Stockhausen

HARLEKIN (1975)

for solo clarinet

This text was edited by Jerome Kohl


"The traditional figure of Harlequin is reborn into a new form a clarinet player. Harlequin is now a musician through and through. Descending from the heights he unwinds out of a spiral until, kneeling in front of the audience, he reveals his entire melody. He then winds up into the heights, again in the form of a spiral.

"Out of the enchanted dream-messenger awake successively the playful constructor, the enamoured lyric, the pedantic teacher, the roguish joker, the passionate dancer and finally the exalted spinning spirit with his bird cries.

"HARLEQUIN for clarinet was written in 1975, and was completed on December 24th. In the score, all details of the movements and of the dance are notated together with the music. The American clarinettist Suzanne Stephens, to whom the work is dedicated, played and danced the world premiere on March 7th 1976 at the large broadcasting auditorium of the West German Radio in Cologne."

Stockhausen (CD booklet, p. 5)

The composer has written two descriptions of the development of the work. Of these, the one he wrote for a performance for children on 30 May 1976 at the Beethovenhalle in Bonn has a particularly attractive atmosphere (CD booklet, p. 7; the other description in the CD booklet gives additional information that recommends it as well):

"At the beginning, HARLEQUIN is an enchanted dream messenger. He plays and dances fast circles. Out of the circles grows a spiral, which descends.

"Then HARLEQUIN is a playful constructor. From the spiral he allows a melody to form, note by note. The melody stretches down to the very low register and there pulls itself together, becoming gradually slower and clearer.

"HARLEQUIN comes very close and changes into an enamoured lyric: he enchants everyone with his melody, and those who listen very quietly will be able to sing this melody eternally in their dreams and transform ugliness into beauty.

"When HARLEQUIN awakes, he takes his entire melody apart, and becomes a very pedantic teacher: he writes his melody from the beginning and from the end into the air. When he makes a mistake, he becomes angry. He does not stop until he has written everything into the air, without a mistake.

"But he makes slight fun of himself when he is teaching, and before we know it, he has transformed himself into a roguish joker, who makes impudent jokes, and who sometimes even pulls little dirty tricks. He simply hits his clarinet to make it a bit shorter, when the pitches are not high enough for him; he trains his foot to count notes; he walks, struggling against the wind, even when there is no wind at all; and several other things as well. . . . Although HARLEQUIN has always danced a little while playing, he now, while walking against the wind, transforms into a passionate dancer, who becomes so infatuated in the dancing that he forgets more and more often to play the notes, and thus his melody becomes full of holes.

"When the melody consists of practically nothing but holes, and has scarcely a note left, HARLEQUIN remembers the small, fast, circular figures. In a large spiral which climbs upwards and becomes continually narrower, he transforms into a spinning spirit. Between the fast melodic curves, he throws out wild, long bird cries 12 times, until he has extinguished the entire melody. Then the 13th bird cry comes which is the highest of all."

*****

HARLEKIN is a remarkable, and successful, extreme of variation form. A great deal of the long-lasting fascination of Stockhausen's music is produced by its exploration of the extreme boundaries of music, of what music can be. This work explores the extremes of music within a seemingly traditional framework, extensive variation of melody, a feature that provides a special fascination of its own.

Over a span of 45 minutes, the listener is confronted with nothing but one single melodic formula, with innumerable variations (in its original form the formula lasts about one minute, but mostly it is contracted to a much shorter duration). Broadly speaking and a little simplified (as will become clear later), the entire work consists of just a single chain of successive, yet varied, repetitions of this formula, connected like pearls on a string.

This alone would be remarkable enough, yet even more striking is the variation technique employed in relation to the duration of the entire work. Even though the work is so extended in duration, no complete transformation of melody takes place, as found for example in some late works by Beethoven, such as the Diabelli variations or the fourth movement of the String Quartet op. 131 (where the transformations of the material during the variation process are so huge that they amount to magical transfigurations).

On the contrary, in HARLEKIN the basic shape of the melody is mostly preserved, only slightly bent or furnished with different accents during variations, and there are wide stretches of the work that do not even split the formula melody up into motives. A similar kind of variation technique is often heard in slow movements of the Classical period. Among the better-known examples from this period, there are very successful ones, but also some where the music merely drags itself from one little 'neat' variation to another, inevitably producing some boredom on the part of the listener.

Such boredom is not inherent in the proceedings of HARLEKIN: What is so astonishing is that the small variations presented in the composition can hold the listener's attention during the entire duration of 45 minutes, a much longer duration than that of any variation movement in previous music.

