A recurring feature in the history of music is an inclination in certain composers towards the epic. It’s an inclination that first found serious expression via instrumental scale, by composers such as Beethoven, Berlioz, Mahler and Schoenberg, each of whom inflated their orchestral forces to ever-larger sizes. However, this was subsequently matched, then surpassed, by an interest in exploring increasingly lengthy durations. English composer Sorabji was the first in the 20th century to push duration to monumental limits – his 1932 Organ Symphony no. 2 lasts in excess of eight hours. Since then Morton Feldman and Michael Finnissy, among many others, have constructed similarly elaborate compositional schemes that require many hours to be heard.

Karlheinz Stockhausen’s inclination to the epic could well be regarded as being more substantial and far-reaching than most. A composer with an instinctive pull towards and yearning for both the supernal and the utopian, this ultimately found expression in not only his most ambitious project, but one of the most ambitious ever conceived by any composer: LICHT. Stockhausen’s succinct description of LICHT as a “music-dramatic work in seven parts” belies its enormity: a cycle involving vocal, instrumental and dance soloists – all of whom must perform from memory due to the physical movements they have to make – alongside a choir, orchestra and ballet and mime artists, also incorporating surround sound electronic music, structured in seven parts designed to be performed across the seven days of the week (titled Montag aus LICHT, Dienstag aus LICHT, etc.), each part having a duration of between 2½ and 5 hours, with an approximate total duration of almost 26 hours. It took the composer over two-and-a-half decades to complete, dominating his output from 1977 to 2003.

Karlheinz Stockhausen
© Clive Barda

Not surprisingly, considering the enormous demands such an undertaking would make, LICHT has never been performed in its entirety as the composer intended. Indeed, even attempts to stage single parts of the work have been abandoned due to technical and financial difficulties, and one of the parts, Mittwoch (Wednesday), only received its first performance as recently as 2012. LICHT may now be 15 years old, but the musical world is still only beginning to come to terms with its formidable challenges.

However, a collaborative effort by Dutch National Opera, the Holland Festival, the Royal Conservatoire in the Hague and the Stockhausen Foundation has responded to this situation by devising aus LICHT, a reduced-scale version of the cycle performable over just three days and running to a mere 15 hours of music, which will be performed during the 2019 Holland Festival. One of the guardians of Stockhausen’s estate, his long-term close collaborator and muse, flautist Kathinka Pasveer, explained that the devising of aus LICHT was borne out of necessity. “Stockhausen wanted to build one coherent work, so the length of LICHT is only a consequence of this wish to make everything connected. The organisers came up with a proposal of which scenes they would like to perform after it had become clear that it would be impossible to prepare all seven operas in the given time-frame. We then looked for the scenes which were most important in the context of each day, concerning the overall message of the seven days, looking at the possibility to prepare these scenes within two years. Some important parts – especially from Freitag aus LICHT – unfortunately have had to be omitted for practical reasons, but we came up with a good mixture for each day.”

Kathinka Pasveer

The reason for the enormous length of the LICHT cycle is due to the very particular method Stockhausen used to create the work, utilising what he called a “super-formula”. This super-formula consists of three discrete layers of basic musical material that act as a kernel of information for both the large-scale structure of LICHT as well as being the basis for all its surface details. “Stockhausen conceived the formula as consisting of seven parts, corresponding to the days of the week,” Pasveer explains. “The key that he used to get the duration of each opera, is that each quarter-note of this formula – at a tempo of crotchet=60 – becomes sixteen minutes, due to a process of augmentation. That gave him the approximate duration for each scene, and each sub-scene. Stockhausen therefore already knew in 1977 how long approximately each of the operas would be and how many years he would need to complete them. For Stockhausen these were not extreme durations.”

Reducing such a gargantuan work as LICHT to a smaller size may seem infeasible, but Stockhausen made the process somewhat easier by structuring much of the work out of modules, smaller segments that can also be performed independently as discrete pieces. This made the process of removing sections very much easier. “Stockhausen made it possible from the beginning to perform each part separately in a so-called ‘quasi concert performance,’” Pasveer explains. Such a performance “takes place in a concert hall or auditorium without scenery, but includes all the prescribed movements and gestures. A small amount of lighting and sound equipment is required, and simple, stylized costumes can be worn. So aus LICHT won’t have large scenery, but everything that’s prescribed in the scores for such ‘quasi concert performances’ will be there.”

Another facet that has aided the process of distilling the larger work has been its approach to narrative. Though often described as operatic, in many ways the seven parts of LICHT are not operas in the conventional sense of the term. “Stockhausen called them ‘operas’ as opera houses would be the only institutions with the infrastructure to produce these works,” says Pasveer. But LICHT doesn’t so much tell a story as present a rich, allusive, even esoteric exploration of such archetypes as good and evil, fall and redemption, birth and rebirth, and the cyclic aspects of nature, revolving around the three characters of Eve, Michael and Lucifer. The themes Stockhausen explores using these archetypes, Kathinka Pasveer believes, enable LICHT to make a significant contribution to contemporary society. “LICHT is a spiritual work, full of hope, full of alien beauty, and this is badly needed in society today, more than ever before! It deals with subjects that touch every human being: childbirth and respect of women (Monday), war and conflict (Tuesday), cooperation (Wednesday), learning (Thursday), temptation (Friday), death and resurrection (Saturday) and mystical union (Sunday).”

Furthermore, Pasveer believes what makes LICHT’s treatment of these subjects so important is its contrasting attitude to that of most conventional operatic works as well as its lack of affiliation to one particular belief system. “It is about life, love and light, but in a very uplifting way, not dealing with lower human emotions like jealousy, hatred and depression, as many other operas do. It leaves the listener free to just see and experience life as it is, without heavy emotions or complicated psychology. So it’s very liberating, not political, not bound to any religious background or beliefs. It’s about human life, evolution, about eternal spirits guiding us to become more aware, more musical, more in connection with the creator of us all.”

Despite its lofty aspirations, the fact remains that the development of aus LICHT is a consequence of the almighty difficulties with staging the complete cycle. Pasveer sees it as a means to an end: “aus LICHT is a taster for people who hopefully afterwards will want to experience the whole thing. For us it’s also a way of preparing musicians so that at least half of LICHT can be ready, and future productions would be easier to mount.” But does she believe that will ever happen? Is LICHT simply too massive, too complex and too demanding to be performed as Stockhausen intended? “To do all the operas in one house, seven days in a row, will never be possible,” Pasveer concedes, “since each part requires a different technical set-up and a different arrangement for seating the audience.” Yet she remains optimistic: “Stockhausen always knew that it could never be performed in one place. It would be best if seven different opera houses could prepare one part of LICHT each, and then the public could travel from one place to the next. I’m sure LICHT will someday be performed in its entirety.”

Perhaps there’s an important parallel to be found in such idealistic aspirations. LICHT offers a mystical vision of something undeniably idealistic, yet presented as something attainable. But LICHT doesn’t merely present that within its music. It also embodies it in its epic scale. At present, staging LICHT in its entirety may well be impossible, and aus LICHT will have to tide us over for now, but perhaps this was an integral part of Stockhausen’s utopian dream, throwing down the gauntlet with a project that says, if we all – individually and globally – pull together, if we all want something to happen, anything is possible.

This article was sponsored by Dutch National Opera.