This text was edited by Jerome Kohl
This is Electronic and Concrete Music, duration ca. 114 min.
The work consists of four Regions; as specified in the CD booklet, the score timings are: Region I, 27' 38" / Region II, 30' 4,7" / Region III, 23' 40" / Region IV, 31'45,3"
HYMNEN is a composition that integrates a wide variety of national anthems and transforms them electronically. It is one of the most celebrated and influential electronic works by Stockhausen, the great pioneer of electronic music.
To those who know the work, it may not be completely surprising when one reviewer says:
"Hymnenis a seriously humbling experience for anyone who has composed electronic music. The range of timbres, the imaginative integration of found and electronic sounds, and the massive time-scale stand as an example of what can be achieved in this medium." 1) Notes to the text
Already quite early in his career, Stockhausen made efforts to connect the soundworld of electronic music to familiar sound phenomena, in order that the listener might more easily find his bearings in the electronic soundworld, which at the time was completely new.2) GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE (1955/56) made a connection between electronic sounds and a boy's voice, and KONTAKTE (1959/60) made associations between unknown electronic sounds and sounds of metallic, skinlike, or woodlike character (either electronically produced, or coming from piano and percussion interacting with the electronic music).
On the other hand, in the mid 1960s Stockhausen became interested in the composition of a "music of all countries and races" (Texte zur Musik III, p.75). As early as 1964 he had begun collecting recordings of anthems, and had even begun realisation work on HYMNEN in 1965 (CD booklet, p. 143). But work was broken off, and TELEMUSIK (1966) became his first completed musical effort in that direction, using musics from all kinds of ethnic sources in a composition that connected them and made associations between them by electronic intermodulation processes.
HYMNEN, as a composition that integrates a wide variety of national anthems and transforms them electronically, may be seen as an effort towards an ultimate synthesis between the two compositional goals outlined above:
National anthems provide an especially potent means of composing a "music of all countries and races", and the familiarity of many of those anthems to most listeners permits a particularly easy orientation in the (at that time still new) electronic soundworld into which they would be integrated.
Furthermore, the familiarity of the basic material makes easier the perception of the subtlety and accomplishment of the many electronic transformations. Even if you do not know all the anthems, you still can recognize quite a few, and most of the rest are clearly anthems by their musical character.
The composer elaborates these points in a text written in 1968 (reprinted in the CD booklet, p.122):
"National anthems are the most familiar music imaginable. Everyone knows the anthem of his own country, and perhaps those of several others, or at least their beginnings.
"When familiar music is integrated into a composition of unknown, new music, it is possible to hear especially well how it was integrated: untransformed, more or less transformed, transposed, modulated, etc. The more self-evident the What, the more attentive one becomes to the How.
"Naturally, national anthems are more than national anthems: they are "charged" with time, with history – with past, present and future. They accentuate the subjectivity of peoples in a time when uniformity is all too often mistaken for universality. One must also make a clear distinction between subjectivity and interaction among subjective musical objects on the one hand and individualistic isolation and separation on the other. The composition HYMNEN is not a collage.
"Many-sided interrelationships have been composed among the various anthems, as well as between these anthems and new abstract sound shapes, for which we have no names.
"Numerous compositional processes of intermodulation were employed in HYMNEN. For example, the rhythm of one anthem is modulated with the harmony of another; this result is modulated with the dynamic envelope of a third anthem; the result of this is in turn modulated with the timbral constellation and melodic contour of electronic sounds; finally such an event is given a specific spatial movement. Sometimes parts of anthems are allowed to enter the environment of electronic sounds in raw, almost unmodulated form; sometimes modulations lead almost to the point of unrecognisability. There are many degrees in between, many levels of recognisability.
"In addition to the national anthems, other "found objects" have been used: scraps of speech, sounds of crowds, recorded conversations, events from short-wave radio receivers, recordings of public events, demonstrations, a christening of a ship, a Chinese shop, a state reception and so on. [...]
"The composition of so many national anthems into a common musical temporal and spatial polyphony could make it possible to experience – as musical vision – the unity of peoples and nations in a harmonious human family."
With respect to the latter, it is a puzzling aspect of HYMNEN that the treatment of the national anthems often leads to quite distorted music, and thus the work shows a rather dark side that seems to be in contrast with the apparent goal of unification and harmony.
In this regard, the following comment by the composer (from Jonathan Cott, Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer, Pan Books Ltd., 1974, p.23) is informative:
"I recall a meeting with a young girl after having played Hymnen in Mexico City in 1968. She was about twelve years old. And she came to me with her mother because she was shy and afraid of talking straight away. She said 'I have one question, Mr. Stockhausen. Do you think we have to go through this degree of destruction before there is peace?' She said it in particular about the Fourth Region. And that young girl touched me in the inner of my being. I said, 'I think so'. So she must have felt something very important that the music woke up in her.