An experience of this nature, however, can only take place once the listener has 'locked into' the formula, and therefore becomes able to follow all the alterations in a state of suspense. Given both the unusually expansive breath for this kind of music and the fact that the formula only slowly is 'un-wound' (see below), 'locking into' the formula may prove challenging for the listener. This may be why some listeners, even Stockhausen fans, do not initially find the work very compelling. Reasonable appreciation of the musical processes may require repeated listening.

The humour so central to the work, audibly and in a live performance visibly (keep in mind that this is very much a theatrical work), is an important vehicle for adding interest to the variation processes. It often contributes to special vividness and meaning of changes in accentuation of the formula.

HARLEKIN can be considered a showpiece of Stockhausen's solid compositional craft. Few composers could have accomplished this kind of composition with such evident mastery, and it becomes abundantly clear from listening to this and many other works that Stockhausen is not one of the dubious cases of contemporary composer whose music's 'fancy weirdness' conceals a lack of basic compositional technique and skills.

It should not be overlooked that without these skills in "traditional" craft of composition also phenomena like the organic transformations found in even more radical works such as HYMNEN would be impossible. This is an important reason why achievements such as HYMNEN cannot be emulated by electronic-studio wizards who are less sure-footed in basic compositional technique.

*****

Even with great skill in the art, a music based on small variations that hopes to maintain a high level of interest can only be created if the basic material, in this case the melody, is of the finest quality. Only variation that completely transforms transfigures the original material can be based on a theme of lesser quality. Beethoven's spectacular Diabelli variations are a cardinal example: the original subject is a trite little waltz by the composer named in the title (as a side-note, in this work humour also plays an important role).

Since, as already said, HARLKIN is the type of work that employs small variation rather than transformation, the original melody must be impeccably made. Let us take a look at the beautiful formula that forms the basis of the work (CD booklet, p. 14):

Harlekin formula (PDF file; if picture is not sharp reason: Adobe reader set to open within web browser window download file to computer / for maximal resolution, print out)

Apart from characteristics such as the individual pitch values and durations, the general musical motions within the formula are interesting:

The formula begins with a descending motif on three pitches, a fall that is momentarily intercepted by a prolonged note slightly higher in pitch than the third one. Another descent of three notes follows, flowing into a zigzag motion, comprised of a repeated alternation between two pitches (a final upward turn to a short note follows). Clearly offset against this motif, moving back up into a middle pitch plane, is a motif in which both the preceding descending and the zigzag movements are combined and condensed.

Going to the next motif, the music ascends to yet a higher pitch (C), of prolonged duration and fluctuating dynamics. From this note another descending line, again of three pitches, begins. Since this descent ends by a return to its starting note, the zigzag character is perceived in this motif as well (this characteristic is also found in the first part of the previous motif). The formula closes by repeating the Gb-C leap followed by another three-note linear movement, but this time an ascending one.

Thus, only two main basic types of musical motion are found here: falling or rising lines over mostly just three pitches, and zigzag movement. The formula combines such simplicity of archetypal musical gestures with great complexity, produced by the diversity of contrast or of combinations of these two kinds of motion, by the great breath and nonlinearity of the overall melodic line, and by the sum of relations of pitch, duration and dynamics.

Globally, the formula also has a beautiful line: It starts at high pitch, gradually descends to the low pitches, and from there ascends again, now to an even higher pitch than at the beginning. It therefore forms an inverted arch.

This global pitch structure adds a strong directionality to the formula, which is another, very important factor in keeping the tension alive and the interest high during the processes of variation. The stepwise elevation of the pitch plane after the first descent is especially important. Each of the three successive motives containing the zigzag motion (see above) is on a higher pitch plane than the previous one, a tendency that is concluded with the final ascent towards the end. During the many variations of the formula, the stepwise elevations in pitch plane carry, every time the formula unfolds, a momentum of expectation whose effect does not fade.

The combination of simplicity of small musical cells with complexity and directionality of overall melodic line most likely is a key factor in why this immensely beautiful and colourful formula is so suitable for exhaustive development and why, in all its variations, it is able to hold the listener's interest for the entire 45-minute duration of the work.

The adamantine nature of the formula melody recalls a similar quality in such stunning achievements as the main theme of the first movement of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony, a theme where every single motivic cell is designed and used for exhaustive development. Of course, other Stockhausen formulas as, for example, those of INORI or of LICHT similarly show a carefully selected potential for development, but in HARLEKIN this aspect is highlighted with particular immediacy during the unfolding of the specific compositional process.

