In recent months I have been contemplating on the relationship between the music of Stockhausen and Bach. To my surprise I could find very little information in the literature beyond a few comparative remarks by Stockhausen himself; but importantly it seems that there is no serious study dedicated to this subject. So after discussing this with some friends and colleagues (mostly Ian Parsons but also Suzee Stephens and Leopoldo Siano) I have been entertaining the possibility of turning this into a PhD project. Leopoldo suggested Christoph von Blumröder as a potential supervisor and Ian thought it would be a good idea to write a post in this forum and see what kind of feedback I might get. I have written down my thoughts and copied them at the bottom of this post so you might get a better idea of what I believe the relationship between the two composers to be about. I would very much appreciate any kind of feedback, thoughts, advice and so forth.
Thank you! Omer Eilam
For the past few months I was struck time and again by the notion of a very strong common denominator that lies underneath the music of Stockhausen and Bach but when trying to put my finger on it it appeared to be rather illusive and pointing to several apparently unrelated directions. This document aims to organise my thoughts regarding the potential connection between the two composers.
For starters I will write what this connection is not. Almost 250 years separate the two composers which means they were living in radically different historical times and operating within a very different framework of musical thought. For Bach this framework was the golden age of tonal harmony which to the best of my knowledge neither he nor any other composer of the high baroque strayed very far away from. On the contrary, for the post-WW2 avant-garde tonality was already over and done with, and certainly Stockhausen was no exception to that. For him and his Darmstadt colleagues music was to be liberated of any traditional notion of harmony, melody, rhythm, instrumentation, etc (1). Therefore, it will be irrelevant to look for similar musical building blocks in terms of harmonic progressions, motivic development, cadences, form structure, and so forth. So if all of the previously mentioned textbook examples of “what music is?” are completely different, what is it then that is shared?
The notion of similarity comes first and foremost from the sense of deep religiosity of the two composers – both Bach and Stockhausen essentially composed their music as an act of worship. The validity and importance of this fact cannot be stressed hard enough. Bach wrote the initials "S. D. G." not only at the end of all his church compositions but also applied it to some of his secular works (2). The existence of 200 sacred cantatas, two passions (and another one which was lost), motets, masses and organ works attests to the sacred being by far the most important aspect of his oeuvre. For Stockhausen even this separation into sacred and secular did not really exist. In an Interview about the work INORI conducted in 1998 Stockhausen explains: “The origin of western music is in monasteries and for a long time, several centuries I would say, until the beginning of individualism and the late Renaissance, the music remained sacred music; it was performed mainly in churches and related either to the Catholic Mass or later to the Protestant ceremony of worshipping god. And then one by one the aristocratic society separated all the arts from the adoration of god (INORI means adoration by the way; in earlier times they would have called it oratorio or adoración). The aristocratic society had different ideas about the arts and music became more and more a description of human feelings and human thoughts. In my work since 1950 there is a complete unity of musical development in technology on the one side, the art of writing for all the musical means, and of religious worshipping”.
The last sentence points, in my opinion, to the crux of the matter. Both Stockhausen and Bach were not content to become “specialist composers” who write mostly for a selection of instruments or in a given style. Guided by their faith and a belief in an underlying all-encompassing cosmic order they were striving to express it in their works.
The similarities and differences in the way this so called “cosmic order” was expressed (or translated) by each composer lies at the core of the analysis I suggest. For both composers individual pieces were not meant to simply exist in isolation but as parts of a larger whole, always exhibiting different interconnections and ultimately transcending into a musical Gestalt. For example, Bach’s collection of six violin solos has exactly 2400 bars, in which four of the solos have a total of precisely 1600 bars, and two exactly 800 bars, thereby achieving a pure ratio of 3:2:1 that is only apparent when the collection is taken as a whole (3). Similarly, The Art of Fugue consists of 14 fugues and 4 canons in D minor, each using some variation of a single principal subject, and generally ordered to increase in complexity. This notion was not lost on Stockhausen who made the following comment on the piece in an interview on 8 November 1991 on Danish radio: “Johann Sebastian Bach tried in The Art of Fugue to develop a grand work from one single theme by all possible manipulations and combinations. At the end of the twentieth century this principle is used for many more parameters, in much more differentiated and complicated ways than was thinkable in Bach's time, namely all, when possible. Also for the movements of dancers, for the costumes, the colours, the smells, the spaces - for all. That is an evolutionary thing”.
