comprehensibility of text in “gesang der junglinge”

Below is a short bipartite overview addressing the comprehensibility of text and its organization in Stockhausen’s Gensang der Junglinge

In order to determine which compositional devices Stockhausen used to organize the comprehensibility of the text in Gesang der Junglinge, all one needs to do is read the accompanying booklet to Gesang der Junglinge CD, as well as the 2001 Stockhausen Verlag edition of the composer’s three hundred pages worth of facsimiles. The composer, as is to be expected, has provided a hyper-detailed description of the exact permutational techniques of serial organization employed. Hence, although I will report on Stockhausen’s own writing, I consider my contribution in this overview to be limited to the initial section which deals with the way in which his compositional devices should be framed and understood. Providing such context, I believe, will not restrict the discussion to matters of technique alone — which usually turn out to be completely irrelevant to my understanding of serial works anyways.  


Several of Stockhausen’s biographies, as well as Stockhausen himself, characteristically describe Gesang der Junglinge with a quasi-prophetic importance. Today, such characterization seems outdated, and its impact is largely diluted. Certainly, impersonating a first time listener present at the premiere, I could defend its importance via some of the following informed assumptions:  

  1.  Gesang was possibly the first spatially conceived and quadrophonically reproduced work in Europe. Regardless, it certainly made concrete a new way of thinking about sound sources and their movement through space.
  2. Essentially a religious work, intended for liturgical use, it references a very long tradition of vocal writing and worship presented in a deeply foreign new context.
  3. The work convincingly sets in motion timbre composition (long before Grisey and Murail laid claim to Spectralism), in the sense that the macrostructure is derived and worked in complete accordance with the microstructure of the human vocal material. “In one sense this was a radical step from an idealized world of proportional relationships to a synthesis rationale deriving from ‘pre-formed’ speech.”
  4. Technically, the quantum leap that occurred from Stockhausen’s first two electronic studies to Gesang was immense, despite the equipment remaining largely the same. Many at the time, realized for the first time the potential of electronic music.


Nevertheless, such an approach would only reinforce a certain analytic attitude which encourages a false sense of marvel and shock upon hearing, for example, an ancient deceptive cadence. It seems to me that the better approach is to take for granted the hard-won battles of the early avant-garde. Analytically therefore, what remains of Gesang is the outlook which perfectly integrates the work within Stockhausen’s own compositional concerns at the time as well as the avant-garde at large. Concretely, a swarming cloud of electronic sounds in the work can not be described as a novel sound today, but could perfectly be analyzed and described in the function that it serves within the larger technical preoccupations of the work. In the case of Gesang, a successful example of “group theory” texture, which, unlike Kontra-punkte, for example, is accurately realized in its calculated proportions.


Metzger’s states that around the time of the composition of Gesang, Stockhausen’s “outlook on things stood on two legs: one was the Catholic faith, the other was positivist science,” . In a sense, the major theme of the work deals with the joining of those two philosophies: a religious disposition seen as unitary and holistic, and the human imagination seen as a freer, more chaotic agent. Robin Maconie goes further in underlining that the work “suggested the possibility of an intellectual reconciliation between the ‘opposite poles’ of European serialism and the indeterminacies of Cage.”


Everything that can be written about early serialist thought and music is applicable to Gesang as well. Its three main elements are: 1) The philosophy of viewing music as an act of mediation (continuum) between extremes, which can be reassembled at a later point in time; 2) the shift towards group constellations which eschew the ‘background-foreground’ technique resulting from solely pointillistic thinking; and 3) the complete parameterization and subsequent serialization of sound phenomena. The indeterminate aspect of the work comes not so much from the sung part – or more generally, speech as a complex phenomena, – but from the performance of the work. By following this logic, we have descended from the higher philosophical dualities, to the technical compositional matters pertinent to the work and composer at the time. Building such a hierarchy will aid in the understanding of Stockhausen’s compositional technique, which, again, does not simply highlight what was historically relevant, but contextualizes the technique within Stockhausen’s compositional thought — his own history. The next step downward is the categorization of sound phenomena in an easily distinguishable continuum of sonic materials:


  1.   Sine wave complexes
  2.   Impulse complexes
  3.   Speech-sounds and syllables
  4.   White noise filtered to about 2% bandwidth (in Hz)
  5.   Single pulses with defined pitch
  6.   Synthetic vowel sounds (spectra rich in overtones, with varying formant combinations
  7.   White noise filtered to a width of 1-6 octaves
  8.   Impulses in swarms of statistically defined density, filtered to a width of 1-6 octaves
  9.   Chords of single impulses (varying scales)
  10.   Chords of sine tones
  11.   Vocal chords of distinct pitch


Based on principles 1) and 3), the work as a whole is formed on the basis of distributing the materials evenly over the course of the piece. In the booklet accompanying Stockhausen’s CD, the composer demarcates seven major structural divisions which are always marked by the return of the refrain “Jubelt den Herrn.” In following the logic of complete serialization, Stockhausen submits the text to the same continuum-regulating operations. In response to the criticism that such parametrization would damage the comprehensibility of the text, he writes that “the text lends itself particularly well to integration in a purely musical structure, […] without regard for the literary form, message, or anything else.” Thus, thinking of the text in a serial materialistic manner, he subjected it to various permutations which would change both the order of the words as well as their syllabic-formation. Finally, after assessing the observations of various listeners, he established seven levels of comprehensibility. The degrees of comprehensibility, from lowest to highest, of the text of Gesang der Junglinge are given below as compiled from his “Electronische Musik’s” Booklet:


  • Nicht Verstandlich (Not Comprehensible) — low volume, high density, swarms (“hosts”) of voices, permutation of syllables, fairly short.
  • Kaum Verstandlich (Scarcely Comprehensible) – slightly less dense, but accordingly rather long;… [an] increase and decrease of volume … renders a few syllables … more comprehensible.
  • Ganz Wenig Verstandlich (Very Slightly Comprehensible) — multifarious permutations of syllables and words occur simultaneously in [this] longest and densest group which also has large dynamic variations.
  • Fast Verstandlich (Almost Comprehensible) — text sung very slowly and by a single voice.
  • Nicht Genau Verstandlich (Not Exactly Comprehensible) — far away in an enclosed space.
  • Verstandlicher (Quite Comprehensible) — spatially very close, with increasing volume and low density.
  • Verstandlich (Comprehensible) — solo voice … [sung] slowly and clearly.