The formula begins with a descending line and ends on a higher note than it began with. The combination of both properties forms the basis that allows the variations of the formula to be strung together like pearls on a chain: From the highest note at the end of the formula the music elegantly can 'fall into' the next presentation of the formula an efficient and beautiful feature.

Actually, these transitions are often composed in such a way that the descending motif at the beginning of the formula is not perceived as the beginning of a new formula presentation, but rather as the end of a melodic line that leads to another kind of new beginning starting with the zigzag motif following that descending line.

*****

Out of the initial silence, barely audible key noises emerge. The first section of the work, The Dream Messenger, begins with a long trill in the high register, consisting of the first two notes of the formula. In this section the formula is "un-wound" (in the composer's words) in an expansive, very gradual process. During frequent repetitions of fragments of the formula each starting at its beginning and, at least in the initial stages of unfolding, linked to the next fragment by a chromatic ascent more and more notes of the formula are added, one by one. An added trill slows down, revealing itself as the first zigzag motif of the formula a beautiful genesis. All the repeats of fragments, forming a seamless string while simultaneously being gradually elongated through the addition of notes, occur at first at quite high speed, then gradually slow down somewhat. As the formula unfolds, the phrasing of the melody becomes increasingly beguiling. The high register of the clarinet is used throughout.

At last, the formula has become complete. At this stage, the successive presentations of the formula also have slowed down sufficiently so that it can be heard clearly, and we experience the transition to the next section, The Playful Constructor. Here, successive repetitions of the formula in its entirety, in playful variations highlighting different details each time, continue the strong linearity and purposeful directionality of the music. In a very gradual process composed in a masterfully seamless manner the music slows down even more, while settling first into the instrument's middle register and then into the lower register. This gradual process, eventually allowing every motif of the formula to breathe more naturally and to gain more clarity, gives additional weight to the impression that the formula finally seems 'un-wound'. At the same time, the music relaxes considerably.

This process of relaxation finally leads to the calm centre of the work, The Enamoured Lyric, where the formula develops its most expansive breadth in the low register (the formula example reproduced above comes from the beginning of this section).

"This formula appears for the first time with all characteristic details, about 12 minutes after the beginning as The Enamoured Lyric, and after a fast transposition-bridge immediately once again a major seventh lower in the lowest range, very slowly, with a duration of approximately 1'40". From this point, the entire work was composed, to the beginning and to the end." (The composer, CD booklet, p. 14.)

Looking back, from this section to the beginning of the work, a single, large-scale, unidirectional, completely unbroken arch of gradual, organic musical unfolding has been developed a remarkable achievement.

From here, the musical process that has been heard so far will slowly be reversed with the gradual return to middle and then higher registers, finally leading to the 'winding together' again of the formula.

"The work forms a single, large wave, which expands over the entire range from above, and slows down, contracts in the low register, calmly vibrates there, and then almost like a mirror image climbs up again and in the heights contracts to one tone." (The composer, CD booklet. p. 12.)

This large-scale use of the instrument's registers in the composition mirrors the global pitch structure of the formula on a small scale (see also Hermann Conen, Formel-Komposition: Zu Karlheinz Stockhausens Musik der siebziger Jahre (Mainz: B. Schott's Söhne, 1991), p. 233). As the composer explains, not only is each melodic figure and each single tone derived from the formula, but the large-scale form is also built on it (CD booklet, p. 13). This of course corresponds to the method followed in most of Stockhausen's formula composition.

Moving on from the present centre of the work, the instrument will gradually revert to the higher registers, and yet the relaxation of the music up to this point is not immediately reversed into a process of gradual tightening. Instead, the linearity of the music's development heard thus far gives way to more playfulness, now placing at centre stage the humour that already has contributed considerably to the shape of the music, most notably in the section The Playful Constructor.

The next section, The Pedantic Teacher, may not make the musical atmosphere tighter again, but it certainly makes it playfully uptight:

"[Harlequin] takes his entire melody apart, and becomes a very pedantic teacher: he writes his melody from the beginning and from the end into the air. When he makes a mistake, he becomes angry. He does not stop until he has written everything into the air, without a mistake." (The composer, see above).

Harlequin has a lot of trouble being satisfied with his notes. He is very careful in making sure that everything is right, and in the process repeats individual motives from the formula in different ways. Musically, this section therefore introduces the first splitting up of the formula into motives (in the very first section the formula grew out of notes, motives, successively added to the beginning of the formula melody, which is a different process).

Because of his pedantry, Harlequin takes a lot of time to get anywhere, and the first minute or so he is occupied with just the ascending line at the end of the formula, a continuation of the last section, and with the descending line at the beginning of the formula in an attempt towards a new pass through it.

