ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN(ANGEL PROCESSIONS), 2000
Second scene of SUNDAY from LIGHT, for a cappella choir with four soloists, duration about 40 min.
The composer (booklet to Stockhausen-Verlag CD 67, p. 44 ff.):
"ANGEL PROCESSIONS for a cappella choir are the second scene of SUNDAY from LIGHT. It was composed 2000, commissioned by the Netherlands Radio Choir (Groot Omroepkoor) of Hilversum, Holland, and its artistic director Jan Zekveld. This scene may also be performed independently of the opera, as may all scenes from LIGHT.
"In a staged or quasi concert performance of SUNDAY from LIGHT, ANGEL PROCESSIONS immediately follow the first scene LIGHTS – WATERS (SUNDAY GREETING) for soprano, tenor and orchestra with synthesizer.
"Seven angel choirs stand in seven positions distributed around the listeners and gradually move in processions through the hall, traverse the middle one after another and, near the end, converge there, bringing irises and lilies in all colours to form a mountain of flowers.
"Four choir soloists (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) comprise the 7th group as the Angels of Joy. They sometimes also sing individually from different places on the balcony. The soprano and tenor show the gestures of the days of the week to the choir singers, who imitate them. In a performance of SUNDAY from LIGHT, they should be the same interpreters as in LICHTER – WASSER or at least strongly resemble them.
"All groups synchronise themselves. They are conducted once for an extended section and again towards the end.
"Each angel choir is composed in two-part polyphony: with the EVE formula in the upper voice and the MICHAEL formula in the lower voice. Each of these parts is sung by three choir singers or, in group 7, by 2 singers (S = sopranos, A = altos, T = tenors, B = basses):
(Formatting changed for html.)
1 3 T / 3 T
2 3 S / 3 S
3 3 A / 3 A
4 3 S / 3 T
5 3 B / 3 B
6 3 A / 3 B
7 1 S, 1 A / 1 T, 1 B
"A TUTTI-CHOIR stands along the walls at the right, behind, and at the left of the audience (for example 3 x 2 sopranos, 3 x 2 altos, 3 x 2 tenors, 3 x 2 basses, but not more than 24 voices). They sing the sustained notes of the MICHAEL formula (M) and the EVE formula (E) of a fragment of the SUNDAY limb of the super formula for LICHT and of the TUESDAY limb and [a part] of the WEDNESDAY limb of the formula projection for SUNDAY from LIGHT […].
"The world première of ANGEL PROCESSIONS performed by the choir of the Dutch Radio took place on November 9th 2002 at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The choir was rehearsed by James Wood and David Lawrence and conducted by James Wood at certain places.
[…] "The angel choirs sing in seven languages:
"the Angels of Water (Monday angels) in Hindi (Indian)
the Angels of Earth (Tuesday angels) in Chinese
the Angels of Life (Wednesday angels) in Spanish
the Angels of Music (Thursday angels) in English
the Angels of Light (Friday angels) in Arabic
the Angels of Heaven (Saturday angels) in African (Kiswahili)
the Angels of Joy (Sunday angels) in German.
"Each choir group always sings the same verse in one language (with few exceptions). Hindi, Chinese, Arabic and Kiswahili are notated using phonetic writing."
"[…] In seven phases 1 to 7, with 7 x 7 waves, the angel choirs 1 to 7 sing one after another in changing successions. The seventh choir, however, the Angels of Joy (in German), remains at the seventh place in every phase." (End quote.)
General characteristics of the music
This a cappella music features great flexibility of voicing, which is supported by the small size of the choir groups, described by the composer above. In addition, the four soloists (Angels of Joy, the seventh group) sing not just as a polyphonic group, but one or several of them accompany or counterpoint the other choir groups (cf. CD booklet, p. 52). Many times the solo soprano sings coloratura style.
There is often a joyous and excited, even ecstatic, tone of singing, appropriate for an angelic celebration of the themes of LICHT. Yet at the same time the singing has a rather earthy and muscular quality, as opposed to an ethereal character as might be expected from the singing of angels, who are the protagonists in this work. This is notable also in comparison with other scenes of SONNTAG that do exhibit an ethereally ‘angelic’ vocal tone, LICHTER – WASSER and, in part, DÜFTE – ZEICHEN.
