Stockhausen

DONNERSTAG aus LICHT (THURSDAY from LIGHT), opera in three acts (197881)

DONNERSTAG is the first opera of the LICHT cycle, and it is the day of Michael, with the other two main characters of LICHT being Eve and Lucifer. Michael's instrument is the trumpet and his voice register is tenor.

In the opera, inspired by the Urantia book, the belief is expressed that the archangel Michael became man, and in this quality he is the main protagonist of the opera. This belief of Incarnation is different from the belief of most Christian churches that the second person of the Holy Trinity one God in three persons became man. But, for any belief in the Incarnation, the following ideas expressed by Michael in VISION, the last scene of DONNERSTAG, are very appropriate and touching:

"I wanted to know the meaning of being a human. / I wanted to feel everything that only a human feels. / I have known human suffering, pettiness, foolishness. / I have felt human innocence and joy, happiness." [...]

"And I know that many will ridicule me when I sing to you: / I am immortally enamoured of the humans, / of this earth and her children / in spite of LUCIFER / in spite of Satan / in spite of all..."

The connection between religion and music, so central to LICHT, becomes evident in the following verses of the libretto of VISION:

"And yet I became a human, / for one world day, / to live in ignorance [...] / as child born from a human mother's womb / to grow, learn, aspire / childlike to invent games with sounds / which, even in human form, can still move the souls of angels: / that is the meaning of THURSDAY from LIGHT.

"I became a HUMAN / to see myself and GOD the father / as a human VISION, / to bring celestial music to humans / and human music to the celestial beings, / so that Man may listen to GOD / and GOD may hear his children."

Each act and the two scenes of the third act sound completely different from each other. Stockhausen not only wants to create a new soundworld with each new work; in DONNERSTAG, as in each other opera of the LICHT cycle to follow, he apparently wanted to create completely different soundworlds within the work, given its length. This makes for very diverse, colorful and adventurous listening, and the listening experience in the LICHT operas is considerably more-dimensional than in most other operas.

 

Michaels-Gruss (Michael's Greeting)

It is scored for 3 trumpets, 2 horns, 2 trombones, tuba, piano, 3 percussionists and is played as an introduction to the opera in the foyer (about 11 min.).

Michael's Greeting I

Here, at the beginning of the music of the opera, the melody of the Michael-formula is introduced. The formula has very songful melodic phrases, yet it has non-tonal intervallic relationships which give the melodic flow an added incisiveness.

The sound of Michael's Greeting I is remarkable: The saturated harmonies of the brass (playing alone here) are reminiscent of jazz big-bands, but the harmonic tension is greater than usual in such music; paradoxically, the noble elegance actually appears to be enhanced by this. Also, the melodic texture of the Michael-formula with all its pauses and non-tonal intervallic relationships lends a distinctive magic to this sound and in return derives magic from it. Especially the general pauses that separate melodic phrases are used to highly dramatic effect here; they form a rich musical contrast to the saturated harmonies and on their part saturate the music with tension.

Michael's Greeting II

Here a variant of the Michael formula is presented. The sound draws heavily on muted instruments, expanding the atmosphere of elegance set by the first Michael Greeting into a captivating coolness. The pauses between the melodic phrases played by brass now mostly are filled with circling patterns in light percussion and piano, supporting the circling melodic character of this formula variant. Such patterns in percussion and piano are also heard while the brass plays.

Michael's Greeting III

A return to mostly playing without mutes now brings the elegance and melodic fluidity of the music to a climax, as a mixture of phrases from the Michael- and Eve-formulas is cast by the brass into gripping new melodic lines. Brass pauses are filled by piano, light percussion and a magical, prominent presence of the gong.

The melodic material of Michael's Greeting II and III corresponds to the material in the 4th station (Bali) and the 7th station (Jerusalem), respectively, in the second act of the opera, Michael's Journey around the Earth.

 

First Act:

Michael's Youth (about 63 min.)

