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Stockhausen: Gesang der Jünglinge (1956)

Listening exercise for Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge (1956)

Listening exercise

Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge is around thirteen minutes in duration but it is a very dense listen. Some of you might be a bit put off at the start, the materials can feel a bit disjointed and the manipulations of the boy soprano at the start can be a bit jarring at first listen. But stick with it and make sure you give it a few listens in order to become attuned to the pace and development of the piece.

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Gesang der Jünglinge is historically one of the most important works of electronic music in the cannon of western art music. It is significant from a technical perspective for its fusion of electronic sound with audio recording and for the meticulous level of editing and tape splicing Stockhausen undertook in the production of the work. It is also significant from an artistic perspective, marking the start of a more broadly open-minded period of electronic music that shrugged off the mutually exclusive aesthetics of the GRM and the WDR (although the compositional interest remains distinctly German).

As you can probably hear, the two main materials on display here are the recordings of the boy soprano and electronic tones and the piece is really interested in how these two very different materials can interact with one another. There is no formal repetition of ideas here, and indeed rhythm itself is pretty incidental – a by-product of processes rather than a formally composed element. Instead, what Stockhausen focuses on here is a continuous evolution or change of the sound materials and dynamics. He is interested in how these collections of materials can return in different ways and in what capacities.

As a result, there isn’t a hard cut anywhere between materials – the piece avoids the kinds of sharp contrasts that defines much early electronic music instead focusing on fluidity, of letting the sounds wrap around one another according to a number of parameters: speed, length, loudness, softness, density and complexity, the width and narrowness of pitch intervals, and differentiations of timbre. When listening to this piece, instead of listening for what we might consider more conventional musical ideas – melody, rhythm, harmony, and so on – listen to what is happening to the sounds according to these parameters instead, and how Stockhausen crafts changes to the sounds in response to these musical ideas.

The piece itself was realised according to a meticulous visual score that Stockhausen assembled as a plan for the piece. This score specified the placement of sounds and dynamic elements across the duration of the work. In order to better integrate the recordings of boy soprano with electronic sounds, Stockhausen adopted some pretty unique approaches to the recording process. Stockhausen had the boy soprano listen to some of the electronic materials he had made on a loop, and then sing them back for the recording. He also had the boy sing graphically notated melodies, that he then in turn produced electronic versions of. This approach results in a unique connection between the materials that serves to unique these otherwise quite disparate elements.

Gesang der Jünglinge also marked Stockhausen’s first exploration of spatial sound in electronic music. The five tracks that comprised the piece were separated and played back at different points around the audience at its premiere in 1956. This placed the audience between different sound sources, ensuring sound was approaching them from all directions and allowing for different elements to rotate through the space. This effect is still somewhat audible in the stereo version we’re listening to today.

Over to you

How does Gesang der Jünglinge make you feel compared to the other pieces we’ve listened to so far? What parallels do you hear between the boy soprano voice and the electronic tones? How clear is Stockhausen’s manipulation of musical parameters to you? How well do you feel he blends the synthetic and recorded materials?


Holmes, T. (2008) Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music and Culture. 3rd Edition. New York: Routledge.

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