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Stockhausen's Piano Pieces: Some Notes for the Listener

Author(s): Roger Smalley

Source: The Musical Times, Vol. 110, No. 1511 (Jan., 1969), pp. 30-32
Published by: Musical Times Publications Ltd.
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Stockhausen's Piano


Some notes for the listener

Roger Smalley
In the notes accompanyingthe recent recording1of
his completepiano works, Stockhausenwrites:
In spite of, or ratherbecause of, the very considerable significance of timbre (Klangfarben)
composition in my electronic music and in my
orchestraland vocal works, from time to time I
have concentratedagain on 'Piano Pieces', on
composing for a single instrument, for ten
fingers, with minute nuances of timbres and
structures. They are my drawings.
This statementadmirablycharacterizesthe musical
content of these two records, and in addition suggests, perhaps, the frame of mind in which we as
listeners can most valuably approach them. In
many respects these eleven piano pieces are the
most refined of all Stockhausen'sworks. Lacking
both the overwhelmingsonorous and spatial effects
of the large orchestral,choral and electronicworks
(Gruppen, Carre, Momente, Kontakte), and the

grandiose programmatic and philosophical problems posed by much of his recent music (Hymnen,
Momente, Telemusik), they rely for their cohesion

and power on the realizationand perceptionof pure

Because the pieces themselvesforce us, by their
very nature, to concentrateon structure,I want in
this articleto try and indicatesome of the structural
processesat work and how we may perceivethem.
There are additionalreasons. The first is the existence of the recordson which the playing (by Aloys
Kontarsky) and recording(supervisedby the composer) are of superlativequality. The second is the
fact that the scoresof all elevenpiecesarepublished,2
that they are not undulyexpensive,and that some of
the pieces(3, 5, 7, 9) areeasy enoughto be tackledby
any pianist of average technique. Finally, the
emphasis on structurealso provides a useful antidote to those who criticizeStockhausen'smusic on
the grounds of being merely sound effects with no
form or development,and, conversely,to those who
do like his music simplybecauseit is full of startling
new sounds.
First a word about the chronology of the pieces.
A complete set of 21 piano pieces was planned in
1954, divided into six cycles: 1-4, 5-10, 11, 12-16,
17-19, 20-21, of which only the first eleven have as
yet been completed. Pieces 1-4 were written in
1952-3, in the order 3, 2, 1, 4. Pieces 5-10 were
written in 1954-5and number 11 in 1956. In 1961
revisedversionswere made of 9 and 10.
In his analysis3of Piece 3, Dieter Schnebel has
shown that even though the basic premise is the
equalityof all parameters,duringthe actualprocess
of compositionthe relationshipsset up betweenthe
'cBS 77209 (two records, 87s 7d)
3Die Reihe, iv, 121


various parametersbecome more important than

their individualidentity. Diverse elementsbecome
inextricably knotted together and produce the
identity of the piece itself, a total form which is at
the same time more simple and more complex than
the sum of its parts. (This is shown particularly
clearly by the diagram on page 131.) Once the
result of a process has been discovered,one moves
on a stage further. The recognition that the discretelyconsideredelementsof pointillistcomposition
tended to coalesce into characteristicgroups in the
end productled Stockhausento the notion of composition with the groups themselves (a similar
development can be observed between Boulez's
first and second books of Structures).
Stockhausenhas written4:'In pieces 1-4 a transition from pointillist music to group composition
can be discerned'. This new idea of groups can be
seen at its most highly developedin the first piece.
On the page the music has a formidablelook, but
closer examinationand repeatedhearingswill prove
that it is in fact formed from the contrast and continuity of a large number of highly characterized
groups. The following is a translation of Stockhausen's own commentary on the first group of
Piece 1 (see ex 1):
The 1st group has ten attacks and a directional
movementin medium-sizedpitch-intervalsfrom
the lowest to the highestregister. Two intervals,
however,are descenrding.The firstseparatesthe
whole group into two sub-groups of five and
seven pitches respectively. The second descending intervalin the middle registercoincideswith
one which ascends from the low register,and so
continues the movement towards the high
register, and in addition articulatesthe second
sub-group. In the firstsub-groupthe pitchesare
sharplydemarcatedby differentiateddynamics;
in the second group, however,they are of equal
Correspondingly,in the first sub-group the
pitches are of differentdurations, those of the
second being fairly closely related or equal in
theirdurations. At two places in the second subgroup, two pitchesare strucksimultaneously. A
4Texte, i, 63

, 0----.10.--------------rl:


