Two composers, the one very much in the public eye and the other relatively obscure, have just died. Comparing and contrasting them is instructive. Karlheinz Stockhausen and Petr Eben, were near contemporaries, the former born in 1928 in Germany, the latter in 1929 in what was then Czechoslovakia. Both had their experience of the horrors of Europe in their day. Stockhausen’s mother was a severe depressive, and murdered in the Nazi euthanasia program, and his father, an enthusiastic Nazi, was killed in 1945. How the young Stockhausen himself dealt with compulsory membership in the Hitler Youth is not clear. As for Eben, he was a Catholic, but with Jewish antecedents. In 1943 the Nazis deported him to Buchenwald, and he could recall standing with his brother in the camp’s shower room expecting to be gassed.
Music is perhaps the most direct and beautiful of the possible means of communication. Pretty well all of us recognise melody and rhythm, and these correspond to something deep in our common humanity. Stockhausen had other ideas. He preferred not to communicate, to ignore melody and rhythm, and simply to ambush his audience with strangeness and discord. His work is a gigantic gimmick. Much of it is electronic, or consists of the abuse of instruments and people. Players are often left free to begin or to stop, interpreting as they choose. Players are advised in one instance to “Live completely alone for four days, without food in complete silence.” One of his pieces lasts for an hour with six vocalists “meditating” on a single note. In another piece, the members of a string quartet played from an airborne helicopter, their sounds relayed through screens and loudspeakers. It is the musical equivalent of conceptual art. The degradation of the man’s character was shown when he described 9/11 as “a work of art.”
Petr Eben came out of Buchenwald with a reinforced religious faith. The Communists then took over his country in a coup, and it was their turn to do what they could to thwart him. Ideology could not suppress his music. The Daily Telegraph describes his classical approach: “He was a great believer in the repetition of motifs and sequential writing, building up an effect gradually and impressively, giving his listeners a clear structure.” Eben himself claimed that his work set out “to portray the fight between good and evil in the human heart.” After Communism collapsed, he composed a Te Deum in celebration.
Egomaniacs like Stockhausen are meat and drink to promoters and sensation-mongers, and nothing much can be done about it except to endure and wait for them to be gone. Unfortunately he and so many like him pass as “artists,” when they are nothing of the kind, but only destroyers of the culture they inherited. Against all the odds managing to survive deadly enemies, Petr Eben acknowledged the ills of his times, but sought to repair them. Where Stockhausen brought sickness, Eben brings hope.