Karlheinz Stockhausen

Nr. 8 Gesang der Jünglinge (1955-56)

Stockhausen's electroacoustic work Gesang der Jünglinge was composed after an initial period of experimentation by composers in the new medium, which was immediately followed by a longer period of critical evaluation. Composers felt that the arduous techniques involved in producing these works involved too great a time. Irregardless of technical matters which have no relevance upon listeners, Stockhausen's inclusion of voice in Gesang der Jünglinge can be interpreted as reflective of the inadequacy of the electroacoustic medium at that time, particularly when regarding his later compositions that always combined electronic and live materials. The work is considered to be Stockhausen's best electroacoustic work; in this sense it can be considered to be an "end" of a phase. On the other hand, the work also marks the "abdication" of pure electronic expression, or a beginning of a compositional phase in which electronics and instruments are combined. Significant is the breakdown of the distinctions between the so-called German and French schools of electroacoustic music. The piece is widely acclaimed as one of the leading works in the electroacoustic music repertoire, first performed 30 May 1956 on WDR Cologne. Various versions of the work exist, with the most accessible being the1968 DGG 138811 stereophonic recording. Gesang der Jünglinge was realized in the electronic music studio of North West German Radio, Cologne.

Stockhausen's original concept was that of bringing together in a single texture electronic and sung materials, considering speed, length, dynamics, density, width of intervals and timbre as parameters that could then be manipulated according to serial principles. These parameters "could all be made audible exactly as I imagined them". (Stockhausen, in Heikinheimo) In other words, sung text is combined with electronic sound, with the isolation of individual phonemes acting as a point of departure. The chief aim of the work, according to Stockhausen, is to form a unified continuum of electronic and sung sounds.

According to Harvey, the sub-material of the composition consists of "unstructured" electronic materials as well as the sounds of a boy's voice, which is the Benedicite from the third chapter of the Book of Daniel. This sub-material is subsequently organized into three serialized scales:

1) Timbre- light to dark;

2) Frequency-pitched to non-periodic;

3) Noise-bright to dark.

It should be noted the inconsistencies in categories 2 and 3, since non-periodic frequencies are classified as noise. Furthermore, the singing sounds themselves are organized into three scales:

1) Vowel sounds-light to dark;

2) Vowels and consonants;

3) Consonants-dark to light.

Stockhausen then constructed six scales for pitch levels which "represent 'interval' relationships between elements, whether harmonic or melodic ratios or those between sound and phones (single speech sounds) [phonemes], sound groups or pitch 'regions'." (Stockhausen, in Harvey) There is also a scale that consists of the relationship between voice and electronic sound, which contrasts word phonemes treated as tone colors.

When this piece is discussed in textbooks, it is credited with being the first piece of electroacoustic music to consider spatial relationships. Consider therefore, Stockhausen's following statement: "The work was composed for five groups of loudspeakers, which should be placed around the listeners in the hall. From which side, by how many loudspeakers at a time, whether with rotation to left or right, whether motionless or moving- how the sounds and sound groups are projected into space: all this is decisive for a comprehension of the work." Since the most accessible way to hear the piece has been from a stereophonic recording, how can one "comprehend" the piece if it isn't reproduced the way it was intended? Why did Stockhausen choose a non-conventional 5-track format in the first place? The only way in which one may hear this piece as it has been intended is at a rare concert in which special equipment makes clear these relationships.

It is significant that the materials are not related to a common serial base; rather, they are classified according to scales of comprehensibility, which is a departure from Stockhausen's normative practice. Stockhausen identifies eleven categories of material which relate to this scale: 1) sine tones; 2) sine tones fluctuating periodically in pitch; 3) sine tones fluctuating randomly ('statistically') in pitch; 4) sine tones fluctuating in amplitude, periodically; or 5) statistically; 6) sine tones fluctuating periodically or 7) statistically in both pitch and amplitude; 8) filtered white noise of constant density or 9) statistically varying density; and 10) streams of impulses of constant or 11) statistically varying periodicity. (Maconie) These materials are controlled parametrically, "... and may be freely adapted to exigencies of manual production." (Stockhausen in Maconie) Consideration of this last statement creates problems for the analyst, especially when taking into account Stockhausen's own description of techniques used in the studio in handling these materials. Stockhausen apparently predetermined how this material was to be controlled with a series of charts "... and this resulted in an aleatoric layer of individual pulses which, in general, speeded up statistically." (Stockhausen in Cott) Stockhausen thinks of the results as evolving in time, as opposed to the concept of pointillistic static events.

