The electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen died last week aged 79. Along with Pierre Boulez and Luigi Nono, he was part of a militantly avant garde movement in classical music in the 1950s.
Stockhausen and his colleagues advocated a complete rejection of the classical tradition that had existed up until then.
Part of the reason for this stance was in reaction to the way in which the Nazis had exploited that tradition so effectively.
Stockhausen himself had painful experiences of the Nazi period. His mother was committed to an asylum and subsequently murdered in the Nazi’s “euthanasia” programme. His father, an enthusiastic Nazi, died fighting on the Eastern Front.
The experience of hearing Nazi marching songs on the radio led to a permanent hatred of music with repetitive beats, Stockhausen was later to explain.
After the war, he went to study in Paris with the French composer Olivier Messiaen, who had spent time incarcerated in Nazi prison camps.
Together with his fellow student Boulez he attempted to take Arnold Schoenberg’s “serial” method of composing as far as possible towards “total serialism” that contains little if any beauty in the classical sense.
But it was in the field of electronics that Stockhausen found his unique musical voice.
Instead of using the medium simply to create interesting sound effects, he succeeded in showing how a unique form of music could be achieved through electronic means.
Some of the first pieces he created in this way, such as Song of the Youths and Contact, are now rightly regarded as classics.
It was through electronica that Stockhausen was able to bridge the divide between classical and popular music. Kraftwerk, Can, Bjork and Vangelis were among the bands and artists to openly declare their debt to him.
Sadly from the 1970s on, Stockhausen’s enormous ego and latent mystism got the better of him. He spent the last 30 years of his life working on a grandiose and bizarre seven opera cycle.
But works like Gruppen, Mikrophonie I & II, Momente, Mantra and Stimmung will ensure his place in musical history.