Karlheinz Stockhausen is being awarded the Polar Music Prize for 2001 for a career as a composer that has been characterized by impeccable integrity and never-ceasing creativity, and for having stood at the forefront of musical development for fifty years.

Give up on Beethoven...You've got Stockhausen now.

Miles Davis
Chapter: Childhood and education

Childhood and education

Karlheinz Stockhausen was born outside Cologne in Germany in 1928, he grew up in Altenberg with his father and stepmother and studied music at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne. Before embarking upon his public career, Karlheinz Stockhausen had completed not only thorough studies in piano and composition in Paris with Martin and Messiaen, but also in languages and philosophy.

Olivier Messiaen, one of the pioneers in serial composing, here in 1930. By Studio Harcourt (Bibliothèque nationale de France) Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In Paris he met Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Boulez and spent some time in the studios at Radio France, a significant environment for the development of his interest in serialism, twelve-tone technique and the new wave of contemporary composing techniques that would lead him to be part of the Darmstadt group.

Altenberger Dom, 1925 (Photo: From "1000 Years of Rhenish Art" from 1925)
Chapter: Birth of electronic music

Birth of electronic music

Hochschule für Musik, Cologne, by Frank Vincentz via Wikimedia Commons.

He enthusiastically joined the group of young composers who felt that it was time to break with the Goebbels era and rediscover pre-1930 avantgardism and primarily the work of Webern. The result was serialism, which was introduced at the famous Darmstadt summer courses and the Donaueschingen festivals.

Darmstadt, Internationaler Kurs für neue Musik
Lecturing in Darmstadt, Bundesarchiv, via Wikimedia Commons

From their inception Stockhausen was one of the leading personalities associated with these activities. At that time, Stockhausen became acquainted with Professor Werner Meyer-Eppler of the University of Bonn, one of the “leaders” of the Darmstadt group and a physicist who advocated using electronic equipment for generating music, in order to gain complete control of musical and acoustic parameters. These ideas led to the design of the first electronic musical studio at public broadcaster WDR in Cologne.

Anton Webern, 1912, a follower of Schoenberg, he became one of the best-known exponents of the twelve-tone technique. (Photo: Unknown author, via Wikimedia Commons)
The Cologne Rundfunkstudio Orchestra, well known for early performances of the mid-20th century's avant-garde composers (Photo: Deutsches Bundesarchiv)
Chapter: Musique concrete

Musique concrete

A new way of composing and a new attitude towards sound not only as a suite of notes but also as a composite in space was developed in the late ’40s. Therefore, machines that produced and transformed sounds became as important as instruments for the serialist composition. In 1948, the different machines in a typical radio studio such as record players, disc recorders, a mixing desk with rotating potentiometers, a mechanical reverberation, filters, and microphones could pass sounds back and forth through loud speakers, eliminating or enhancing selected frequencies, creating new filters and so on.

Symphonie pour un homme seul by Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer. Source: Pubblico Dominio

These electronic instrument could then create new original sounds out of the ones already existing. The application of the above technologies in the creation of musique concrète led to the development of a number of sound manipulation techniques including transposition, sampling, looping and more. Stockhausen’s early development, with the advent of and even after serialism, can be assessed from his series Klavierstücke I – XI, composed between 1951 and 1957, and Gesang der Jünglinge, from 1957. The latter work first brought electronic music to the public eye and is still considered to be one of the masterpieces of its kind.

Phonogene invented by Pierre Schaeffer (Photo: Semitransgenic at en.wikipedia, from Wikimedia Commons)
Pierre Schaeffer presenting the Acousmonium. (Photo: Semitransgenic at en.wikipedia, from Wikimedia Commons)
Serialism and musique concrete composers

I discovered the nature of sounds. The idea to analyse sounds gave me the idea to synthesize sounds. So then I was looking for synthesizers or the first electronic generators, and I superimposed vibrations in order to compose spectra. I do this now, still, after 43 years.

Karlheinz Stockhausen in magazine The Wire on how he started his research at Radio France. , 1995
Karlheinz Stockhausen October 1994 in the Studio for Electronic Music of WDR Cologne, during the production of Freitag aus Licht. (Photo: Kathinka Pasveer)
Stockhausen lecturing about the nature of sounds.
Chapter: Live electronics

Live electronics

At the start of the 1960s, Stockhausen turned his interest toward live electronics, with works ranging from Mikrophonie I, where a solitary tomtom provides the basic sound, to the magnificent Mixture, in which an entire symphony orchestra is connected to the electronic modification instruments. At the same time, he began exhibiting an interest in oriental philosophy and religion and became a pioneer of world music and the meditative form. This is best illustrated in Hymnen, a work of electronic music, based on songs and national anthems from around the globe.

Karlheinz Stockhausen during a live performance at the Shiraz Arts Festival, 1972 (Photo: Stockhausen Stiftung für Musik)
Shiraz Arts Festival, performance of Hymnen, Iran, 1972 (Photo: Stockhausen-Verlag, Stockhausen Foundation for Music)
Live performance at the Polar Music Prize ceremony, 2001
Chapter: Masterpiece: Licht-Oper


In 1977 Stockhausen started working on the opera cycle Licht-Oper, the greatest musical endeavour since Wagner’s Ring. The piece is all in all seven-part, sci-fi operatic cycle called Licht, or Each sound and musical installment is named for a day of the week. At the time of Stockhausen’s death, in 2007, two of the operas had not yet been staged: Sonntag (Sunday), the last to be completed, and Mittwoch (Wednesday), written in the mid-nineties.

Two bactrian camels in the foyer during intermission in the dress rehearsal for Stockhausen's opera Mittwoch aus Licht, Birmingham Opera, 2012 (Photo: By Jerome Kohl)
Sonntag aus Licht

Sonntag finally had its premiere in 2011 in Cologne and the Birmingham Opera premiered Mittwoch (Wednesday) in August 2012. In this venture, the days of the week are portrayed individually in varying lengths and with their own special combination of instruments. The pieces were written and revised separately and all together the whole piece is 29 hours long.

Chapter: Helikopter Streichquartett

Helikopter Streichquartett

Helikopter Streichquartett is one of Stockhausen’s most famous works and one of the most complex to perform. It involves a string quartet, four helicopters with pilots, as well as audio and video equipment and technicians.

Choreographer Angelin Prejlocaj, creator of the choreography Helikopter inspired by the Helikopter Streich Quartet. Photo by Raphaël Labbé

The quartet members are connected via audio technique while playing live in the helicopters during the flight. It was first performed and recorded in 1995, as the third scene of the opera Mittwoch aus Licht (Wednesday from Light). It can also be performed as a self-sufficient piece.

Helikopter Streichquartett, Auditorium Parco della Musica Roma - 19 gennaio 2009
The Dutch Grasshoppers aerobatics team, flying the Alouette helicopters they used in the world premiere of the Helicopter String Quartet (Photo: Cobatfor/Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Chapter: Polar Music Prize Ceremony

Stockholm May 2001

The Polar Music Prize had three Laureates this year: Burt Bacharach, Robert Moog and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Stockhausen also performed during the ceremony, which is quite unusual for the Laureates in the prize’s history. Karl Bartos from Kraftewerk read the citation for Stockhausen: “Dear Mr Stockhausen, I would first of all with all my heart congratulate you to this award. I hope that in the future all your plans for music will become true: music as a carrier of ideas.”

The three Laureates of 2001 (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
Citation read by Karl Bartos from Kraftwerk
Receiving the prize from the hands of HM the King of Sweden (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)
Karlheinz Stockhausen and HM the Queen of Sweden (Photo: © Polar Music Prize)