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A performance of Stockhausen’s Stimmung is always an event. This massive and mesmerizing work for six voices reflects the composer’s interest in foreign cultures and showcases his experimental new way of thinking about the compositional process.

Read conductor Paul Hillier's notes on Stimmung.

Stimmung ladder photo by Klaus Holsting

Stimmung means “tuning,” but like all words, it carries other meanings along with it. One might even speak of a constellation of meanings that proliferate and lead towards other words and into neighboring constellations. Stimmung implies not only the outward tuning of voices or instruments, but also the inward tuning of one’s soul. When people feel in tune with one another, they are said to be in a good Stimmung. And, of course, its root syllable suggests Stimme, “voice.”

Wordplay lies at the heart of Stimmung, offering a mirror to the world seen as a continuous process of transformation. Words, syllables, and even individual phonemes are constantly being changed into new forms, their meanings set spinning as one process stimulates another. Stimmung is a language game in which words—and singers—are searching out new identities. And in the way it uses overtones, which give color to any given fundamental pitch, it offers a kind of musical parallel to the hidden shades of meaning and vocal articulation that hover around any given word.

Stockhausen composed Stimmung in a snowbound house facing Long Island Sound during the winter (February/March) of 1968. The sea was frozen and covered with snow, and the winds were strong. He had recently spent time in California, Hawaii, and Mexico, and had accepted a commission to write a work for a newly formed vocal ensemble back in Germany: Collegium Vocale Köln, a group of then-recent graduates from the Musikhochschule in Cologne where Stockhausen himself had studied. A vocal sextet is a formation familiar to us from Renaissance music—and Collegium Vocale’s repertoire would certainly explore that heritage. One wonders what kind of work they anticipated from one of the leaders of the avant-garde, few of whom even now have ever been close to the world of madrigal groups! In a sense, they got an extended madrigal—one that interweaves love poetry, mythology, and word painting, but is entirely of its own time and in fact created a new genre of vocal production (new to Western art music anyway) every bit as revolutionary as Monteverdi or Janequin or Gesualdo had been in their day.

Stimmung is often described as a work of meditation based on a single unchanging chord. This characterization, while true enough in essence, conceals so much of the work’s real nature and range of expression that it possibly does more harm than good. The work in fact consists of a constant process of change, modification, variation, integration, sudden calls, and frequent changes of tempo and dynamics. The chord, too, is neither constant, nor is it a chord in the conventional sense of something invented by the composer. It is made up of six pitches drawn from the overtones of a single low B-flat fundamental, and once Stockhausen had decided to base his work on this acoustic phenomenon, its constituent pitches were more or less a given fact: He had only to decide exactly which pitches would be used and how far along the series he would go.

There is no single score of Stimmung, but rather several different elements notated separately, some more fixed than others. The most completely predetermined element is the form scheme, which is like a diagrammatic score divided into 51 sections. It shows who in each section is singing and what (fundamental) pitches they sing, and also who is leading the section and how the others are to relate to him or her in various degrees of variation and transformation. In some places, a singer is instructed simply to continue with the previous material, creating a layer of potential interference with the new material. It also indicates when magic names may be called and poems spoken. It does not, however, indicate any of the specific material that is to be performed.

Stimmung: Magic Names
(listed in order heard)

Abassi-Abumo: Heaven Creator; Africa, Ibibios (Nigeria)
Shiva: God of Destruction; India
Nazami: Heaven Creator; Africa
Gaia: Earth Goddess; Greece
Viracocha: God of Civilization; Peru, Quechua
Aeolus: Wind God; Greece
Halakwulup: Heavenly Ancestor (also, the name of a people and their language); Tierra del Fuego
Quetzalcoatl: God of Gods, God of Priests, Symbol of Civilization; Toltec, Aztec
Tangaroa: Creator, Sun God; Polynesia, Maori 
Grogoragally: Sun God, Australia
Usi Afu: Earth God; Indonesia, Timor
Kala: Earth Mother; India
Hina-a-tuatua-a-kakai: God of Moonlight; Polynesia, Hawaii
Singbonga: Sun God; Bengali
Indra: God of Wisdom, Struggle, Creation God; India
Xochipili: God of Flowers, Arts, Leisure; Aztec
Yoni: The Eternal Feminine; India
Luminut: Earth God; Sulawesi, Indonesia
Ahura mazda: God of Wisdom, Highest God; Persia
Munganagana: Wind God; Australia
Hera: Protector of Women, Marriage; Greece
Mulugu: Heaven Creator; Africa, Kikuyu
Uwoluwu: Heaven Creator; Africa, Akposos (Ghana)
Tlaloc: Rain God; Aztec
Geb: Earth God; Egypt
Wakantanka: Thunder God; Amerindian Sioux
Tochi: Grandmother of Gods; Aztec
Varuna: God of Law and Wisdom; India
Atum-Ra: Sun God; Egypt

That “musical” material comes in the form of 51 models of very concise musical and verbal information, each one containing a short rhythmic phrase of syllables in which the vowels are notated with the numbers of their corresponding overtones. This model is first sung by the lead singer in any given section, and then repeated, joined by those of the other singers who are to bring themselves into identity with the lead singer. Variations are then made (some specified, others improvised) before the lead singer gives a cue to the next lead singer to begin the next model. A specific tempo is marked for each model along with various other instructions about how to perform it and when to integrate other elements. Which model goes into which section of the form scheme is something that the performers have to decide for themselves in advance.

Four of the models (one for each of the three men and one for a woman) contain poems of a primary erotic nature, which are to be recited by the lead singer in a fairly specific manner, while the other singers variously listen or respond as instructed. The models also contain a variety of other verbal material, some of which inevitably jumps out of the texture for one reason or another. One is the word barbershop, sung just once like a fragment of close harmony, or the word hippy. In various places, the listener also hears one or other of the days of the week being sung (in German or English): This is an aspect of the work that gained significance after Stockhausen spent two decades composing Licht, a cycle of seven operas, one named for each day of the week.

Finally, there is a collection of 66 “magic names”: 11 for each singer, though not all of them are used in a single performance. These are names of gods and spirits drawn from mythologies around the world. The influence of the composer’s visits to Mexico and his growing awareness of Oceania and Asia are very apparent in this selection. A magic name is called out at an appropriate moment once a given model has reached identity; the word’s sound and as far as possible its meaning are then blended into the singing of the model so that a new identity is established.

Because so much attention has been paid to the one-chord, meditative aspect of Stimmung, it is perhaps worth adding that virtually every element of its composition uses serial methods—having at their root the proportions of the pitches taken from the harmonic series—with a view to create both a fundamental unity in the work and the maximum variety in the deployment of pitches, rhythms, tempos, voice entries, and so forth.

—Paul Hillier

Theatre of Voices
Theatre of Voices
Saturday, February 21 at 7:30 PM
Theatre of Voices

A performance of Stockhausen’s Stimmung is always an event. This massive and mesmerizing work for six voices reflects the composer’s interest in foreign cultures and showcases his experimental new way of thinking about the compositional process. Stockhausen asked singers to recite and chant with altered voices as they sing texts comprising names of gods and goddesses along with erotic poems he wrote to his wife.