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Karlheinz Stockhausen sails to heaven at Pentecost

Last year, a minor uproar erupted when the Holland Festival announced it would launch a large-scale project in 2019 around the opera Light by Karlheinz Stockhausen. Modern-music haters screamed blue murder, because who is waiting for the German musician's nasty squeak? Yet a run on the charts immediately ensued. Even after his death in 2007, the self-proclaimed Sirius-born composer continues to stir minds. On Monday 5 June, Insomnio plays his 'Michaels Reise um die Erde' at the - free to attend - festival Cultural Sundays in Utrecht.

The idea for Light originated in 1977, when Stockhausen was in Kyoto. While he was composing, he heard the chanting of monks from a neighbouring temple. Suddenly he realised that all the musics of the world are related. Western, Arabic, Indian and Asian music differ from each other only in detail and are therefore essentially dialects of one and the same musical language.

Light = divinity

Stockhausen gets the inspiration on the spot to write a large-scale work on the theme of light. He decides to compose seven full-length operas in twenty-five years, one for each day of the week. He first writes Donnerstag, in 2003, his cycle was completed. - Indeed, he has then worked on it for (over) a quarter of a century.

For Stockhausen, light is a metaphor for divinity. In his opera Light he wants to create a cosmic world theatre, expressing his lifelong belief that music and religion are one, coupled with the vision that humanity is essentially musical. This world theatre takes place not only on Earth, but also in the worlds beyond. It covers the fate of humanity, the earth and the cosmos, in agreement or confrontation with the spiritual beings Michael, Lucifer and Eve.

Michael is the 'Creative Angel of our universe' and represents the progressive forces of development. Lucifer is his rebellious opponent and Eve works to renew the 'genetic quality'. The rebirth of humanity will subsequently make it more musical. Michael, Lucifer and Eve each have three forms: as singers (tenor, bass, soprano), as instruments (trumpet, trombone, basset horn) and as bodies (dancers).

Each day has its own meaning

Stockhausen explores the meaning of the seven days of the week in different cultures and esoteric traditions and designs an overall plan for the design of Light. Monday is Eve's day; on Tuesday Michael and Lucifer engage in a confrontation, on Wednesday the three beings work together; Thursday is Michael's day; on Friday Lucifer's temptation of Eve takes place; Saturday is Lucifer's day and Sunday is the day of the mystical unification between Michael and Eve.

The composer himself devises the plot, the libretto (with a few exceptions) and the staging. Moreover, each day is linked to certain colours, symbols, plants, animals, senses and elements. Whereas Wagner, with his Ring a Gesamtkunstwerk pursued, Stockhausen goes into Light one step further: all musical and theatrical building blocks are conceived as one whole-from song, instrumental music, electronic sounds, movement, costumes to lighting.

Stockhausen based his entire, seven-part cycle on the so-called super formula, which houses three individual formulas - Michael has a thirteen-tone; Eve a twelve-tone and Lucifer an eleven-tone. This formula determines the rhythmic, melodic, dynamic and timbral course of the operas, not only musically but also scenically. To realise as many timbres as possible, Stockhausen often pairs the various instruments with electronics.

Michael/Stockhausen as a creative force

'Michaels Reise um die Erde' is the second act from Donnerstag aus Licht. This one is dedicated to Michael, who represents the creative force. The archangel takes on human form to discover what it feels like to be a human being. The preceding act describes Michael's childhood, which bears surprising similarities to Stockhausen's own life.

Michael is the son of poor parents and gets his love of music and art from his mother (Eva). After a nervous breakdown, she is locked up in an insane asylum, where she is killed by a doctor. His father (Lucifer) is a school teacher who teaches Michael to pray and hunt; he is killed at the front. Michael falls in love with Moon-Eva, half human half bird, one of the manifestations of Eve. At the end of this act, Michael takes three exams, as a singer, a trumpeter and a dancer. Because of his immense talent, he is admitted to the conservatory with triumph.

Disguised trumpet concert

Then the second act begins, actually a trumpet concerto in disguise. Michael takes his instrument on a musical journey around the earth, before returning to heaven in the final act. He plays in a rotating sphere under a starry sky. Along the way, he visits seven 'stations', each reflecting the sound atmosphere of the place visited: Germany, New York, Japan, Bali, India, Central Africa and Jerusalem. Michael converses/concerts with the other instrumentalists at the foot of the globe; they represent the world.

The trumpeter is wallpapered with all manner of mutes and electronics, allowing him to produce an impressive range of timbres. His musical formula begins with relatively simple, signal-like motifs, against a fond of diffuse sounds from the ensemble. His part becomes increasingly colourful, virtuosic and extravagant, until it shatters into seemingly disjointed fragments.

'Crucifixion and ascension'

Arriving at the sixth station (Central Africa), he hears a basset horn (the instrument of Eve and Moon-Eva) in the distance. Michael instructs the world to turn in the opposite direction and reaches the seventh and final station (Jerusalem), where he has a 'conversation' with a double bass. Then Moon-Eva appears and both their musical formulas intertwine, until they each play the other's formula.

Two clownish clarinetists 'crucify' Michael, along with the low brass, after which a 'ascension' begins. The sounds of the trumpet and basset horn circle around each other until they end in a joint trill. They merge with each other in a G played in unison, which dies away into infinity.

Cultural Sundays 5 June, various locations in Utrecht: Info and maps

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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