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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 1 Starting from Scratch
Richard Taruskin

It was that faith that total serialism tried—vainly, of course—to revive, by excluding the corporeal (which is to say the perishable, threatened by time and doomed to eradication), and the all-too-human, as far as was humanly possible. In the end, for all its vaunted rationalism, it was at bottom something of a religious revival, and its roots in Messiaen's avowedly pious art no longer seem so anomalous. As religions find expression in ritual, it seems fitting to end our consideration of the Darmstadt “zero hour” with a look at Kreuzspiel (“Cross-play,” or “Crossing game”), Stockhausen's immediate response to his experiences there in the summer of 1951.

Stockhausen had a traditional Catholic upbringing (as did both Krenek and Boulez) and from childhood was unusually devout. For him the Nazi years were above all a time of religious conflict, and his experience of “zero hour,” colored by the loss of his father in the last days of the war, was one of religious rededication. It was now an unconventional religion to which he devoted himself, heavily influenced by a reading of the novel Das Glasperlenspiel (“The glass-bead game,” or “Magister Ludi”) by the pacifist author Hermann Hesse (1877–1962), whose writings were informed by an interest in Asian religions, especially Buddhism. Stockhausen identified strongly with Joseph Knecht, the protagonist of the novel, who like him was an orphan boy with musical gifts studying at the Cologne Musikhochschule (Conservatory), and who dedicates himself to the “glass bead game” of the title, a quasi-monastic exercise that combines the disciplines of “science, reverence for the beautiful and meditation.” Such activity, Stockhausen came to believe, connected the callings of musician with that of “spiritual servant.”54 He had found his own path to a prehumanistic musical ideal, and became a zealous proselytizer for it. (The reference to “a glass-bead-game” in Henze's description of the zero-hour sensibility, quoted earlier, was surely an allusion to Stockhausen's exhortations.) Stockhausen's initial exposure to twelve-tone music came by way of Herbert Eimert, who lived in Cologne and gave him a copy of his 25-year-old textbook, banned by the Nazis. It was Eimert, too, who advised him to attend the 1951 Summer Courses at Darmstadt, where he heard the recording of Messiaen's Mode de valeurs and immediately sensed its kinship to Hesse's imaginary bead game. In his excitement over that discovery he found that the orgiastic “Dance of the Golden Calf” from Schoenberg's unfinished opera Moses und Aron, the sensation of the Darmstadt season, seemed altogether passé. For Stockhausen too, Schoenberg was dead.

He explained that impression to Adorno, who had taken over the composition class that Schoenberg was supposed to have taught himself but for his final illness, and who inquired about the development of motives in an embryonic total-serial piece that another student had submitted, by replying, “Professor, you are looking for a chicken in an abstract painting.”55 The remark became a Darmstadt legend, not merely for its sassiness but for its charisma. Attesting so impressively to the unknown young composer's self-assurance, it immediately attracted disciples to his side.

Like Mode de valeurs or Structures, Stockhausen's Kreuzspiel replaces “chickens” (conventional motives for development) with “sound atoms,” to use Stockhausen's term. But whereas Messiaen's and Boulez's compositions displayed their component particles in static arrangements, Stockhausen's embodies a dynamic process of unfolding, in which the tones can be likened to actors, or participants in a ritualized action that has no other goal than its own completion—hence spiel (“game”). What is predetermined is not just how things are, but what they seem to do, and what they will become.

Solace in RitualSolace in Ritual

ex. 1-12 Karlheinz Stockhausen, Kreuzspiel, mm. 1–13

The work is scored for two woodwind players (on oboe and bass clarinet), a pianist (who also plays woodblock), and three percussionists who together play on eight tuned drums (pitched, like so much early modernist harmony, at intervals of alternating perfect fourths and tritones) and four suspended cymbals of varying size, for an obviously significant total of twelve instruments. Its temporal unfolding consists of three main parts, distinguished from one another by tempo changes and connected with transitional passages. During the first thirteen bars (the “slow introduction,” Ex. 1-12), the piano and the percussion introduce their respective “chromatic” domains. The piano, concerned with pitches, gives out a series of twelve-tone aggregates arranged into three-note chords, of which the first, at the registral extremes, remains constant. The drums give out a pair of rhythmic series, expressed by alternations between the high and low tumbas (or conga drums): each time the higher drum is struck, a different number of pulses on the lower drum must intervene before the next time until all twelve “chromatic” degrees have been sounded. The second of these series (beginning in the middle of m. 7) is just a “chromatic scale” à la Messiaen: 1 pulse, then 2, then 3, and so on to 12. In the one given at the outset, the order has been scrambled: 2 8 7 4 11 1 12 3 9 6 5 10. Counting pulse-groups throughout the first section would reveal that no two orderings are alike, but all are permutations of the full “chromatic” spectrum of durations. The same principle of constant permutation goes for the pitch series in the piano and, eventually, the winds. The “cross-play” of the title follows a complicated set of algorithms or precompositional rules, but its result is easily observed. In the piano's first “linear” statement of the pitch series, at m. 14 (Ex. 1-13a), the twelve pitches are associated by extreme registers into two hexachords: E♭, D, E, G, A, and A♭ in the high treble and D♭, C, B♭, F, B, and G♭ in the low bass. In the last statement of Part I, which begins precisely in the middle of m. 85 (Ex. 1-13b), the registral positions are reversed, the first hexachord now sounding in the bass and the second in the treble.

Solace in Ritual

ex. 1-13a Karlheinz Stockhausen, Kreuzspiel, mm. 14–20

Solace in Ritual

ex. 1-13b Karlheinz Stockhausen, Kreuzspiel, mm. 85–91

That is the most obvious of the “crossings”; there are many others, involving timbre, dynamics, and rhythm, to which only arduous analysis rather than sensory perception can give access. In this sense the workings of Kreuzspiel are just as arcane, just as mysterious and obscure, as those of Structures. But the constant pulse and the contrasting, obviously interacting timbres give the piece a sense of “narration” or progression through time that turns the algorithms into enactments. That, plus its exotic scoring and its “hockety” texture (reminiscent at times of jazz percussion), give the piece a somewhat less ascetic or forbidding aspect, even a “stain of the corporeal.” Within the ascetic world of “total serialism,” at any rate, Kreuzspiel counts as easy listening. That may be one reason why Stockhausen suppressed constant pulsation in the works that followed, and also withheld Kreuzspiel from publication for nearly a decade, despite positive audience reactions. We have seen that audience appeal could be stigmatized, in the tense political atmosphere of the early cold war, as “compromise.” At the very least, a lapse of moral purity could cost an avant-garde composer his intellectual prestige, which is to say his political capital, and ultimately (paradoxically enough), his access to patronage and promotion.


(54) Michael Kurtz, Stockhausen: A Biography, trans. Richard Toop (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), p. 24.

(55) Ibid. p. 36.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 May. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001013.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 May. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001013.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Starting from Scratch." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 May. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-001013.xml