá, Stockhausen developed Mantra for two pianos, percussion and electronics. He wrote it for the brothers Alfons and Aloys Kontarsky, who premiered it at the Donaueschingen festival in 1970.

Remarkably, Stockhausen's over-seventy-minute Mantra built on one tone series, containing all 12 semitones of the octave. From this Formel (Formula) he distils an unprecedented number of variations, which keep surprising the ear each time: in fact, it is difficult to discern the core formula in all these manifestations.

Huge range of sounds

The sound variety is enormous, as the pianists play not only the keys of their grand piano, but also cymbals and woodblocks. At the same time, their sounds are distorted by a ring modulator, producing mesmerising and alienating effects. In life, Karlheinz invariably sat himself am Pult, you may remember a performance by Sepp Grotenhuis and Ellen Corver in the 1995 Holland Festival.

The Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ presents this iconic composition of the 20th century in its Thursday evening series today, 3 December. Featuring French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Yugoslavian-German pianist Tamara Stefanovich. At the controls now is Italian composer, pianist and electronicist Marco Stroppa.

I will speak to all three during the introduction and may give away 2 x 2 free tickets on behalf of Culture Press. Send an email before 6pm to ovv - 'Culture Press Action' and your tickets will be prepared at the box office. Concert starts at 20:15, introduction from 19:15-19:45.

Here Stockhausen explains in detail the origins and structure of Mantra.

Postscript: below is a recording of my introduction with Aimard, Stefanovich and Stroppa: 

Postscript December 2016: in June 2019, the Holland Festival will present 16 hours from the opera Light, Stockhausen's magnum opus. This is an ambitious collaboration project with the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague and De Nationale Opera.
A petition emerged 
at this production. Here you can read why I am in favour

Thea Derks

Thea Derks studied English and Musicology. In 1996, she completed her studies in musicology cum laude at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in contemporary music and in 2014 published the critically acclaimed biography 'Reinbert de Leeuw: man or melody'. Four years on, she completed 'An ox on the roof: modern music in vogevlucht', aimed especially at the interested layperson. You buy it here: In 2020, the 3rd edition of the Reinbertbio appeared,with 2 additional chapters describing the period 2014-2020. These also appeared separately as Final Chord.View Author posts

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