First scene: Childhood

Stockhausen conceived details of Michael's childhood autobiographically, showing many paralleles to his own childhood. The reason for this lies in his belief that an artist needs to have experienced intensely what he/she wants to portray, and needs to have smelled reality. The libretto is partially humorous, partially dramatic.

The vocal soloists mostly are only accompanied by a soft chord played by trumpets, basset-horns and trombones (played from tape) and/or by a soft background of Invisible Choirs which most of the time acts in a more atmospheric way than it is exerting a principal musical role (only at some key points the choirs come to the forefront). At times, live trumpet, basset-horn or trombone also play a prominent role.

The soft chord from tape shows microoscillations in tone color, apparently produced by changes in distance from mutes to instruments, which create a sort of subtle wah-wah effect. At the beginning it plays alone for some time in order to gently introduce this first act of the opera.

Mostly either all three or two of the vocal soloists sing simultaneously; more rarely one of them sings alone. The artistry and density of interaction of solo voices in this scene "Michael's childhood" is stunning. At first, the bass (Lucifer as father) sings with a vocal expression leaning towards speechsong, and soprano (Eve as mother) and tenor (Michael) sing in intertwining threads against the bass voice. The rhythm of phrasing of voices against each other is quite incredible, and the effortless development of the dense fabric of voices leaves you wondering how the composer could have achieved this. The vocal texture is nothing short of breathtaking. And it still remains that way to me every time, after so many times of listening.

Later, other combinations of voices are heard, but there is always an extraordinarily organic breath and ease to this clashing counterpoint (also listen to that fabulous, dramatic exchange between soprano and bass which at first is accompanied by the tenor in the last part of the scene). This naturalness of contrapuntal expression irresistibly brings Bach to my mind every time I hear this music. Certainly, the contrapuntal writing of both composers shows very different character, with Stockhausen's counterpoint adding at times also here extreme clashing of voices to the music. Yet the appearance of almost parallel vocal musics next to each other, but running alongside in perfect musical harmony, strongly reminds me of Bach's counterpoint of singing voice(s) against instrumental accompaniment, where sometimes he also leads practically parallel musics alongside each other, but with stunning naturalness.

Stockhausen's counterpoint throughout his entire output shows this clarity and effortless, organic ease of development, but to me this particular music highlights these general features of his counterpoint in an especially obvious and spectacular way.

Second Scene: Mondeva

Michael performs a duet with Mondeva (Moon-Eve) and falls in love with her. Michael sings as tenor, while Mondeva exclusively plays her basset-horn; thus we have a duet between voice and instrument, and an interesting one at that. Lucifer (bass, trombone) comments on other things happening, in a musical thread completely parallel to, and disconnected from, the duet by Michael and Eve a fascinating music is the result. Invisible Choirs continue to be heard in the background, and their presence at a louder level than in most of "Michael's childhood" now provides a stronger atmospheric underpinning.

The duet between the singing Michael and the instrument-playing Mondeva is humorous and sometimes outright funny. Often Michael talk-sings with a teasing voice, and at times he just talks. The tenor in this particular performance chose to do so in a tone which is hilariously reminiscent of the comedian Otto (those who know contemporary German TV culture know what I mean).

Third Scene: Examination

Michael must take a triple examination in order to be admitted into the High School of Music.

During the entire exam, Michael is accompanied by the piano. The jury of the exam consists of Eve and Lucifer. They appear in voice (as soprano and bass) and body (as dancer and dancer-mime) as a 4-person jury; Michael does not recognize them. The Invisible Choirs recede more into the background again.

In the first examination Michael performs as a singer. Mostly circling around a narrow pitch range, primarily residing in his upper register and sounding very precipitated, Michael's singing makes the impression of being desperate, probably desperate of passing the exam. This expression in singing is unforgettable once it is experienced. The contrast with the often more relaxed sound of the piano adds to the tension.

In the second examination Michael shows, in a very zealous way, his instrumental prowess on the trumpet, his signature instrument. Moon-Eve hovers in the air as Michael's guardian angel, playing the basset-horn.

