Musical – artistic – modernism is a godless pursuit. Or so the maxim runs – especially among those discomfited by dissonance, while modern composers of religious music such as John Tavener and Sir James MacMillan have recovered the tenets of tonality and consonance that were challenged and overthrown in the early years of the last century.
Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Licht says otherwise. It says a flamboyant “no” to those musical conventions and many others besides, but it also says an exultant “yes” to the praise of God in music, like a cosmic setting of Psalm 150. Composed over 25 years and completed in 2003, Licht (Light) is a cycle of seven works that we might as well call operas, one for each day of the week; though orchestras and plots and much else in the way of operatic furniture are jettisoned in the slipstream of its creator’s imagination.
Stockhausen, a German composer, was once a byword for all that was most arcane and cultish about modernism. Yet Stockhausen grew up a Catholic. He signed off Gruppen, his orchestral tour-de-force of the 1950s, with the Jesuit inscription AMDG. He died in December 2007, apparently having recited the Lord’s Prayer with his companions. Only in the last few years, however, have audiences been granted the opportunity to grasp the idea that faith – in God and in the sacred mysteries of life – was the golden thread woven throughout his work, and through Licht above all.
At the end of June, Paris audiences will decamp from the Cité de la Musique to the nearby church of Saint-Jacques Saint-Christophe de la Villette, for ‘‘Lucifer’s Farewell’’, the fourth and final scene of Saturday from Light. There, a male chorus will enter in monk-like robes and clogs before ceremonially smashing coconuts on a stone slab, having chanted the “Hymn to the Virtues” by St Francis of Assisi.
It’s one of the most fantastical scenes in a cycle that has often been considered unstageable, owing to its lavish demands – of talent, of time and money. What does it mean? I’m not sure.
Do we ask the same question of Wagner’s Parsifal? Not before submitting to its beauty – and the same is true of Licht. The two pieces share a highly ambiguous relationship to the Christian iconography that they co-opt. If anything, Licht is the more distinctively Christian work of art. Or so it seemed to me, when scenes from the cycle were staged over three days in late May and early June by the Dutch National Opera, in a gas-ometer turned nightclub in Amsterdam – the most complete presentation of Licht so far.
On the first two days, the cycle’s main trio of characters snapped into focus. In writing Thursday from Light – the first opera of the cycle – Stockhausen tells the highly autobiographical backstory of Michael the Archangel with a chamber-opera which is the most conventionally presented act in the entire cycle, then a trumpet concerto that describes in sometimes naïvely pictorial terms his journey around the earth. Like the rest of Aus Licht in Amsterdam, this was performed with astonishing assurance by mostly young musicians who had trained for two years to learn and memorise not only the notes but also the movements and coordination required with a richly textured, multichannel electronic soundtrack that swirled around the audience in the Gashouder.
The cycle’s second day concentrated on Lucifer and Eve. Some of the most touching scenes in Licht are found in Monday from Light. A magical Procession of Maidens reworks the premise of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, and then Eve teaches seven young boys to sing their own songs. When did you last see the education of children treated as a topic of drama in an opera? But whereas Stockhausen habitually leaves nothing to chance and his meaning plain to hear, the ambiguous climax of Monday arrives with the Pied Piper, who leads both boys and girls joyfully away to an uncertain fate.
The battle between good (Michael) and evil (Lucifer) is never conclusively settled in Licht – not least because the cycle lacks a definitive beginning and end-point. In Amsterdam, they took up their cause again on the third day with the finale of Tuesday, “Invasion-Explosion”, which graphically evokes the ghastly horror of war that Stockhausen himself experienced as a very young man in 1940s Cologne. A wounded young soldier played a Last Post lament to accompany Eve in a haunting musical Pietà.
The notorious Helicopter String Quartet followed – a kitschy marriage of technology and music that sends the four string players into the air as angels of music – but the aptly radiant close of Aus Licht came with “Angel Procession”, the second scene of Sunday from Light. Here not Wagner but Tallis was the obvious forebear: seven choirs surrounding the audience, advancing, receding and mingling in a spellbinding ritual and a multilingual hymn of joy.
Peter Quantrill writes about music for Gramophone, the Strad, the Wagner Journal and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @peterquantrill
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