Karlheinz Stockhausen, “one of the most important … composers of the 20th and early 21st centuries”?

The computer says no.

I managed about 15 minutes of ‘Stimmung‘ this lunchtime before reaching for my Zeppelin and was intrigued to read this claim in Our Saviour’s entry in Wikipedia. I have no idea if he still has any hold on university music departments, one of the few places where Messianic Germans retained a foothold in the second half of the 20th century, but I was curious to see how he fared against other very close contemporaries, so here’s an n-gram of him vs Stephen Sondheim, Burt Bacharach, Mike Stoller and Jerry Herman in literary Anglophonia (bear in mind that books about popular music were rare until the 1970s and such things as Meller’s Twilight of the Gods):

So unless someone has some fancy way of defining “important”, English-language Wikipedia seems to be overrating Stockhausen. Germany however is different, presumably partly because successful German translations of Broadway musicals are few and far between and because it was not done to mention Bacharach’s tremendous Rhineside popularity in books:

My impression is that book publishing now more closely approximates to public taste than was true when reviewers were important (and paid), but unfortunately Google Trends goes back less than a decade. What it reveals however is that of my five fairly randomly chosen Zeitgenossen Burt Bacharach (orange) and then Stephen Sondheim (red) are making the running, with the others numerous lengths behind (the 2007 blip is when Stockhausen (light blue) dies):

Bacharach leads in all language markets, including Germany, so maybe someone needs to adjust Wikipedia to read:

Karlheinz Stockhausen was a minor but curious composer with an extraordinary gift for capturing state assets who nevertheless spent his life in the shadow of true greats like the author of ‘Walk on by‘.”

Similar posts

Last updated 09/07/2012

This post pre-dates my organ-grinding days, and may be imported from elsewhere.

Burt Bacharach (1): Burt Freeman Bacharach is an American composer, songwriter, record producer, pianist, and singer who has composed hundreds of pop songs from the late 1950s through the 1980s, many in collaboration with lyricist Hal David.

Dionne Warwick (1): Marie Dionne Warwick is an American singer, actress, and television show host who became a United Nations Global Ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organization and a United States Ambassador of Health. Warwick ranks among the 40 biggest hit makers of the entire rock era, based on the Billboard Hot 100 Pop Singles Charts.

Jerry Herman (1): Jerry Herman is an American composer and lyricist, known for his work in Broadway musical theater.

Kaleboel (4307):

Karlheinz Stockhausen (2): Karlheinz Stockhausen was a German composer, widely acknowledged by critics as one of the most important but also controversial composers of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Mike Stoller (1):

Stephen Sondheim (1): Stephen Joshua Sondheim is an American composer and lyricist known for more than a half-century of contributions to musical theatre.

Stimmung (1): Stimmung, for six vocalists and six microphones, is a piece by Karlheinz Stockhausen, written in 1968 and commissioned by the City of Cologne for the Collegium Vocale Köln.

Wilfrid Mellers (1): Wilfrid Howard Mellers was an English music critic, musicologist and composer.


  1. Yes but, you’re mixing preachers and prayers. The question revolves around the actual importance of those cultural outpourings that had been stillborn with the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, ‘Important’, conferred through much of the 20th c.

    Bert got his ex post when those so hip it hurts rediscovered him in the ’90’s. But that ain’t the same. Just a certain desperation for some content on which to hang a tag – or a mimetic environment for their melmac dinnerware.

    Brilliant song, Walk on by. But would Bert and Hal have made it without Dionne? Naig sez no.

  2. By the time I came to do my MA in Music a couple of years ago, the idea of a canon was thoroughly disreputable, so unfortunately (perhaps) the reputations of those who formed part of it in the benighted days when we used to be fearless enough to make positive statements of value, suffered.

    If anyone’s in Birmingham next month though, they’re doing the world premiere of Mittwoch aus Licht (the one with the string quartet in helicopters).


  3. I know it’s grotesque, but I think of KS as a Gesualdo to Bacharach or whoever’s Monteverdi: did some weird shit, didn’t change anything, not important. I’d go and see Licht because I haven’t figured out what he’s trying to preach, and if I didn’t read the programme notes I probably never would, but I find the hippy shite quite revolting.

  4. Yes–the image of KS, etched horribly in my mind’s eye for ever, is that picture of him in the white shirt: Messianic, unsmiling, fascistic.

    The hippy shit is airbrushing over something I find a bit more sinister.

  5. But didn’t he die the landlord of huge estates? I think James Last is still with us, but it would be cool to compare net worth.

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