"You see, usually we read about catastrophes that are about to come. But I find even talking to very conscious people that they always think in the back of their minds there might be an escape; perhaps they think it's just words and that the scientists who announce these catastrophes do so as an early warning system in order to escape from these crises. They think it might not come. But it will come. And even for the most conscious people, this requires an effort. We have to go through these crises at the end of this century and during the first decades of the next, there is no other way."
That not just the wish to compose a "music of all countries and races" stood at the conceptual center of HYMNEN, but also the aim of using material of the utmost universality as a basis for electronic transformations, becomes even clearer from the following statement by the composer made in 1967 (CD booklet, p.134):
"In my composition HYMNEN I wanted – in connection with my composition TELEMUSIK and after the preceding works KONTAKTE and GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE – to use as recognisable material the most general that exists. If there had been anything on this earth more generally musically recognizable – musical objects familiar to as many people as possible – then I would have chosen it. I cannot imagine anything more general, popular, familiar than the national anthems. That is why I chose them as objects, which I can now manifoldly modulate and compose into an unknown world of electronic music."
The form of HYMNEN is extremely open, in the sense that the musical narrative goes from one place to another, and beyond, without ever looking back to pursue an obvious musical unification – with the exception of a few passages that are "reminiscences". Nonetheless, as the composer points out with examples (CD booklet p. 157 ff.), there are 'red threads' that "run through even such a seemingly open, pluralistic work like HYMNEN as a whole. As arrows or spirals, they lend coherence from beginning to end."
The composer (CD booklet, pp.123–24):
"The large dimensions of time, dynamics, harmony, timbre, spatial movement, total duration and openness of the composition arose in the course of work, out of the universal character of the material and the breadth and unlimitedness which I myself experienced in my encounter with this project – the unification and integration of seemingly unrelated old and new phenomena."
The electronic music and the electronic treatments of concrete sounds were realized with unprecedented sophistication. An example of the extreme complexity of sound realization is cited below in connection with the Russian anthem, which forms the transition between Regions II and III (see Appendix II).
The composer (CD booklet, p. 149):
"For the production of the electronic sounds, I used equipment available at the Studio for Electronic Music of the WDR:
Generators: sine-wave, rectangular, saw-tooth, noise generators;
filters: octave, third, radio drama (W49) filters;
tape recorders: numerous mono, 2-track and two 4-track tape recorders, among them a 2-track and a 4-track tape recorder having continuously variable tape speeds through motors controlled by special generators, a Springer tape recorder with rotating 6-fold play-back head (I used this machine constantly for gradual speeding up and slowing down without pitch change);
a rotation table, which I had had built and used 1958–60 for the realisation of KONTAKTE (see description and photographs in the booklet of CD 3). All spatial chords and spatial melodies of HYMNEN up to circa 4 rotations per second were made using this manually turned rotation table [...]."
(Rotations or loops were created; for the rotation table, also see the description in my essay on KONTAKTE.)
Synthesizers were not used, which may not be surprising given the time of realization (1966/67).
For each of the several Centres in each of the four Regions of the work, the electronic treatments of the anthem(s) differ, providing great variety.3)
HYMNEN is heard on CD 10 of the Stockhausen Complete Edition. This 4-CD set contains both the version for tape which is discussed here (a stereo mix of the original four-track tape), and a recording of the version for tape and four soloists (here electronium, electric viola, tam-tam and other percussion instruments, and piano; the role of the soloists is to underline musical events from the tape and to comment on them).
The latter version is not only musically interesting, it is also an essential document with respect to performance practice of HYMNEN: All live performances of the work in the earlier years were with soloists; the first public performance of HYMNEN for 4-track tape alone took place only later.
In many passages of HYMNEN, the recording quality is a relative parameter, since the short-wave signals and quite a few other recordings used are not of great 'audio quality'. However, the electronic sounds exhibit rapid and clean transients without 'smear' and have a powerful impact. The dynamic range is huge, and it is quite clear that, overall, this may be one of the better-sounding recordings of the late sixties. Only the transparency of high frequencies is less pronounced than in good modern recordings, while high-frequency extension is quite good. Tape hiss is virtually negligible.
Also recommended is CD 47 from the Stockhausen-Verlag, which features HYMNEN (Third Region) Electronic Music with Orchestra (1969). This intriguing blend of orchestral sound with the tape of HYMNEN starts at "Africa with Russia" (from the second Region), then introduces an orchestra solo of circa 9 min. ("Russian Bridge"), and from there continues through the entire Third Region. This version lasts about 42 minutes; the CD also features alternative versions of the "Russian Bridge".
© Albrecht Moritz 2003
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