Europe 3: Achievement, 1953-1957

From Points to Groups

Punkte ( 1952), unperformed in its original version,1 had apparently convinced Stockhausen that composing with points had its limitations: technical limitations, in that there was no way to order timbre when working with standard instruments, and aesthetic limitations, in that an orchestra of points became an undifferentiated mass, in the same way that, as both he and Boulez had found, layers of chromatic durations combined into regular pulsing. In the 1960s, in a sequence of revisions, he redrew the score for a larger orchestra, though one confined still to pitched instruments, and converted most of the original points into melodic lines, chords, and swarms of sound, so that the title became the relic of a history the piece had outgrown. More immediately he presented a creative criticism of the earlier score in Kontra-Punkte ( 1952-3), scored for an ensemble of ten players rather like that of Webern's Concerto, and carrying a title that may be understood as signifying 'Against Points', and even 'Against Punkte', as well as 'Counterpoints'. It was the first composition since Kreuzspiel in which Stockhausen found the musical means to keep pace with his intellectual élan, and he gave it the distinction 'Nr. 1' in his catalogue of works. It was also one of the first pieces to become widely disseminated. The Viennese firm Universal Edition, the publishers of most of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, printed the score in 1953 as part of a policy of promoting what their director, Alfred Kalmus, might well have seen as the twentieth century's second musical avant garde (they also became the publishers of Boulez, and later Pousseur, Berio, Birtwistle, and others), and a recording was issued in 1956.

Kontra-Punkte -- one of the few Stockhausen pieces for which Boulez was to profess unguarded admiration -- expanded the range of thinking at this fiercely analytical time, and did so with a proud dramatic sweep that has remained characteristic of the composer, and that was surely relevant to his commanding position among his colleagues from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s. In this case the drama comes about partly because the music's process is, at least in some measure, laid out to view. As it proceeds, so the instruments fall silent one by one, the six 'families' of the opening -- flute plus bassoon, clarinet plus bass clarinet, trumpet plus trombone, piano, harp, and violin plus cello -- giving place to the single timbre of the piano. At the same time, the ranges of dynamic level and rhythmic value are gradually

For a note on this version, and a page from the score, see Robin Maconie, The Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen ( Oxford, 1990), 38-40.


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Modern Music and After


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