The joy and ecstasy expresses itself also in the unusually agitated, often fast-paced and at times even precipitated manner in which much of the singing proceeds. The agitation is underlined by a highly irregular activity in the music, which not just extends to rhythm, but also to the way in which the character of singing changes.
Irregularity shapes the polyphony as well. The singing develops in parallel layers that frequently exhibit a disparate character, including apparent tempo – fast moving lines contrast with slower moving ones. Yet not just that, all these layers and lines fade in and out of the music in highly variable and fluctuating ways, leading to constant, quick changes in the polyphony.
The latter characteristic discerns the work from earlier a cappella compositions from LICHT, like UNSICHTBARE CHÖRE, GEBURSTFEST or WELT-PARLAMENT (from Thursday, Monday and Wednesday, respectively). In these other works the structures, though also varied and often featuring strongly contrasting polyphonic layers, develop in a steadier manner.
The combination of joyous agitation of the singing with the irregularity and diversity of simultaneous and successive proceedings results in extraordinary liveliness. In fact, ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN is one of the most vivacious choral works that I know of. It is also one of the most original and inventive ones.
To a large degree, a constant, kaleidoscopic change of texture is also brought about by another structural element. The work consists of 7 phases each containing 7 waves (a total of 49 waves) with no or relatively short pauses in between, bridged by the background tutti choir (see below). Each successive ‘wave’, lasting mostly just about half a minute to a minute, is sung by another one of the seven choir groups, and mostly the music changes in character from wave to wave (the singing of all the choir groups in different languages contributes to this as well). In this sense, much of ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN appears to be written in moment form, where each ‘wave’ is a moment that stands out on its own with some level of independence. On the other hand, there are also passages where all the waves smoothly flow into one another, creating one seamless whole, such as in phases 3 and 6.
These latter passages are also important markers in a large-scale process that spans most of the work, from phases 1 through 6, and is reversed in phase 7. It is a gradual decrease of overall activity, which has room to unfold even while, at least in individual strands, the majority of the music retains a considerable level of activity nonetheless. This process, which plays a substantial role in shaping the development of the music, will be discussed in detail later on.
Even with all the excited, restless activity throughout much of the work, the music usually contains extended melodic lines, not just unfolding parallel to the agitation in slower moving parts, but often also embedded into the fast-moving layers. In many cases melodic lines continue through changes in leading voice.
The melodiousness of the music is distinctive. Melodies quickly jump up and down the scale in many interval leaps, from small to large. The pitch motion is characterized by an effortless, vivid and fluid agility, accentuated by pronounced flexibility in rhythm that is developed over longer melodic lines. The agility and elasticity of pitch motion is on a level that is highly unusual in vocal music, tonal or atonal, and in the particular form expressed here it is unique.
Frequently during the initial parts of the music, as well as in some solo parts in the middle, the suppleness of melody is somewhat reminiscent of melodic ornamentations in baroque vocal music, in the form of fast melodic runs on single vowels. However, in ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN there is often a rapid succession of words rather than just singing of vowels, interval leaps tend to be more pronounced, and the irregularity of gesture and rhythm as well as the frequent and quick changes in melodic direction further distinguish the music.
A certain portion of the more extreme pitch excursions is due to the recurrent, yet not dominant, use of the ‘yodel’ figure from bar 13 of the Eve layer of the superformula. In slower parts or layers, large interval leaps, while making a rather ‘stretched’ impression, organically combine with the exalted atmosphere and manner of singing. At times pitch excursions are accentuated by small glissandi. Often the agility and expansiveness of pitch changes is highlighted by contrast with parts that feature restricted pitch motion, either appearing as simultaneous layers or as alternating segments.
Overall, Stockhausen ventures into strange and unexplored territory with respect to melody and polyphonic fabric, with some significant novelty in harmonic/timbral texture added as well, and the authority of invention is fascinating. Somehow, even though the textures in this music are so new and out of the ordinary, they feel completely natural nonetheless. While all this can be said about much of Stockhausen’s music, this is among those works where the results are particularly striking. My impression from the world première, which I witnessed, still stands: this is one of the greatest, and certainly richest and most colorful, compositions for choir that I have heard.
