Analysis of ‘Gesang der Jünglinge’

I: Introduction

Gesang der Jünglinge (“Song of the Youths”) is a 1955-1956 electronic music piece by avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. It was realized in the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) studio in Cologne. The vocal parts were sung by then-12-year-old Josef Protschka. The piece is exactly 13 minutes, fourteen seconds long.

Ryan Simms called it “the first masterpiece of electronic music,” and Pascal Decroupet and Elena Ungeheuer called it “an opus, in the most emphatic sense of the term.” The work has influenced such musicians as the Beatles (“Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Revolution 9“; Stockhausen’s face is also seen on the Sgt. Pepper album) and Frank Zappa (check out his own electronic sound montage experimentation on We’re Only In It for the Money).

Gesang der Jünglinge is also an early example of the use of spatial effects in music; it was originally meant to be played in five-channel sound, but this was reduced to four, then mixed to mono and later to stereo for commercial recording release. Similarly, it was originally meant to have seven sections, but it was truncated to six due to time constraints.

Here is the composition (with Kontakte, from the record I bought in my late teens, introducing me to Stockhausen’s music), and here is the analysis of Gesang der Jünglinge by Samuel Andreyev, to whom I owe a huge debt for my own analysis of the work.

In 1954, Stockhausen wanted to compose a mass for electronic sounds and voices. He was hoping to have the piece played in the Cologne Cathedral, but his request for permission was refused on the grounds that having loudspeakers in a church would be inappropriate. So instead of composing the mass, Stockhausen created Gesang der Jünglinge.

II: Sound Continua and the Unity of Opposites

The three types of material used to make the electronic sounds are sine tones, impulses or “clicks” (i.e., short, staccato-like sounds), and filtered white noise. Paralleled to these electronically generated sounds are three kinds of sound made with the recorded voice of the boy soprano: vowels (corresponding with the sine tones), fricatives and sibilants (corresponding with the filtered noise), and plosives (corresponding with the impulses). Each of these goes on a continuum ranging from the purest or simplest to the most complex.

What’s particularly fascinating about Stockhausen’s meticulous manipulating of these sound continua (structured statistically) is how he managed to make seamless links between vocal and electronic sounds, as well as seamless links between, on the one hand, the electronic sounds–from sine tones to impulsions to filtered white noise–and, on the other hand, the vocal sounds–from vowels to fricatives/sibilants to plosive consonants.

Gesang der Jünglinge, therefore, demonstrates in musical form the unity between the opposing worlds of electronically generated sound and the sounds of the human voice (as recorded and manipulated in the manner of musique concrète). Added to this unity in diversity is Stockhausen’s total organization of all the other musical parameters, total serialism, which is an expansion of Arnold Schoenberg‘s twelve-tone technique (the serializing of the twelve semitones) to a formal ordering of such elements as frequencies, durations, timbres, etc. To hear such music, it might sound chaotic, but nothing could be more precisely organized; thus, through his use of total serialism, Stockhausen also achieved the paradoxical unity of “chaos” and order.

III: Catholic Mysticism

Now, a discussion of the unity of opposites as manifested in this composition can only meaningfully be approached through an acknowledging of Stockhausen’s sense of Catholic mysticism. This means addressing the text sung by young Protschka, which is derived from Song of the Three Children, verses 35-51, from the Apocrypha. In the Bible, the entire set of verses is meant to follow the Book of Daniel, chapter three, which tells the story of three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who are thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to bow to a giant, golden idol of King Nebuchadnezzar; God saves them from the flames, so they sing praises to Him.

Original text in German: 

Preiset (Jubelt) den(m) Herrn, ihr Werke alle des Hernn—
lobt ihn und über alles erhebt ihn in Ewigkeit.

Preiset den Herrn, ihr Engel des Herrn—
preiset den Herrn, ihr Himmel droben.

Preiset den Herrn, ihr Wasser alle, die über den Himmeln sind—
preiset den Herrn, ihr Scharen alle des Herrn.

Preiset den Herrn, Sonne und Mond—
preiset den Herrn, des Himmels Sterne.

Preiset den Herrn, aller Regen und Tau—
preiset den Herrn, alle Winde.

Preiset den Herrn, Feuer und Sommersglut—
preiset den Herrn, Kälte und starrer Winter.

Preiset den Herrn, Tau und des Regens Fall—
preiset den Herrn, Eis und Frost.

Preiset den Herrn, Reif und Schnee—
preiset den Herrn, Nächte und Tage.

