About this Piece
Today, Gesang der Jünglinge (Song of the Youths, 1956) by Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007) still represents arguably the most famous piece of electronic music of the 20th century. At the time it was realized, Stockhausen was enrolled at the University of Bonn working on a PhD in communications under the mentorship of Werner Meyer-Eppler (1913-1960), who had been a physics professor earlier in his academic career.
During his later years, Stockhausen often reflected on those times during the 1950s when communications and information theory were considered to be at the cutting edge of modern thinking and science, even though typically it involved largely superficial exercises in breaking down the sounds of words and testing the limits of the intelligibility of information. Nonetheless, it was under the influence of such rigorous and time-consuming exercises that Stockhausen got the idea of writing a piece of music with a text that would be treated with a new type of musical scale: one extreme of the scale would be the text rendered completely unintelligible and the other extreme would be the text in its purest and therefore most intelligible state.
Stockhausen had always taken a very religious approach to his music, including the serial techniques he used in the 1950s, even though others experimenting with serialism at that time mostly did so for all sorts of other reasons ranging from the purely fetish and arbitrary to exploring beauty through mathematical relationships. Because he was still on good terms with the Catholic Church, Stockhausen originally conceived an electronic music Mass to be performed as an actual service in the famous Cologne Cathedral, even though the Church formally rejected his proposal.
Gesang der Jünglinge was designed to be the last of five parts of the Mass, traditionally based on the Latin text “benedicamus domino” or “let us bless the Lord.” In the German that Stockhausen used, this is the easily discernable recurring text “Preiset den Herrn.” For whatever reason, Stockhausen chose to set a text with a slightly different Latin origin, “benedicete dominum,” which is the source of the “Canticle of the Three Youths” from an apocryphal portion of the Book of Daniel, from which Stockhausen used 17 verses (3:57-73).
Using the prerecorded voice of a boy named Josef Protschka (who went on as an adult to have a successful career as a vocalist), Stockhausen otherwise set the text evenly paced throughout, although the listener is certainly disoriented during the first three verses, because the unintelligible extreme of his newly devised intelligibility scale commences the work – as well as ends it.
The voice is generally made unintelligible by overdubbing itself several times, as well as speeding up the original recording of the boy to make it sound higher. Other sounds mostly created electronically by sine waves and noise act conventionally as an accompaniment.
In the original presentation, four loudspeakers surrounded the audience and a fifth hung from the ceiling, with serial techniques used generously to arrange how the sound shifts from speaker to speaker in the five-channel composition. Organization of other parameters, including pitch, durations, and dynamics, are equally serialized and rigorous.