The harmonic language of ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN features rather consonant textures, certainly never grating ones, and it contributes to the haunting beauty of some slower passages. This work is a prime example for the fact that ‘pleasant’ harmonies do not have to stand in the way of writing exceptionally original music.
The singing by all the choir groups and soloists is highly virtuosic, and the solo soprano has some literally hair-raising solos. The singing of the irregular, often quickly developing melodic lines is difficult, and the complex polyphonic intertwining of voices exacts razor-sharp precision. The result on the performance level, however, is immediately impressive to the ear. Once a choir with soloists masters the demanding score, success with audiences can be enormous, as evident from the world première in Amsterdam, which was a triumph. Especially if a world tour with the performers could be organized, the initial investment of expanded rehearsal time (the Dutch Groot Omroop Koor rehearsed for several weeks) might seem a moderate price to pay in view of the success to be gained for performers and music. After pondering this possibility, I discovered the following 2002 comment by Suzanne Stephens on Stockhausen’s website which indeed points to great potential:
"Significantly, immediately following the world première, the manager of the GOK choir [Groot Omroop Koor] started receiving telephone calls from all over Europe asking for performances in this season and the coming one, none of which she could accept because the choir has to plan so far in advance."
Textures for choir and soloists
(Track numbers and timings refer to Stockhausen-Verlag CD 67 A.)
The material for each of the seven choir groups is written in two-part polyphony (see the composer’s comments above), dividing the choir groups into two subgroups. This polyphony is varied, ranging from close-knit intertwining of voices (e.g., the group of basses, Angels of Light, in track 5) to entirely disparate textures for the two voice parts. Among these are singing of a fast layer against a slow layer, or singing of one of the two subgroups against sounds such as kissing noises, tongue clicks or finger snapping produced by the other. Not always both subgroups sing simultaneously; frequently there is a quick alternation between singing of both subgroups or just one. At times both subgroups sing in unison.
Quite often one of the subgroups suddenly, or after having paused for a moment, changes its manner of singing, or switches from singing to other sounds, while the other subgroup carries on with its own texture. A vivid interplay between change and continuity is the result.
Particularly ecstatic is the singing of the Angels of Joy (Engel der Freude), the seventh group of angels that closes each of the seven phases (the other six groups of angels change positions within each phase). These angels are four soloists, soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Also they sing in polyphony of varying character, and mostly all four voices are heard simultaneously. Often a two-part polyphony is heard just like with the other choir groups, while at times the four solo voices are further split, up to singing of four-part polyphony (e.g., in parts of wave 7 of phase 2; track 14). On the other hand, also this group of angels sings sometimes in more or less unison of all voices (e.g., at the end of wave 7 of phase 4; track 28).
Frequently one or several of these soloists also sing together with the other groups of angels (the choir groups), and when they do their vocal lines significantly contribute to the overall energy and ecstasy there. The soloists mostly sing lines that differ from those of the simultaneously sounding choir groups in melodic texture and/or speed, enhancing the overall diversity within the music. Right at the start of the work these traits are evident in the fiery soprano solo that counters the group of tenors (Angels of Water).
The main textures of the music are supported throughout by a background tutti choir. It stands at the walls of the concert hall and sings, mostly pianissimo, held notes or quick, irregular repeats of syllables on one note (both of these are forms of an extreme stretching of the superformula).
The first half of the work also features aleatoric parts that are generally sung softly as well, by some of the seven choir groups. These parts often result in sound bands of repeated gestures, which can greatly vary from wave to wave. While already in the second wave of phase 1 (track 2) aleatoric parts are found, they are at first barely audible in the recording on Stockhausen-Verlag CD 67 A (and in the broadcast recording of the world première), at least over loudspeakers. When listening closely, they can be heard for example in the soprano choir in track 10 and 11, and in the choir of tenors and sopranos in track 13. Gradually, however, they gain prominence as they are divided among more of the choir groups. They are for the first time clearly, without too much effort on the part of the listener, heard in track 17, and are particularly striking in track 21 (wave 7 of phase 3), in which the four soloists that constitute the Angels of Joy are the main voices. Here, as first in the previous track 20, three choir groups sing aleatoric parts, while before always only one or two had done so.