Preiset den Herrn, Licht und Dunkel—
preiset den Herrn, Blitze und Wolken.
Original text in English: 

O all ye works of the Lord—
praise (exalt) ye the Lord above all forever.

O ye angels of the Lord, praise ye the Lord—
O ye heavens, praise ye the Lord.

O all ye waters that are above heaven, praise ye the Lord—
O all ye hosts of the Lord, praise ye the Lord.

O ye sun and moon, praise ye the Lord—
O ye stars of heaven, praise ye the Lord.

O every shower and dew, praise ye the Lord—
O all ye winds, praise ye the Lord.

O ye fire and summer’s heat, praise ye the Lord—
O ye cold and hard winter, praise ye the Lord.

O ye dew and fall of rain, praise ye the Lord—
O ye ice and frost, praise ye the Lord.

O ye hoar frost and snow, praise ye the Lord—
O ye nights and days, praise ye the Lord.

O ye light and darkness, praise ye the Lord—
O ye lightning and clouds, praise ye the Lord.

IV: Garbled Words

Now, you wouldn’t know that this text was being sung (apart from the obvious refrain, Preiset den Herrn, or “Praise the Lord,” which is heard at least once in all six sections of the piece) to hear how it’s presented in the recording, with neither the printed text in front of you nor fluency in German. These varying levels of comprehensibility vs incomprehensibility–seven, to be exact, which range from the one extreme to the other– are due to Stockhausen’s having cut up the text into such fragments as scrambled words, scrambled syllables, and even scrambled phonemes.

His clever use of such permutations of vocal sounds was the result of his study of phonetics with Werner Meyer-Eppler at the University of Bonn. The vocal sound permutations, recall, have been placed on continua paralleling analogous electronic sounds, to get that seamless sense of transition from the former kinds of sounds to the latter, and vice versa. So in the juxtaposition of fragmented words, syllables, and phonemes with these seamless transitions between vocal and electronic sounds, we have yet another instance of the unity of opposites in Gesang der Jünglinge, here a unity of brokenness and smoothness.

V: The Unity of Opposites in the Biblical Story

To explore further this idea of the unity of opposites, let’s recall the story. The three youths have angered the king by refusing to bow before his idol, so he has them thrown into the fiery furnace to be burned alive. Their faith in God, however, saves them, and so though they’re engulfed in the flames, they are completely unscathed. They emerge praising God in the manner shown in the text above.

What’s interesting about them being thrown into a fiery furnace is how the image immediately invites comparison to being thrown into hell, into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 19:20, 20:10, 20:1415, and 21:8). Damnation by faith in God, or salvation by blaspheming, as it were, the Neo-Babylonian god-king? Deliverance from the flames while sitting among them? These paradoxes of heaven in hell, and of hell in heaven, are pregnant with meaning.

Connected with these paradoxes in the story is one manifested in the vocal harmony at one point in the first section of Gesang der Jünglinge. We hear the recordings of Protschka singing a dense chord of the word Ihn (“Him,” referring to God). This chord is sustained for a while, though some of the notes fade in and out, at the end with only two left in the interval of the tritone. Stockhausen would have known that the tritone is the diabolus in musica, the “devil in music,” and he therefore at least unconsciously had Ihn, for God, represented musically this way. Is God the Devil? I’m sure he never meant to blaspheme the object of his religious devotion, but my point is that, in this moment, Stockhausen the mystic was acknowledging, if only unconsciously, more spiritual paradoxes. Like heaven in hell, it’s more of the unity of opposites.

It shouldn’t be too shocking to speak of God having both good and evil sides. After all, Isaiah 45:7 says, “I form the light and create darkness: I make peace, and I create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” We can connect this verse with the last part of the text Stockhausen uses in Gesang der Jünglinge, which says, Preiset den Herrn, Licht und Dunkel, or “Praise the Lord, light and darkness.” In the text, the three youths sing of how everything God has created should praise Him. Such elements include the light and the dark…symbolically, good and evil.

VI: Resolving the Paradoxes

We must now try to make sense of these paradoxes, to sublate the dialectical contradictions of heaven and hell, God and Satan, salvation and damnation. To do this, we must be able to imagine the mental state of the three youths as they are being taken to the fiery furnace.

