Skip to content

Goeyvaerts and Ustvolskaya: man and woman with hammer

Spectra Ensemble

In February 2017, combined The Collective the radical music of Galina Ustvolskaya with the heavenly chants of Hildegard von Bingen. Less strange than it seems, as both were deeply religious and composed from inner necessity. Thursday, 26 October places the Spectra Ensemble Ustvolskaya alongside Karel Goeyvaerts at Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ. Ustvolskaya is by now well enough known here in the country, but who was Karel Goeyvaerts?

Musical pioneer

Karel Goeyvaerts was born in 1923 in Antwerp, the city where he would also die 70 years later. There he studied composition at the conservatory and music analysis with Olivier Messiaen in Paris. Inspired by his clear analyses, Goeyvaerts decided to take the various musical parameters as a starting point for his compositions. He not only set pitch, but also tone duration, dynamics, timbre and articulation. In this way, he was one of the founders of serialism.

The first result was the Sonata for two pianos, which he performed with Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1951 in Darmstadt, the Mecca of new music. Searching for even more sound possibilities, he discovered electronics. In 1953, he wrote Composition No.5, the first work composed of pure sine tones. But as Stockhausen and his colleagues Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono further developed serial and electronic music, he felt an increasing need for 'the human'.


Goeyvaerts went on to compose religious pieces in which he incorporated stylistic figures from the Baroque, as in The passion for orchestra from 1963. Moreover, he experimented with vocal nonsense sounds in compositions such as Goathemala for mezzo-soprano and flute. In the 1970s, he was inspired by American minimalism. He started composing repetitive pieces, the first highlight being five numbered Litanies for a variety of line-ups.

From 1983 until just before his death, Goeyvaerts worked on Aquarius. In this opera, he expressed his desire for a "better society, in which everyone gets his due". As Stockhausen spent years making just about every new composition part of his opera Light: die Sieben Tage der Woche, Similarly, Goeyvaerts henceforth regarded each new work as a sketch or preliminary study for his own magnum opus. 

The title Aquarius refers to the astrological idea of a new age that would dawn in the late 20th century.Then the world entered the age of the constellation Aquarius. This would produce a utopian society with perfectly equal interpersonal relations.

Zum Wassermann

In 1984, Goeyvaerts wrote Zum Wassermann for string quintet, wood and brass instruments, piano and percussion. Which is now being performed by the Spectra Ensemble. It can be considered a chamber musical blueprint of the first act of Aquarius. The four parts correspond to the four scenes of the first act, in which man seems to make a false start on his way to the future. The ideal is not (yet) achieved.

In 'Vorspiel', man is curtailed in his individual pursuit. Short eruptive motifs that never really get going evoke the struggles of a caged creature. The following 'Erwachen' starts as an exuberant dance but ends in shrill dissonance. Pounding percussion drives the prisoner back into his cell. A nice parallel to the jostling on a wooden box in Ustvolskaya's Composition no. 2, 'Dies Irae'.

In part 3 'Wassermann-Gesang', lyrical lines circle and intertwine in supreme harmony. This depicts the intuitive, 'feminine' vision of the new world. The fourth and final part 'Zum Wassermann' symbolises the rational, 'masculine' approach.

It opens with frisky, hoketus-like motifs that become increasingly asynchronous and cacophonous. The laborious attempts to escape from the straitjacket of rationality get bogged down in meekly descending melody lines and truncated harmonies. With a few firm blows from the percussion, the last remaining hope of utopia is dashed.

Delayed premiere

Only in 2009 did Aquarius its world premiere, in a co-production by Flanders Opera and the Holland Festival*. Also Zum Wassermann is not often performed. A pity, because Goeyvaerts' music is distinctly expressive and has great emotional eloquence. - Just like Ustvolskaya's work. However different in temperament, Goeyvaerts rams his message into our souls at least as compellingly as 'the woman with the hammer'. A concert to look forward to.

Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ, Thursday 26 October 2017, 8.15pm. To 19:15 I speak during the introduction with Filip Rathé, conductor of the Spectra Ensemble. Info and maps 

*In 2009 I made a report of this For Cultura.




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

Private Membership (month)
5€ / Maand
For natural persons and self-employed persons.
No annoying banners
A special newsletter
Own mastodon account
Access to our archives
Small Membership (month)
18€ / Maand
For cultural institutions with a turnover/subsidy of less than €250,000 per year
No annoying banners
A premium newsletter
All our podcasts
Your own Mastodon account
Access to archives
Posting press releases yourself
Extra attention in news coverage
Large Membership (month)
36€ / Maand
For cultural institutions with a turnover/subsidy of more than €250,000 per year.
No annoying banners
A special newsletter
Your own Mastodon account
Access to archives
Share press releases with our audience
Extra attention in news coverage
Premium Newsletter (substack)
5 trial subscriptions
All our podcasts

Payments are made via iDeal, Paypal, Credit Card, Bancontact or Direct Debit. If you prefer to pay manually, based on an invoice in advance, we charge a 10€ administration fee

*Only for annual membership or after 12 monthly payments

en_GBEnglish (UK)