Zooming out it is clear that many of Bach’s major works share this relationship between the micro and macro in a characteristic way. The Art of Fugue, The Well-Tempered Clavier, The Orgelbüchlein, and most of all the 5 annual cantata cycles, all attest to the importance of the cycle in Bach’s work. As musician and scholar John Butt notes: “cyclic time is essential to a liturgical, ritualistic approach to religion, in which important events and aspects of dogma are celebrated within a yearly cycle”. As for Stockhausen, since the composition of SIRIUS, through LICHT and eventually KLANG, almost all of his compositional output between 1975 and his death in 2007 was part of or related to one of these musical cycles. This similarity was again recognised by Stockhausen in a lecture he gave in Koethen about the music of Bach, musical cycles, and his work MANTRA (unquoted).
As a summary to this short document I would like to propose a thesis by which the similarity between Stockhausen and Bach could be assessed not by the usual notion of “artistic influence” whereby one composer is predetermined to compose in a similar style to another, but by considering both as kindred spirits connecting to something universal that was there before them and is larger than they are. This universal essence is the duality between spirituality and its concrete manifestation in the form of music. In the words of Stockhausen: “Johann Sebastian Bach understood that music is a sonic mirror of what he venerated. I inherited this nature. The art of forming tones into structures which are more than just sums of tones – hence into melodies, phrases, processes – is a timeless art. That is why a composer stands in this tradition of the craftsman. This tradition is stronger than oneself and stronger than the spirit of the times. I consider myself to completely be a child of this tradition” (From: Elektronischer Gottsucher, March 1994).
1) This approach will somewhat changed with the introduction of ‘formula composition’ which has been discussed many times before in the literature. I believe it certainly serves as a bridge between Stockhausen the modernist and Stockhausen the traditionalist but a further elaboration is beyond the scope of this document. 2) ‘Soli Deo Gloria’ is a Latin term for ‘Glory to God alone’. 3) Based on “Bach's Numbers – Compositional Proportion and Significance” by Ruth Tatlow.
Dear Omer, really interesting! But in these days of the Berlin Film Festival there is no time right now in my schedule to think seriously about this theme. But, what spontaneously comes to my mind is a sentence of my wife Helga, she said when we watched Stockhausen at the mixing console during a concert with MANTRA at the Bach-festival in Köthen: Look at Stockhausen, she said to me, and imagine that he wears a baroque wig - then you get Bach!
Personally I think there is much potential in this issue, as Omer and I have already discussed a little. I think the difficulty will not be finding enough to fill a PhD, but deciding what to limit it to: the connections and contrasts seem to me to be strong both musically and spiritually. We know that Stockhausen himself identified deeply with Bach and described himself as being of the Bach tradition. For me, there could be many fascinating and fruitful things to emerge from this sort of study - what new understandings it might teach us of new music, which (as far as I'm aware) has not often been studied in the context of early music, despite the fact that it is not at all uncommon for musicians to specialise in both early music and new music. It could, similarly provide new perspectives on Bach's music and its relevance to new music. We know, as Omer has pointed out, that there are some strong connections in their shared use of numbers, and of proportions, as central to musical form. I, for one, have often been fascinated by the connections between fugal writing and formula writing. I find it not hard at all to imagine how a composer, if he or she could live for centuries, might begin with one and then move onto the other! Or such a study might even give rise to philosophical ideas about music and spirituality hen the two composers are considered side by side (for example, for me - and this is to some extent a subjective thing - I see Bach's conceptualisation of spirituality as a deeply personal one, as if he is trying to depict to us the presence of the divine in the human experience, while I see Stockhausen as presenting a rather more cosmic picture of divinity, where notions of God are seen in the stars and galaxies, and yet together both experiences coalesce, something which we know Stockhausen also believed when, in the same breath as describing the galaxies as God's limbs, he describes humans as God's atoms: the connection between the human and the cosmic is something that could, I imagine, be richly explored in the study of Bach's and Stockhausen's musical connections and contrasts. So, in short, I think there's a lot there!
I feel that it could be useful to have a discussion-forum on the music of Stockhausen. There are so many people from all over the world, young and old, learned and eager to get into contact with this musical world: musicologists, composers, musicians, music lovers; people who plan concerts - who write books or have to give lectures and so on. So there should be much stuff, many ideas that we can share. And when we have open questions, there may be people who studied just that and could give a hint or a stimulus.
A problem might be the English language, but i feel that is the only possibility that many people who are interested can participate. And we can exercise tolerance to mistakes!