Track 22 (tenor accompanying the group of soprano/tenors, Angels of Music) does not contain aleatoric parts, but they are quite prominent again in track 24 (though sounding pianissimo), as accompaniment of the choir of basses (Angels of Light). They stop there, to dramatic effect for the musical texture, at 0’41". The same happens in track 25, just before the series of overlapping trills by the group of sopranos that sings there (Angels of Earth). The aleatoric parts remain well audible until their last appearance in track 28 (Angels of Joy, phase 4). While the soft, quick, irregular sounds in tracks 29 through 34 may appear to be a continuation of these parts, they come from the basses of the background choir (as also evident from listening to these tracks on CD 67 B which presents just the background choir, see below).
At some points the soloists lead the music as the primary voices, such as in phase 3 (tracks 15–21). This phase features three of the soloists – alto, tenor and bass – who sing together with the choir groups; these sing only short parts of their texts greatly stretched out over long-drawn notes (for example, the Angels of Life, which sing in Spanish, just sing the word "Angeles" extended over the entire wave 1, track 15). Magnificent timbral and harmonic beauty originates from the combined singing of the soloists, and from the frequent alternation of singing of all three soloists with that of just one or two of them. Single, consecutive sentences are sung, instead of different or overlapping sentences by diverse voices. This creates connectivity within the constant alternation between and again fusion of solo voices and, together with the effortlessness of melodic expression, makes the kaleidoscopically changing texture particularly fluid. In fact, the contributions of the soloists can almost be perceived to form a single melodic line through the entire phase 3 from track 15 to 21, lasting around three minutes. While the melodies develop naturally they also create distinctive spans of pitch and rhythmic movement that, taken as a whole, are unique. Overall, this is an immensely inspired passage.
Also in other parts soloists lead the music, such as in tracks 32 through 34 (waves 4–6 of phase 5) where bass and soprano sing lively and spirited lines against long-drawn textures in the choir groups (in the second half of track 32, the soprano joins the choir groups, while the bass takes the lead part; in track 34 bass and soprano switch these roles).
In phases 1–4 there are no tutti of combined choir groups (Angels), just the background tutti choir that is active over the entire span of the work. All or most of all choir groups sing together for the first time in phase 5, yet initially they do not sing longer melodic lines, but only single syllables (staccato or with emphasis), mostly divided by pauses, or they softly hum sustained notes, slow glissando figures, or otherwise extended sounds. Eventually, in the second half of wave 4 of this phase (track 32) the tutti of choir groups sing a slow-moving melodic texture of long-stretched syllables on sustained notes below fast-paced virtuoso singing of the solo bass, and create amazing harmonic/timbral textures in the process (the bass solo is preceded by choir tutti humming intensely like a ‘swarm of bees’, at 0’33"; this imposing naturalistic texture had been foreshadowed on a smaller scale earlier in track 10, at 1’00"). Finally, in the last, climactic wave of this phase (wave 7, track 35) the choir tutti sing for the first time forte over longer stretches, sharing expansive melodic gestures with the soloists.
A large-scale process
After the ecstatic climax of track 35, in the following phase 6 the music suddenly turns to very slow and rather quiet singing. It emphasizes dynamic ebb and flow on one pitch; at a faster (normal) tempo this gesture, which is derived from the Michael formula, is often heard throughout SONNTAG, including elsewhere in ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN. In tracks 38–41 (waves 3–6), the friction of the slow dynamic ebb and flow, with overlaid, higher-pitched held notes at fixed volume, is of immense beauty. These notes are sung by solo singers who are not chosen from the four principal soloists (i.e., the Angels of Joy). Rather, each of these singers is a member of the group of angels that is the main protagonist in any given wave, with – like always – a different group featured in each wave. Particularly enchanting is the ‘sempre poco vibrato’ of the solo soprano in track 40 (the only ‘vibrato’ marking for soloists in this sequence of waves, exquisite in its economy). In the final wave 7 (track 42) of the Angels of Joy (the four principal soloists), the dynamic ebb and flow sounds in the voices of tenor and bass, whereas soprano and alto sing either held notes at fixed volume, or in long-stretched crescendo or diminuendo.