They may have righteousness and conviction of their belief in God, but none of this means that they’re going into the fiery furnace with smiles on their faces and relaxed heartbeats. We mustn’t assume they’re in a state of total blissful calm. They have faith in God…but is their faith sufficient to please Him? They have no way of being sure of this, and as Paul wrote, “he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” (Romans 14:23)

There’s always some doubt, even among the most faithful. Just as all of the sounds used in Gesang der Jünglinge are on continua, so are faith and doubt on a continuum. The three youths would have feared that any doubt in their minds, however small, might have been enough to cause God to abandon them in the flames. Contemplation of such a possibility must have been terrifying to them; such terror is part of the true test of faith.

This fear would have been their hell in the flames; and yet when they realized that God wasn’t letting the fire burn them, they’d experienced heaven in the metaphorical hell of the fiery furnace. Danna Nolan Fewell said, “we hoped for deliverance from the fire; we had not expected deliverance within the fire […] God doesn’t extinguish the fire but joins them in it.” (Danna Nolan Fewell) So in this moment, we have heaven in hell, salvation in damnation, and even God in Satan’s (metaphorical) dwelling. Recall that among the trio of singing youths is a fourth “like a son of God,” suggesting an angelic presence in that hellish dwelling.

VII: Stockhausen’s Suffering

Stockhausen was inspired by these Biblical texts because he found himself identifying with the three youths. Just as they suffered and prevailed, so had he, though of course in very different ways.

WWII under the Nazi regime was difficult for young Karlheinz in many ways. His mother, having suffered from mental health issues, was deemed a “useless eater” by the Nazis, and therefore forcibly euthanized by them through Aktion T4. Later, his father, as a soldier during the war, was killed. Perhaps most traumatic of all, as a youth during WWII young Karlheinz had to do work as a stretcher bearer in Bedburg; he found himself often in close contact with cadavers!

Apart from these trying experiences in the war, Stockhausen would later have to endure negative receptions of his experimental, and therefore challenging, music. Still, he grew from all of these difficulties and became a stronger man, in his estimation, because of them. In these ways, he could be said to have gone through his own fiery furnace, and since then his faith in God grew stronger, and he sang to God, in his own way, through not only Gesang der Jünglinge but also such other mystical musical works as his gargantuan opera cycle, Licht, of which a full performance requires no less than 29 hours.

VIII: Heaven in Hell

To get back to my point about the paradox of heaven in hell, one way we can interpret the meaning, or lack thereof, in Stockhausen’s cutting up of the text into fragments of words, syllables, and phonemes is to think of the resulting extents of incomprehensibility as showing the difficulty, or impossibility, of verbalizing a traumatic experience. As I said above, even though the three youths are physically unharmed, they are still terrified by the possibility of being so harmed.

This inability to put trauma into words is part of what Lacan was talking about in his conception of the Real. The psychology of the Real is an inexpressible experience of non-differentiation. Gesang der Jünglinge achieves, by means of those sound continua I described above, a fluid sense of unity, a sense of non-differentiation between vocal and electronic sound.

Now, as I’ve written elsewhere, the non-differentiated unity that Lacan called the Real is not necessarily all hellish and traumatic. Like Wilfred Bion‘s O, this unity can be a heavenly, blissful experience, depending on one’s attitude to it. The difference lies in whether or not one is capable of, or willing to accept, a giving up of one’s ego. The three youths, as I see it, could and would give up that attachment, and so they were saved.

Still, it was a terrifying experience for them, as Stockhausen’s experiences of WWII were for him, so even though the youths are singing God’s praises through the harmonized chorus of Protschka’s angelic, overdubbed voice, the voice of a child (recall Luke 18:17), the recent terror of the fire makes articulation of those praises next to impossible, save Preiset den Herrn.

IX: Heaven and Hell in the Music

Another way to sublate the thesis (heaven) with its negation (fiery furnace as metaphorical hell) is to consider a number of ascending and descending electronic motions in the piece, as well as combinations of such ascents and descents. Samuel Andreyev, in his analysis (link above in the introduction), mentions these at around 30:00-31:08 in his video.

These ascending/descending impulse complexes can be seen to symbolize movements up to heaven or descents to hell (literal or figurative). Section A of the piece, going from 0:00 to 1:10, begins with an ascending impulse complex, a swarm-like flurry of impulsions of varying pitches, but nonetheless moving in an upward path.

At the apex of this ascension, arriving at heaven, so to speak, we hear the angelic voice of the boy soprano singing jubelt (“exalt”), the two syllables sung in a descending perfect fourth. Immediately before this word, though, we hear two soft impulsions of an ascending tritone–again, the diabolus in musica juxtaposed with an angelic exalting of God.

