“Reminisces of a Dead World”: Neoclassical Impulses in Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge


In the years following World War II, integral serialist composers declared their intent to defy all previous musical conventions and eradicate all “reminisces of a dead world” from their music. Karlheinz Stockhausen was no exception, asserting his desire “to avoid everything which is familiar, generally known or reminiscent of music already composed.” However, Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge, despite its reputation for technical innovation, bears a strong connection to prior musical traditions. In this regard, Stockhausen resembled the neoclassical school of composers that sought to accommodate antiquated musical materials within a modern context.

To demonstrate these similarities, I apply to Gesang a model of neoclassicism developed by Martha M. Hyde, a scholar on twentieth-century music. Hyde identifies two modes by which a neoclassical piece “accommodates antiquity”: metamorphic anachronism and allegory. I argue both are present in Gesang. First, Stockhausen adopts elements of the sacred vocal tradition—including a child’s voice and antiphonal writing—and morphs them into something modern. Second, Stockhausen uses the Biblical story on which Gesang is based as an allegory for his own conflicted relationship with the musical past. This analysis reframes Gesang’s significance and connects Stockhausen’s work to seemingly unrelated trends in twentieth-century musical thought.

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