Only short excerpts of the texts from each choir are sung on the sustained notes. Choir groups other than the main protagonists of each of the seven waves also sing sustained notes, or long-stretched glissandi over small pitch intervals. Splendid harmonic and timbral colors develop in this phase.
Even though the entry of the very slow music of phase 6 had been abrupt, it was not at all unprepared. While the contrast of the first track of phase 6, track 36, to the previous track 35, the last wave of phase 5, is great, it just marks the final phase of a process in the music that had developed up to this point.
This process is a gradual decrease of activity, including a broadening of rhythmic activity, throughout phases 1–5. It is by no means linear, but rather develops in a complex statistical manner. The complexity also results from the presence of different time-layers – faster moving vs. slower moving lines – and their changing relationships. Their level of contrast to one another, their relative prominence and their overall character vary from wave to wave. Upon initial listening, this is likely to partially mask changes on the larger scale, from phase to phase.
While the process is complex, its existence becomes clear at the latest once the listener directly compares phase 1 (tracks 1–7) with phase 5 (tracks 29–35): something has happened in between that makes the link between the restless animation of the beginning and the broader flow of the music later on. Yet also when just this comparison of these two phases is made, the lack of linearity in the process is obvious. While there are differences in activity, there are parallels at the same time as well.
For example, the second half of track 32 and the entire track 34 feature fast-paced, energetic virtuoso singing by bass and soprano, respectively, in the same way as there is rapid, agitated singing in phase 1. However, even though this is a parallel, there is also an important difference. Here that singing occurs against a rather slowly moving choral background, whereas in track 1 the solo soprano sings against the more lively voices of the tenor choir. Lively voice strands countering one another are also found in other parts of phase 1, such as in the two-part polyphony within the alto choir of track 3 or the bass choir of track 5.
A further comparison of the alto choir of track 3 with the corresponding one in phase 5, track 30, shows just how much the activity has quieted down in the later stage of the music. This comparison also points to one of the timbral features that contribute to the impression of relaxation of activity. One subgroup of the alto choir begins track 30 with breathy (überhaucht) voice, something found elsewhere in the later stages of the music (e.g., in the preceding track 29 for bass choir), but not early on. Timbral parallels to this breathy voice are voiced whispering (stimmhaft flüstern), e.g., the beginning of the alto choir in track 27 (wave 6 of phase 4), or whisperingly calling (flüsternd rufen), e.g., in parts of the bass choir’s singing in track 26.
A direct comparison of all the waves sung by the four soloists (Angels of Joy) through phases 1–5 is revealing as well. They sing wave 7 in each phase. While their wave of phase 2 (track 14) stands out by its ecstatic singing from the previous wave of the bass choir, it is rhythmically less active and smoother than wave 7 of phase 1 (track 7). Wave 7 in phase 3 (track 21) is sparser than either of the corresponding waves of phases 1 and 2 and ‘broken’ by finger-snapping and smacking of lips. Frequent pauses within one or both of the two voice strands ‘break’ wave 7 of phase 4 (track 28) even more. Only towards the end there is a larger segment of uninterrupted flow, but then again exceptionally smooth, far beyond anything in the corresponding waves of the first three phases. Finally, wave 7 of phase 5 (track 35), while ecstatic once more, features a much broader and more solemn flow than the earlier corresponding waves.
It is also interesting to make such comparisons for all the waves sung by any other specific one of the seven choir groups through phases 1–5. Yet instructive is just a quick look at the waves of the Angels of Earth (6 sopranos), the Angels of Heaven (3 altos, 3 basses) and the Angels of Life (6 altos) in phase 4 vs. phase 1 (tracks 25 vs. 2; 26 vs. 6; 27 vs. 3). It shows just how much the music changes in character as it progresses. In phase 4 the music is more fragmented, by pauses or by alternation between the two subgroups in each choir rather than simultaneous singing. The agitation that had been found in phase 1 stalls somewhat by this fragmentation, or is subdued. Also, the singing is less energetic.