Next comes a chorus of overdubs of the boy’s voice, quite unintelligible except for the word alles, and interrupted twice by electronic sounds. Then we hear jubelt Ihn (“exalt Him”), the syllables sung in an ascending minor third (or is it a microtone between that interval and a major second?) and a descending minor ninth. Section A ends with that dense chord in which the sustained Ihn is sung, as discussed above: such a complex chord with notes fading in and out, and ending with a soft fadeout of the aforementioned tritone. Ihn–God, that is–is a complex, mysterious being, requiring no less than an extremely complex mass of sound to represent Him.

Early in Section B, we clearly hear Preiset den Herrn (the singing of Herrn ending with a descending tritone…that diabolus again!). We can also make out the word Scharen (“hosts”). Preiset den Herrn is soon heard again, with the same notes as before…including that tritone, and bear in mind that obvious instances of repetition are rare in Gesang der Jünglinge.

X: Juxtaposed Opposites in the Text

Though it is uncertain if the apocryphal Biblical text, on which Stockhausen’s German translation is based, was originally composed in Hebrew or Aramaic, since what exists of it is only in Greek, Syriac, or Latin translations, it does nonetheless have the hallmarks of ancient Hebrew Biblical poetry, namely, its use of parallelism (e.g., the “praise ye the Lord” refrain; also, “sun and moon” with “stars of heaven,” “O every shower and dew” with “O all ye winds”; and parallels of opposition, such as “fire and summer’s heat” with “cold and hard winter,” “dew and fall of rain” with “ice and frost,” and “nights and days” with “light and darkness”). [See also Carmi, pages 58-59.]

These oppositions are of particular interest in how they support my interpretation of Gesang der Jünglinge as a musical, mystical unifying of opposites. Sometimes, such pairings of opposites can be deemed merisms, meant to express the idea of not only the two extremes, but also everything in between. Noteworthy Biblical examples of this are in the early chapters of Genesis (e.g., “God created the heaven and earth,” meaning He created the whole universe; or “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” meaning knowledge of everything, that is, from the best to the worst). It would thus be reasonable to assume that the text’s references to extreme winter and summer weather are merisms for all the seasons of the year, from hottest to coldest; and “light and darkness” includes all the tints and shades in between–unifying continua of opposites.

These unifying continua of opposites in the text are, of course, paralleled in those in the musical structure and in those ranging back and forth between vocal and electronic sound. For this reason, it’s logical to regard the pairs of opposites in the text as merisms.

XI: The Electronic Sounds as Fire

Now, if Protschka’s superimposed vocal recordings are meant to represent the three youths, then it’s reasonable to hear the electronic sounds as symbolic of the boys’ surroundings: remember that the four speakers playing the music surround the audience, making them feel as if they are with the three youths in the fiery furnace.

These surroundings that the electronic sounds represent include the metallic casing of the furnace (i.e., some of the electronic sounds suggest the resonant ringing of voices bouncing off the metal–see 2:28-2:32 of this recording for a brief example of what I mean). The resonance of the boys’ voices inside the furnace can also be heard through the use of reverb on Protschka’s voice from time to time. And, most importantly, the electronic sounds can represent the sound of the flames.

Now, the electronic sounds don’t generally imitate the crackling sound of fire; I’d say, instead, that they simply represent it. As for those ascending and descending impulse complexes, they do tend to have a bubbling sound, suggestive of boiling liquids, and therefore associative with scalding heat.

To bring out this association more clearly, recall how, in the middle of the piece (about 6:20-6:40 in this recording), Protschka’s voice, one voice alone, sings the disjointed syllables of Kälte und starer Winter (“cold and hard winter”), with largely no electronic accompaniment at all (especially from und onwards), suggesting the loneliness and desolation of winter. No heat.

XII: On the Unity of Opposites…Again

The opposites of Sonne und Mond (“sun and moon”) are heard clearly, as are those of aller Regen und Tau (“every shower and dew”). These are the opposite lights of nights and days (Nächte und Tage, heard later; and while the moon isn’t technically a light, back in Biblical times, it would have been regarded as a “lesser light“), and of great waters above (rain) and lesser waters below (dew).

We can also clearly hear the opposites of Feuer und Sommersglut (“fire and summer’s heat”), as against the above-mentioned Kälte und starer Winter. Tau und des Regens Fall (“dew and rainfall”), as opposing Eis und Frost (“ice and frost”), are also heard clearly; melted vs frozen water. I can make out Dunkel (“darkness”) but not Licht (“light”); still, in all of these opposites generally, we have plenty of their implied unity via juxtaposition.