In the third examination, Michael shows his abilities simultaneously as tenor, trumpetist and dancer. His singing sometimes retains a similar character as in the first part, but it relaxes more toward the middle of the voice's register, as if now he is more certain of his abilities and success in the examination. More relaxed is also the tone of his trumpet.

At times a very dense fabric is generated from almost parallel musics of voices and instruments in this third examination, and sometimes the music, especially towards the end of the scene, acquires a nearly disorderly, seemingly highly improvisational character in its overall texture. But it all fits musically in an arresting manner, and the climaxing of the scene towards the final "Admitted! Of course admitted!" is breathtaking in its intensity.

 

Second Act:

Michael's Journey around the Earth

This second act of the opera (about 50 min.) is purely instrumental; no voices are used which could function as verbal carriers of an operatic plot (only symbolic counting is heard in a few places). In fact, "Michael's Journey" is a kind of trumpet concerto, but then a scenic one with a real plot, fitting into a function within an opera. This is a novel approach to operatic writing, one among the many innovations Stockhausen is known for. Stockhausen would further pursue this concept of purely or mostly instrumental operatic act or scene in other operas following DONNERSTAG. The trumpet is Michael's instrument, the orchestra is "the Earth".

The musical material mainly evolves around the Michael formula, in keeping with Michael (here represented solely by the trumpet) being the principal protagonist of DONNERSTAG. However, the Eve formula (in basset-horn) also plays an important part, as Eve too has a leading role in the plot. At certain stages the trumpet is contrasted with trombone sound and tuba (both representing the Lucifer formula); this is another fundamental feature of "Michael's Journey". The trumpet sound is unusually varied Stockhausen has composed an extraordinarily rich sound palette involving not only different playing techniques, but also the extensive use of various mutes for the trumpet played by Michael. He carries those mutes in a belt around his waist.

The music develops in one single flow, without pauses between different sections. It is highly melodic practically throughout, and is one of Stockhausen's most melodic scores. Also, building on the history of trumpet playing in the 20th century, the music has an enticing jazzy coolness. The combination of the apparently loose, vivid phrasing with the strictly through-composed form of the work creates a permanently fascinating musical mixture with a special, explosive bloom from within. This goes far deeper than just a "jazzy touch" to the music.

After a tumultuous entrance of the music, the Michael formula is presented in a gentle and touchingly pure sounding form, with an elegant application of timbre changes made possible by the different mutes for the trumpet (comparing this presentation with Michael's Greeting I is very interesting). In the ensuing "Journey around the Earth", involving 7 stations Germany, New York, Japan, Bali, India, Central Africa and Jerusalem the Michael formula is developed and varied by the trumpet in the most stunning and interesting ways (again exploring different timbres). Those variations also involve strongly altered timings within the presentation of the formula, which are due to changes in tempo relations between formula segments and in pauses between them. The music eloquently alters its character according to the city or region on earth which the journey leads to. The musical material in the 4th station (Bali) corresponds to Michael's Greeting II, the material in the 7th station (Jerusalem) to Michael's Greeting III. The transitions between stations perfectly blend into the single, seamless and dramatic flow of music.

After coming back home, Michael plays a long and immensely beautiful trumpet solo (in interaction with double bass), in longing for Eve whose basset-horn he has heard before in the distance. Finally he communicates with the appearing Eve, resulting in songful, melodic duets of a strange beauty between trumpet and basset-horn. Michael and Eve kind of learn each other's formulas, and after derision by clowns who play clarinet and basset-horn and who later are attacked by trombones, Michael and Eve are able to play each other's melodies alone, accompanied by droplets of sound in the orchestra. Finally, they unite in a very artfully spun trill which extends over quite a long time, and which accelerates and then gradually again slows down. The trill features captivating rhythmic shifting between the lines played by trumpet and basset-horn.