Nf? ---- -*---

single sound quality unites the group by means

of the notated held pedal. Rhythmically this
means: the pitches are struckconsecutively,but
they end simultaneouslywith the release of the
pedal. The tempo of the group is moderateand
acceleratesin the second sub-group. The entire
group has a durationof five crotchets.
In essence he seems to be saying that the music
should be perceived in terms of its direction,
density, speed, dynamic level etc; and the unity of
the piece (from the listener's point of view) will
become apparent when we recognize the intricate
network of similaritiesand differenceswhich exist
between the groups. It is consistent with this
approachthat the pitch organizationshould be on a
fairlysimplelevel. It would be possibleto deducea
12-note row from the first bar, but this seems to
function only as a pair of unorderedhexachords,
and is in fact used as such throughoutthe rest of the
Onenoticeablefeatureof ex 1 is the unprecedented
complexity of the irrationalvalues. These can just
about be realized by a solo performer-in an
ensemblesituationthey would become meaningless.
Listeningfirstto this piece and then to, say, the fifth
(which uses no irrationalvalues at all) one can perceive no essentialdifferencein the types of rhythmic
articulationpresent. This is because Stockhausen
has found a much simpler and more satisfactory
method of achieving rhythmic diversity. This
system also recognizesthe fact that in any musical
context certainnotes will emergeas more important
than others. It is, in essence,a systemof grace-notes
whose rhythmic profile is determinedby the dexterity of the performerand the expressivedemands
of theircontext. The principalnotes can be attached
to either the beginningor the end of the passage of
gracenotes, or can emergefrom the middle of them.
Ex 2 (from Piece 5) shows examples of all three


m~l ' II





Throughout the second cycle of pieces it becomes progressivelyeasier to perceive overall, as

opposed to local, structure. The basic types of
material become highly differentiated and are
isolated from each other by an increasinglysignificant use of silence. Particularlyclear in structure
is Piece 8 in which the three main ideas-complex contrapuntalpassages, long held single notes,
and outbreaksof very fast violent chords-cannot

fail to be recognized. Also importantis the structural use of tempo. Pieces 5-8 all use the 12 tempi
used in Gruppen(although only the Piece 6 uses all
12). JonathanHarvey5has shown how these tempi
are used to delineate the formal divisions of
Piece 5 and also how the overallformal structureis
builtout of a carefulcontrol of density and rate of
pitch eventuation. Each of the basic types of
materialreachesits climax at a differentpoint in the
piece so that the overall form can be likened to a
series of interlockingcycles, each with its independentlyachievedpeak (as in Plus-Minusand Zyklus).
Another form-buildingtechnique is the use of
different modes of attack. This is of particular
importance in Pieces 6 and 11. Modes of attack
include playing staccato with the right pedal
half down, playing staccato and immediatelyredepressingthe key silentlyso as to obtainan echo, and
graduallyreleasingthe key so that the sound becomes softer and brighter. These techniques of
playing, previouslyused only in a colouristic and
articulativerole, assumein these pieces a structural
function. Being of a particularlysubtle naturethey
can be heard perhaps best of all on a gramophone
The structuraluse of grace notes, and of silence,
feature most prominently in Piece 10. The basic
structureof large notes becomes almost submerged
under the cascades of grace-notes, clusters, and
cluster-glissandi. As in the recomposition of Punkte

(1962)the addedmaterialno longermerelydecorates

and amplifies the basic material but forms a new
layerof equal(if not greater)importance,so that the
piece seems almost to exist in two dimensions at
once. The form of Piece 10 is unusual in that it
begins at the point of greatest complexity and
gradually becomes simpler as it progresses. The
first five-and-a-halfpages presentin almost chaotic
juxtapositionall the ideas of the entirepiece. Thereafterthe ideas becomeseparatedand developed-for
instancethe singlerepeatednote at the top of p.2 is
developedat length on pp.28-9 and again on p.34,
and the whole concept of chromaticallyinvoluted
grace-notesis presentedin a new, almost impressionistic light on pp.34-5. The long silencesin this
piece are virtually never really silent; they are
'coloured'by the delicatesound of harmonic resonances. Again, while these tend to die away rather
quicklyin the concerthall they are pickedup beautifully in the recording, an additional microphone
over the piano strings being used to boost them
artificially,producingat times an almost electronic,
un-'piano-like'sound. This reinforces the feeling
that the tremendousenergygeneratedby the opening of the piece does not merely stop during these
'silences' but continues on some sub-audiblelevel,
periodically to burst through to the perceptible
level again.
The increasinglyclose correlationbetween Stockhausen's compositional techniquesand the way in
which we perceiveprocessesin sound is illustrated
best by Piece 9. At the beginning, two sharply
contrasted ideas are stated. The first is a single
unchanging chord repeated over 200 times, abso'Music Review (1968), xxix, 130


lutely regularlyand at a moderatelyfast speed. This

is immediately followed by a very slowly rising
chromaticscale, each note of a differentduration.
During the remainderof the piece these two ideas,
each associatedwith its own tempo, are alternated
and juxtaposed. The resolution of the conflict
between these two opposing ideas-fast and periodic, slow and aperiodic-is finally broughtabout
only by the appearanceof a completelynew kind of
music. The last two pages of the piece take place