Other devices are employed as well to break momentum in the later stages of the music. At the end of wave 2 of phase 4 (track 23) there is a brief period of singing on a single pitch, and at the end of the following wave (track 24), there is a dense passage where this kind of singing is expanded, on a low pitch (basses sing). The subsequent wave 4 (track 25), featuring sopranos, includes in the last part also a brief period of singing on a single pitch which, importantly, is followed shortly after by singing of trills on each one of a series of pitches, making that texture ‘freeze’. Finally, wave 5 (track 26) closes with an extended passage of just (lively) speaking. All these events through four successive waves lead to a cumulative effect of stagnation. – In several waves of phase 5 (tracks 29–32, 34), the singing by choir tutti of single syllables (staccato or with emphasis), mostly divided by pauses, has somewhat of an effect of ‘putting the brakes’ on the music.
The introduction of a sudden, dramatic slowing down of the music with phase 6, as an endpoint and summary of the large-scale process of decrease of activity through the music, finds some correspondence in the earlier arrival of phase 3. Also there a major and sudden step in this process was introduced, though not as drastic as the one marked by the appearance of phase 6. A main ingredient of stepwise change in phase 3 was the introduction of slow, sustained notes in the respective choir groups for each wave, while three of the principal soloists (alto, tenor and bass) carried the melody. The same role is assigned to the diverse choir groups in phase 6, while now also the solo singers, recruited from these groups, mainly sing sustained notes.
With respect to the broadening of rhythmic activity, ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN is, though evolving in a less linear fashion, a mirror image of the previous scene of SONNTAG, LICHTER – WASSER (Lights – Waters). There an easily perceived gradual enlivening of the rhythmic activity had taken place from beginning to shortly before the end (as also explicitly mentioned by the composer, in the CD booklet and during the Kürten composition seminar 2001).
Thus, in a sense, the in the opera each other following scenes LICHTER – WASSER and ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN can also be seen as forming together one vastly extended process over almost one and a half hours: A huge arch of gradual increase of rhythmic activity and its reversal, broken only by the last few sections of the first scene. That the two successive scenes are intimately linked – though not necessarily just by this process – is also suggested by the composer’s instruction (see above) that in a performance of the opera the soprano and tenor soloists in ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN should be the same interpreters as the two vocal soloists in LICHTER – WASSER, or at least strongly resemble them.
The broadening of rhythmic activity through ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN has a certain parallel in the orchestral LUZIFERS TANZ (Lucifer’s Dance) from SAMSTAG – even though its execution and effect are entirely different.
Re-awakening of the music
In phase 7 each wave is divided into two parts, A and B. The Angels of Joy (the four principal soloists performing as a group) present part A of each of the 7 waves, while each of the parts B of waves 1–6 is sung by a different one of the other six choir groups. In part A of the first wave the Angels of Joy introduce themselves, while in part B the Angels of Heaven (three altos, three basses) are singing. In part A of each of the following waves, the Angels of Joy introduce in German (their assigned language) the group of angels which will sing in part B, and then sing in German segments of the texts of this group, which subsequently sings in its own usual language. In the seventh wave the Angels of Joy again introduce themselves, this time for part B in which they also sing. Except for the background choir, choir groups other than the protagonists of each wave are silent during this entire phase.
After the slow music of the previous phase 6, this final phase of the music sees again an increase in activity, first tentatively, then ever more firmly. It is one of several great, long-stretched processes of ‘re-awakening’ of music that Stockhausen has composed in a masterful way; think for example of the long process of more than 10 minutes duration that extends in SIRIUS (Summer Version) from the middle of the section ARIES through the BRIDGE AFTER ARIES. However, unlike in SIRIUS, here the process is not more or less linear, but develops in a step-wise fashion.