The first part of "Michael's Journey" containing the actual journey around the earth, and the second part developing after Michael's homecoming, both last about equally long. The first part is dense in interactions between soloist(s) and orchestra and mostly develops in a musically quite extrovert way, the second part more emphasizes the playing of solo instruments and develops over long passages in a rather introvert manner.

The playing of the soloists Markus Stockhausen (trumpet) and Suzanne Stephens (basset-horn) is of sublime quality. The highly differentiated trumpet timbres are most vividly paired with great technique and musicality of phrasing by Markus Stockhausen who also has an international career as jazz trumpetist.

 

Third Act:

Michael's Return Home

First scene: Festival

The composer:

"MICHAEL in threefold appearance returns home to his heavenly residence. EVE also in threefold appearance greets him, together with choruses and orchestra, with a hymn.

"MICHAEL returns thanks:

" 'Thursday, celebration of the incarnation of Michael: / let us unite our lights / to renew the days of the earth.'

"EVE presents him with gifts: / three plants / three compositions of light... / ...and a terrestial globe / as a souvenir of his journey around the earth."

This scene from the third act returns to vocal music as it is more common in an opera, but once again the music is highly unusual and innovative. The entire first half of this scene, which lasts in total 50 min., is shaped by the following texture:

The Invisible Choirs from tape, which were already heard mostly as faint background in the first act, "Michael's Youth", now fulfill a prominent role in shaping the music (the choir groups move, section by section, in 8 loudspeakers in a circle around the audience, clockwise in the first act their movement was counter-clockwise). Yet still they do not sound as loud as you would expect from a live choir. Instead, their complex polyphony forms a backdrop for the vocal textures of the live singers.

Predominantly soprano (Eve) and tenor (Michael) sing short phrases practically always in the upper regions of the dynamic range. They do so either on their own or homophonically supported by a live choir. This choir sometimes sings such phrases alone as well; also in instances where it sings them at lower volume, it matches the effect of the vocal soloists, due to the mass of voices. The short phrases are often relatively static in pitch movement the stasis is enhanced by the general lack of change in dynamic expression and they mostly consist only of a few, frequently somewhat drawn-out notes which then are followed by silence on the part of the singers. After the silence, which may last longer or just a very short time, the next phrase is intonated. This singing has an attack-like effect and is mesmerizing in character.

But when the singing of soloists and live choir falls into silence between the phrases, the vocal texture often is continued nonetheless, at lower dynamic level. This happens in the voices of the Invisible Choirs from tape.

The homophonic singing of the soloists and live choir in its static rigidness is towering above the much more fluid and polyphonic singing of the Invisible Choirs. These, however, exert a commanding presence on their own due to their, although reproduced at a lower volume, nonetheless audibly loud singing. The cutting of the vocal textures of soloists and live choir through the polyphonic web of the Invisible Choirs acquires an organic ease because the statically rigid, dominant, homophonic nature of these textures makes them sharp as a knife.

These musical structures are enhanced by the playing of orchestra and instrumental soloists. The orchestra emphasizes the character of the singing of vocal soloists and live choir by mostly playing rather static, austere sounding lines. And the singing of Michael as tenor is fortified in its cutting presence by the constant accompaniment of the trumpet, which is Michael's instrument throughout the opera (and the entire LICHT cycle). Also the singing of Eve as soprano is sometimes accompanied by her instrument, the basset-horn.

The overall texture is spectacular in concept and in effect. The scene has a festive, solemn character, yet it also conveys a dark ritualistic quality, both because of the kind of textures presented by the Invisible Choirs (see my essay) and because of the rigid, cutting character of the singing of soloists and live choir.

After about halfway through "Festival", a change in texture occurs. Michael and Eve sing a duet, switching to more fluid phrases, and the volume of their voices tones down for the first time in this scene, although it gradually will increase in dynamics again. The Invisible Choirs now do not provide a continuous background anymore; only their group of basses counts in very drawn-out speechsong from one to thirteen (counting has an important symbolic function in the opera as it has in the whole LICHT cycle), with pauses in between the numbers. Those pauses are filled with singing of the two soloists.