Now, another point should be made about this unity of opposites, be it implied or explicit. Though Christianity is generally understood to be dualistic in nature (a more moderate dualism than that of Gnosticism or especially Manichaeism, but sufficiently so in a general sense), none of this precludes the possibility, at least, of unifying these dualities while remaining essentially Christian. Stockhausen’s Catholicism could allow this without him having to make any syncretist forays into, say, Eastern mysticism. There are the dualisms of God vs Satan, good vs evil, and the spirit vs the flesh, but as George K Haggett says in his blog post on Gesang der Jünglinge, “In Catholic theology, the soul–a person’s incorporeal essence–is not as dichotomized from the body as it might be in popular imagination.”

Recall that Christ came and died in the flesh; the more radically dualistic Gnostics and Manichaeans were the ones who could not accept His having been crucified, and so they followed an alternative tradition of someone else being substituted for Him on the Cross, a tradition that even appeared in the Koran (see also note 663 in Abdullah Yusuf Ali‘s translation). Furthermore, at Mass, one takes Communion, eating the transubstantiated body of Christ.

In the concluding paragraph of Haggett’s blog post, he says, “the body and the soul are a one-ness, the more-than-integrated sacred and profane; they are sanctified flesh and blood, both breathed into life and breathing through it.” Recall that God breathed a very physical breath into Adam, and he became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7)

XIII: Conclusion: What Can This Piece Mean for a Secular Audience?

The unity of body and soul can be extended to a unity of materialist and idealist dialectics, too. This leads our discussion in a new direction: the religious, spiritual meaning of Gesang der Jünglinge has been dealt with; but is there a way this piece of music can be relevant to a secular audience? I believe there is.

Now, before I go into my secular interpretation of the piece, it should be acknowledged that Stockhausen was essentially a liberal; he was no staunch leftist by any stretch of the imagination. His controversial remarks about 9/11 may have angered conservatives, but his quip that the attacks were “the greatest work of art that exists for the whole Cosmos” was misunderstood (as a work of art of Lucifer, he meant a great evil work of art). Still, his hostility to Nazi imperialism is enough, I think, to warrant the interpretation below; for even if he himself wasn’t an anti-imperialist in his life, this piece in itself can easily be seen as such.

If we consider Nebuchadnezzar and his idol as representative of imperialism, and the ancient Judaeans in the Babylonian captivity as being oppressed under that imperialism, then the three youths’ refusal to bow before the idol is an anti-imperialist, revolutionary act, rather like any country today that refuses to bow before US/NATO imperialism (e.g., Russia, China, Venezuela, Bolivia, etc.). Remember that the idol is golden, sixty cubits tall (Daniel 3:1); as such, it is a symbol not only of the imperialist authority of a king, but also of the wealth of the ruling class, be this class the ancient slave-masters of such civilizations as the Babylonian empire, or the subsequent feudal landlords of Europe, or the capitalist class of today.

Anyone who dares challenge the authority of imperial rule, be it past or present, will be put to the test, as the three young men are, and will suffer persecution. When they are put to this test, though, they must not lose their nerve. Though the three youths are afraid, as they’re tied up and thrown into the fiery furnace, they keep their faith in God, just as the anti-imperialist of today, regardless of his or her religious beliefs (or lack of them), must keep faith in the eventual achievement of the revolutionary cause.

Just as the religious may have doubts that God will intervene and save them, so do secular-minded revolutionaries have doubts that they’ll succeed in overthrowing the ruling class. When in doubt, they should recall Rosa Luxemburg‘s words: “Before a revolution happens, it is perceived as impossible; after it happens, it is seen as having been inevitable.”

So, just as the three youths sing their praises to God while surrounded in flames that don’t touch them, so were the Russian workers and peasants in 1917 thrilled to be rid of tsarist rule, and rid of continued involvement in WWI; so were the Cubans in 1959 rejoicing over having removed that butcher Batista from power; and so were the Vietnamese joyful over having ousted the French colonialists.

Of course, just as the rejoicing three boys continue to be surrounded in flames (and the Judaeans continue to be held in Babylonia), so did the RSFSR have to fight off the capitalist White Army during the Russian Civil War; so has Cuba had to endure the cruel US economic embargo; and so did the Vietnamese have to confront the US army. Still, all three prevailed in these struggles, and while times are particularly dark for anti-imperialism now, we can listen to Gesang der Jünglinge, and the recordings of that boy’s sweet, angelic voice, for inspiration as the flames of oppression draw closer.

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