Stockhausen's extremely detailed serial organization results in a piece of music that the composer describes as being of a ‘statistical form’ type. Stockhausen, defining statistical form: "In the genesis of the statistical forms, I tried to mediate between groups and points on one hand, and between collectives organized according to the laws of large numbers, on the other. The problem is to perceive the same elements which appear as collectives (statistically determined-crowds-complex) under certain circumstances as groups and points in other circumstances." (Heikinheimo) Where do the boundaries of these three types lie, and in what way do these concern the listener? This either creates a problem, or creates a pretense of a problem, since it is not known how much this corresponds with the reality of the informed listener’s perception. At best, Stockhausen's morphology is at least clouded with a shadow of doubt. What exactly is ‘statistical form’? Is it related to non-periodicity or randomness, as he uses the term above? How does the notion of ‘statistical form’ and randomness work within the constraints of serial technique, which is NOT random?

It would seem as though the term at least relates to a level of a multi-formation of density, of which there are six ‘textures’, which relate to comprehension of voice sounds in connection with ‘den Herrn’. While Stockhausen uses the word ‘texture’, he also discusses ‘structure’ as being more or less the same thing; however, neither terms are explained. Ligetti, another composer associated with Darmstadt explains: "A structure can be analyzed in terms of its components; a texture is better described in terms of its global, statistical features." (Die Rhie VII) A better way to think about a ‘texture’ would be to call it a section, or a time-field. In each time-field of Gesang der Jünglinge there is a great number of possible variations, with the time fields corresponding to the comprehensibility of the voice. Stockhausen identifies these six ‘textures’ as follows:

1. 0'00" - 1'02"

2. 1'02" - 2'52"

3. 2'52" - 5'15.5"

4. 5'15.5" - 6'22"

5. 6'22" - 8'40"

6. 8'40" - 13'00"

Stockhausen's classification of the structure is conveniently out of the range of criticism.

The sung text in Gesang der Jünglinge is processed: tape splicing isolates phonemes, bringing them closer to the realm of electroacoustic music. In considering the text, there is a clear historical precedent for making familiar religious texts somewhat incomprehensible. Studio techniques allow Stockhausen to vary the degree of comprehensibility: tape echo, splicing/envelope manipulation and amplitude control allow for individual phonemes to be isolated, lengthened in time and be restructured into nonsense words and syllables. Whenever the music's audible signals are momentarily recognizable in the form of speech, it is always in the praise of God. For Stockhausen, his religious proclamations are in themselves significant, especially considering later works, but this seems to be the first time in his career in which he is making an extra-musical statement. It has been suggested by Maconie that the story in Daniel of three young men in the furnace represent Boulez, Nono, and Stockhausen in the fires of critical incomprehension, especially when considering Stockhausen's article "Music and Speech."

One wonders why Stockhausen bothered to go through the trouble of creating such an elaborate system when from his own account the result seems to be random. What are the advantages of these manipulations? Individual moments are controlled in only a vague manner, and why bother to control them serially, unless it is to provide a predetermined plan of choices and limitations. One is reminded of John Cage's influence upon Stockhausen during this period.

Gesang der Jünglinge presents certain challenges to be considered by the listener, as well as the analyst. Although the sense of hearing large sections is somewhat aurally perceptible, the highly complicated organizational procedures articulating the structure are not. For all Stockhausen's procedures, the result is an additive form of which the polyphonic texture is characterized by Klangfarbenmelodie. From the analytic point of view, the primary sources by Stockhausen have been too vague to draw any kind of decisive conclusions. Is Stockhausen, as he claims, really from Sirius, or is he merely serious?


Cott, Jonathan. Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.

Harvey, Jonathan. The Music of Stockhausen. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

Heikinheimo, Seppo. "The Electronic Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen: Studies on the Esthetical and Formal Problems of its First Phase,"

Acta Musicologica Fennica, vol. 6. Helsinki: Suomen Musiikkitieteellinen Seura Musikvetenskapliga Sallskapet I Finland, 1972.

Maconie, Robin. The Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. London: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Stockhausen, Karlheinz. "Actualia," Die Reihe vol. I.

__________________. "Music and Speech," Die Reihe vol. VI.

__________________. "Music in Space," Die Reihe vol. V.

Worner, Karl H. Stockhausen: Life and Work. Trans. by Bill Hopkins. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.