When, finally, after a few minutes, Harlequin does manage to make a run through the formula melody reasonably quickly, he gets stuck on the very last note, prolonging it with vibrato playing for a full 50 seconds! A hilarious moment, made possible of course only by circular breathing, a technique often applied elsewhere in the work as well. Right after this, footstomps from the performer are heard for the first time, here signalling impatience with the achieved results. At the end of the section, Harlequin remembers for a moment the circular figures from the beginning of the work.

So far in the composition, interval leaps and register changes have for the most part avoided abrupt, jerky movements, providing a quite smooth, cantabile flow that stands in contrast to the expressionistic, abrupt leaps in melodic line and register used in some other contemporary works for solo woodwinds (yet the way in which sudden register changes can be incorporated into a smooth musical flow is heard in Stockhausen's AVE see also the essay about AVE on this site). The Roguish Joker now introduces for the first time jerky motion in the melodic line and in registral treatment as well, serving both humorous expression and the pitch expansion of the formula. At the same time, there is a tendency towards presenting the formula melody in a more continuous manner here than in the previous section. Excursions into the high register often sound humorously laboured: "His instrument cannot play high enough . . ." (the composer, CD booklet, p. 11).

Harlequin's dancing footsteps are heard throughout The Passionate dancer. The rhythms of the formula at first become jumpy, and more staccato playing is heard. Soon, however, the jumpy rhythms become interspersed with softly phrased legato playing, which then takes over for a little while to create a dreamy atmosphere Harlequin gets lost in his dance. The formula fragments become quite sporadic when, as the composer says, Harlequin "becomes so infatuated in the dancing that he forgets more and more often to play the notes". Eventually, the successive presentations of the formula melody become more continuous again, and even agitated, but at the very end the formula is "full of holes", represented by just a few notes, while Harlequin is absorbed in his dance.

In the last section, The Exalted Spinning Spirit, after an initial re-introduction of the circular figures from the beginning of the work, the immense propelling force of sequences of repeated fast runs through formula variations is explored in concentrated accelerando-crescendo passages. The zigzag pitch motions and the overall pitch directionality of the formula are an important factor in creating the propelling forces developed here. The accelerandi-crescendi, after pauses that become increasingly longer and dramatic, find their expressive end-point in the "wild, long bird cries" mentioned by the composer. The melodic curves of the formula become more and more contracted, until at last they are reduced to a trill and, finally, become extinguished in stuttering staccato pulses on a single note.

*****

HARLEKIN is heard on CD 25 of the Stockhausen Complete Edition. Suzanne Stephens's performance is of course exemplary (the work was written for her). Her playing shows beautiful judgement of phrasing, great vividness, an effortlessly wide expressive range, and convincingly translates the humour of the work into actual performance. The expressiveness of her playing is captured well in the recorded sound, and the clarity and presence of the recording contribute to the pleasure of listening to the music.

 

DER KLEINE HARLEKIN (THE LITTLE HARLEQUIN), 1975

for solo clarinet

"Harlequin's Dance, originally a section of HARLEKIN, became a separate piece, entitled DER KLEINE HARLEKIN. The world premiere took place on August 3rd 1977 at the Centre Sirius in Aix-en-Provence, danced and played by Suzanne Stephens to whom this piece is dedicated.

"To an even greater extent than HARLEQUIN, THE LITTLE HARLEQUIN has a part in which the dance rhythms and the rhythms which are played on the clarinet are inseparably bound into a polyphonic unity and are equally important. The listener should therefore listen to the foot steps with equal attention.

[...]

"Whereas HARLEQUIN unifies a broad range of seven predominant characters within himself, THE LITTLE HARLEQUIN is a roguish, exuberant dance musician and a bubbly performing artist, who could inspire a more versatile kind of musician for the future."

Stockhausen (CD booklet, p. 33)

Having once become familiar with HARLEKIN, it is amazing to see how much additional richness can be extracted from the same formula in this little work. In some ways, THE LITTLE HARLEQUIN is a compression of the proceedings in the larger work at the beginning it introduces similar trill and circular figures, but in a shorter and more 'stormy' version but most of the time it goes its own way. Indeed, the prevailing impression is one of exuberance its heftiness is a little rough around the edges, with a vivid charm and freshness of its own. The middle section concentrates on variations that strongly build on the character of zigzag motion found within the formula. These variations are complete transformations of the formula melody something that is not found anywhere in HARLEKIN therefore occupies a prominent place in this short work.

The recording (which is on the same CD) was made in the same series of sessions as HARLEKIN, and hence exhibits the same high quality.

 

© Albrecht Moritz 2003


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