After "a very old woman interrupts the celebration in a magical way" (the composer), the live choir returns to homophonic singing, presenting bit by bit, separated by dramatic pauses, one word after the other in an attack-like manner. After some time, the Invisible Choirs once more emerge to form a lively contrast, and again later, the live choir turns to more drawn-out, mellow phrases and the entire music gains more calmness.

"Yet the devil is part of the game, who, as a gremlin and tromboning tap dancer, involves MICHAEL in a bitter fight." (The composer.) This fight is audible on CD as a battle between the trumpet of Michael and the trombone of Lucifer, and sounds dazzling and ferocious. The wild musical exchange between the instruments is dense and intense, and is accompanied by comments from the live choir as well as Eve.

"The appearance of two youths with soprano saxophones causes all to stare at them, enchanted." (The composer.) The intertwining and each other shadowing soli of these instruments are mellifluous and very lively at the same time.

Finally, Michael (tenor) has an argument with Lucifer (bass) who once again disturbs the festivity. Lucifer ridicules Michael who responds with dignity. This impassioned vocal exchange belongs to the emotionally most intense and well-characterized sung dialogs I know of in music, both in sung lyrics and in the presentation of those lyrics. It is fantastic, and an extraordinarily touching musical experience.

Second scene: Vision

for tenor, trumpet, dancer, electric organ, magnetic tape and shadow play, about 27 min.

"Vision" is a very intimate scene. The nucleus of the libretto's content is outlined above, at the beginning of this essay. Michael often sings very softly, sometimes even whisperingly, and almost constantly his singing is accompanied by his instrument, the trumpet. Naturally, when Michael sings very softly, most of the time the dynamic level of the trumpet follows suit. As the scene progresses, modes of playing and timbres are heard from the softly playing trumpet (Markus Stockhausen) which I cannot recall having ever heard before, be it in classical or jazz trumpet playing. It sounds spectacular.

The intimacy of the atmosphere, the libretto and its communication in melody and phrasing are touching, as are the musically eloquent shadings in vocal expression which evolve in captivating synergy with the playing of the trumpet. The intimacy of this beautiful music is highlighted by the recording.

Towards the middle of the scene seven shadow plays are positioned, in which Michael has a vision of seven moments of his life. Several moments from the previous music in the opera are reproduced from tape, and commented by Michael. Exquisite is the reminiscence of all the different stations from his "Journey around the Earth" (second act), where all stations are recalled in short clips that are put together to produce a magnificent musical caleidoscope.

 

Michaels-Abschied (Michael's Farewell)

for five trumpets

The composer:

"After VISION, 5 trumpeters in MICHAEL costumes, illuminated like tower statues, appear on 5 rooftops or balconies around the opera square. For about 30 minutes, each repeats, independently from the others, one segment of the MICHAEL formula like a signal, with very long pauses of various lengths."

In the CD version, the five trumpet parts are played on top of each other by Markus Stockhausen in a multi-track playback process, with a total duration of approx. 11 min.

This has to be one of the most beautifully soaring musics I have heard. The trumpets play long drawn-out notes with some vibrato and with amazing timbre the sounds just float in the air. The harmonies produced by the simultaneous trumpet sounds carry a gentle dissonant friction, but this friction sounds less dissonant than simply magical.

*****

DONNERSTAG aus LICHT is available at http://www.stockhausen.org/cd_catalog.html CD 30, 4 CD set). All performances are excellent. The recording quality of most scenes is very good to excellent as well, with transparent and dynamic textures; only for "Festival" a tad more transparency and palpability of textures would have been desirable, yet overall the sound is still relatively satisfying in quality.

As an accompanying CD for DONNERSTAG I strongly recommend CD 31 (UNSICHTBARE CHÖRE, see my essay). This CD, where the Invisible Choirs are reproduced in full volume and in direct sound, enables the listener to appreciate their stunning textures in full.


© Albrecht Moritz 2001, text edited 2005


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