Corroborativeevidence as to Elgar's reception of

the Last Sacramentsis recorded in the Sick Calls
register(1934)in the archivesof St George'sChurch,
Worcester.(Thelate PercyScholesoncecalled at the
Presbyteryto inquireabout the matter.) I do not
know if it is still the practice,but a 'month'smind'
Mass of Requiemwas for many years offeredthere
on the 23rd of each month.
It is now proposed to restore the organ young
Edward (and his father before him) played, and a
list of donors-still open-includes some famous
names. Interestedreaders may care to know that
subscriptionsmay be sent to 'Trustees,Elgar Organ
Fund,' St George's Church, Sansome Place,
North Harrow

music examples by permission of Universal Edition (London) Ltd


With referenceto Mr Pirie's review in The Musical
Timesof Augustlast (p.728),I wish to confirmthat it
is true my Fatherexpressedhis wish to be buriedat
the junction of the Teme and Severn rivers at a
time when I felt he really was fully consciousfor the
first time after some weeks. So it must be understood that I could not ignore his wishes without
great thought. Then Father Gibb S. J. from St
George's, Worcester,was asked to attend, and to
him my Father reaffirmedhis faith in the Roman
Catholic Church, so the whole question was, I am
thankfulto say, resolved.
I haveasked Mr Kennedyto add these facts to the
new edition of his book and I hope that any confusion and doubt on this question will now be

almost entirely in the highest registerof the piano

and consist of irregularlyspaced groups of fast
periodic notes which, by the action of the player,
graduallybecome more and more aperiodic.
I have tried to indicatejust a few of the infinite
number of ways in which we can listen to these
pieces. The very fact that they are of such inexhaustible richness should indicate clearly enough
their statureas music.


I have no intentionof challengingthe veracityof Mr

Kennedy'saccountof Elgar'slast weeks; but on one
point of the complex psychologyof belief in the still
more complex brain of a genius my own memory
and instinct promptedme to doubt any too black
and white dismissal of Elgar's faith. I have since
confirmedthe incidentthat lingeredin my memory;
a Roman Catholic family of my acquaintance
pointed out to me at the time an extract from The
Universeof March2 1934 which runs:
Fr R. H. Gibb S.J., who visited Sir Edward
shortlybeforehe died, says: 'Almosta week ago
in the presence of the doctor (who is not a
Catholic) he said: "I am a Catholic, and a
Roman Catholic..." '.
Mr Valbonesihas the same incidentfrom another
source, so it appears that it was widely reported.

Moreover, there was a move afoot at the time to

bury Elgar in Westminster Abbey, but it was
decidedto buryhim in Catholicconsecratedground.
The whole question is an elusive one, since even
the most ferventlyreligioussometimeswaverin their
beliefs, and the intenselyemotionalnatureof Elgar,
plusan inconsistencyof attitudethat mustbe familiar
to anyone who has studied his letters, rendersthe
question still more elusive. My own instinct, for
what it is worth, suggests to me a man who would
utter extravagantthings underprovocationor pain,
but whose musicalnaturewould probablycondition
a deep unconscious clinging to belief that would
emergeon occasion into positive affirmation.


A number of hitherto unknown Berlioz letters,
drafts,musicalsketches,albumleaves, and 'association copies' have recently passed into circulation.
Most of the letters offer interesting information
about Berlioz's methods of composition, artistic
intentions, musical opinions, and personal beliefs,
and have thus aroused the curiosity of scholars
workingin the period.
It is now clear, however,that many of these 'new'
documents are ingenious forgeries. We therefore
scholars to bear this in mind when anything purporting to be a Berlioz autographcomes their way.
The forger or forgers have taken some trouble to
familiarize themselves with the more accessible
details of the lives of Berlioz and his friends in

The New BerliozEdition will be happy to express

an opinion about the genuinenessof any item submitted to it, at PembrokeCollege, Cambridge.


In my interviewin the August MT (pp.722-3),I was
discussing the fact that notes in the 18th century

werenot intendedto be sustainedas long as they are

generally today, and cited an aria in Don Giovanni as

an example and also bars 2 and 4 of the overture.
Mr Frost (Nov MT, pp.1019-20) seems not to have
taken the point that I was referring to the general
practice in the 18th century regarding note-lengths.
In my opinion, it would never occur to an 18thcentury musician to sustain a note unless specifically marked tenuto. If Mozart had wanted to obtain