The following occurs: The previous process of decrease of activity, which lasts more than 30 minutes from phases 1 through 6 (tracks 1–42), is to a certain degree paralleled in phase 7 on a ‘micro-scale’ in each of the two parts (A and B) of each wave (each of tracks 43–56) that last on average 30 seconds. The decrease of activity in each wave part occurs either as a ritardando towards the end or as an increase in the duration of the notes, also leading to a clear ‘ritardando’ effect. A combination of both these devices is used in some instances.
The sequence of repeats of this process through all the waves goes through a gradual process itself, a process of increasing intensity: the initial rhythmic activity in each track increases from track 43 through 56, and based on this the ritardando effect within each of the waves becomes more and more pronounced as well. The ever greater rhythmic activity is what causes the step-wise gradual ‘awakening’ of the music.
The development is magnificently composed, and this phase 7 alone is a marvel in music. There is complex and ever changing rhythmic shifting of voices against one another, and the harmonic-timbral envelope of the textures is of great transparency and immense beauty. The flexible dynamics contribute to the naturally flowing, highly original vividness.
Just like there is, as usual, two-part polyphony of voices in the different choir groups that sing in part B of each wave, so also the voices of the four soloists of the Angels of Joy who sing in part A are divided into two-part polyphony, as pairs soprano/alto vs. tenor/bass. At least, this holds for the different rhythms that move against each other. Pitch movements are not always synchronous between soprano and alto, and between tenor and bass, which further enlivens the harmonic fabric and the patterns of energy when these four soloists sing.
The melodic textures once more are remarkable. Frequently, from wave 3 B (track 48) onward, the choirs sing groups of quick successions of short notes on or emphasizing a single pitch, and from group to group the pitch changes. This leads to an enticing and lively impression of the music dancing from one pitch to another. Often there is polyphony of rhythmic shifting of such groups of notes against each other.
The music reaches utmost activity and vividness in wave 7, in which the Angels of Joy sing both parts A and B. It returns to a thoroughly agitated state as had been characteristic for the initial stages of the work. In this manner the music comes full circle as it were, even though the textures now are completely different than at the beginning.
From there the music flows into the solemn, broad singing of the final choir-tutti (track 57). The massive surges of tutti voices are divided by pauses, through which sustained chords of the background choir are radiating in more brightly glowing timbre and harmony than ever before. This provides a dramatic conclusion to the work.
Background tutti choir
Booklet to Stockhausen-Verlag CD 67, p. 55:
"During the mix-down, Stockhausen decided to release the TUTTI-CHOIR independently (and ca. 6 decibels louder) on CD 67 B, so that also all its details can be heard and its impact can be experienced."
Listening to this recording reveals that the sustained tones of the background choir are not completely static, but that the voices of the singers often vary in dynamic output, either as an entire choir group or as subgroups of diverse registers (S, A, T, or B) while the remainder of the choir sings at fixed volume. In the latter case, subtle shifts or ‘rotations’ of timbre are the result. This is somewhat reminiscent of the inner life of long-stretched sounds in Stockhausen’s electronic music, such as in the Russian Anthem of HYMNEN, in WELTRAUM (from FREITAG aus LICHT) or in MITTWOCHS-GRUSS (Wednesday-Greeting). Later on, when the basses frequently sing quick, irregular repeats of syllables on one note against sustained notes of the other groups of the background choir, the resulting granularity of sound is also reminiscent of some of Stockhausen’s electronic textures. Captivating are the drawn-out glissandi in all the parts B of the seven waves in phase 7 (all the even-numbered tracks from 44 through 56).
Overall, listening to the background choir on its own leads into quiet soundscapes that could not be further removed from the main texture of ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN. It is informative to be presented with one particular aspect of the work put under a magnifying glass, as it were. The 57 track numbers on CDs 67 A and 67B correspond to one another, which greatly facilitates study of the textures.
Personally, I would have preferred had the background choir of CD 67 B been released as a separate, optional offering, so that the recording of ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN proper would have been available at a cheaper price. On the other hand, I can understand the composer’s decision of wanting to make sure that the listener is immersed in a total experience of the work.
Performance and recording
The performance of the work on Stockhausen-Verlag CD 67, recorded a few days before the world première, is of dazzling brilliance. Performers are, conducted by James Wood, the Large Broadcast Choir Amsterdam and the four soloists Isolde Siebert (soprano), Janet Collins (alto), Hubert Mayer (tenor) and Andreas Fischer (bass). Five weeks of rehearsal time went into the performance, and it shows in the staggering precision with which the score is mastered. As reported by the radio host during the world première broadcast, the composer himself was full of praise for the choir’s technique and tone. The virtuoso singing of the solo soprano, Isolde Siebert, borders on the incredible.
When played back on a high-quality system, the recording immediately impresses with the natural, close-to-life timbre of the voices, and with their presence and dynamic vividness. On the other hand, the studio acoustic, as believable results as it produces for the most part, does not allow for the enticing game near-distant that I heard from some of the choral sounds during the world première in the Concertgebouw Amsterdam (yet in this respect the broadcast recording of that event is no more satisfying with its artificially reverberant overall tone, see below). Aural background is only indicated by simply being softer. Also the size of sound might have been conveyed better. Finally, there is evident dynamic compression in the few loud tutti passages, especially in the one that concludes the work.
Yet on balance the sheer believability of vocal timbre and the clarity and liveliness of sound make the criticisms seem minor, and make the recording an involving experience and a great pleasure to listen to.
The CD booklet provides additional information about the composition, reproduces the sung texts (in the languages sung, partially in phonetic notation, and in English) and features a photo gallery that gives an idea of costumes and choir groups in action. Alas here as, although to a lesser extent, in the photos on the Stockhausen website, the color reproduction of the costumes is quite inaccurate. In actuality the colors were strikingly beautiful and tasteful, in the reproduction they give a kitschy, technicolor impression.
ENGEL-PROZESSIONEN is also available as an mp3 download on the web, as the live broadcast recording of the world première. However, as opposed to the actual overall sound in the famous Concertgebouw during the event and to the Stockhausen-Verlag CD, the sound is abnormally distant and hazy, resulting in an also distant, frustrating listening experience. Essential details such as the close polyphonic intertwining of voices of the soprano choir in wave 2 of phase 1 or of the bass choir in wave 5, while obvious on the CD (tracks 2 and 5), are hard to discern here.
While listening I constantly found my mind wander, and it is evident to me that from this recording I could never have obtained the appreciation of the work that I acquired from being in the hall during the world première and from subsequent listening to the Stockhausen-Verlag CD.
The sound quality of the broadcast recording is simply insufficient to get an adequate impression of the music and its richness; some mp3s of other Stockhausen works fare better in this respect. There seems to be nothing technically wrong with the mp3 itself (while an mp3 can never sound as good as a CD) – the radio host’s voice is direct and clear. I also obtained the recording from another source, with equally disappointing results.
Nonetheless I consider the broadcast recording, while not a viable primary option to experience the work, an interesting secondary companion to the essential Stockhausen-Verlag CD, since it reveals a few new things. The background choir is somewhat louder than on the CD, which also corresponds to my live experience of the work in the concert hall, and several of the aleatoric textures are more audible. Furthermore, there are obviously some differences in singing between the live and studio performances. Also, prior to the second performance the composer himself introduces the work to the audience in the hall.
At the end of the first of the two live performances the audience intensely applauds for several minutes (which they also did after the second performance), and the Dutch radio host is enthusiastic as well (emphasis indicates the intonation of his voice):
"We hebben hier een kant gehoord van Stockhausen die voor velen onverwacht is, onverwacht lyrisch, prachtig; je durft het haast niet te zeggen, but dit was mooie muziek van Karlheinz Stockhausen, en niet alleen indrukwekkend, of imposant – of bewonderenswaardig."
"Here we have heard a side of Stockhausen which is unexpected for many, unexpectedly lyrical, magnificent; you almost do not dare say it, but this was beautiful music by Karlheinz Stockhausen, and not just impressive, or imposing – or admirable."
Certainly, there are many, including me, who find numerous Stockhausen works beautiful, whatever this quality may entail, but the comment may reflect a broad appeal of the music.
© Albrecht Moritz 2010
Impressions from the 2002 world premiere