Donnerstag aus Licht

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Karlheinz Stockhausen in 2005

Donnerstag aus Licht (Thursday from Light) is an opera by Karlheinz Stockhausen in a greeting, three acts, and a farewell, and was the first of seven to be composed for the opera cycle Licht: die sieben Tage der Woche (Light: The Seven Days of the Week). It was written between 1977 and 1980, with a libretto by the composer.


Donnerstag was given its staged premiere on 15 March 1981 by the La Scala Opera in the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, but without the third act, which had to be omitted due to a strike by the opera chorus of La Scala. They had demanded soloists' bonuses because of one brief passage in act 3, and had been turned down by the management. Further performances without the third act followed on 18, 21, 24, and 27 March. An agreement was finally reached and the complete opera was finally performed on 3 April, with two further performances on 5 and 7 April (Kurtz 1992, 213). The stage direction was by Luca Ronconi, with costume and stage design by Gae Aulenti. Scenic realisation was by Giorgio Cristini, lighting by Vannio Vanni, light compositions (act 3) by Mary Bauermeister. Péter Eötvös conducted, and played the Hammond organ in act 3, scene 2. Karlheinz Stockhausen was the sound projectionist.

On 19 December 1981, Donnerstag was awarded the Premio Critica Musicale F. Abbiati for "best new work of contemporary music" (Stockhausen 1989a, 189).

A second staging was given by the Royal Opera, Covent Garden in London, on 16, 18, 20, 24, and 26 September 1985. The stage direction was by Michael Bogdanov, designed by Mari Bjornson, lighting and light compositions by Chris Ellis. Péter Eötvös conducted, and Stockhausen was the sound projectionist.

The second act, Michaels Reise um die Erde (Michael's Journey Around the Earth) was staged separately in 2008, by Carlus Padrissa (es) of La Fura dels Baus, with stage direction by Roland Olbeter. It was performed by Marco Blaauw (trumpet), Nicola Jürgensen (basset horn), and musikFabrik, directed by Peter Rundel. Video was by Franc Aleu, dramaturgy by Thomas Ulrich, lighting by Frank Sobotta, and sound direction by Paul Jeukendrup. This was initially a production of the Wiener Taschenoper in collaboration with the Wiener Festwochen. In 2013, this production was revived for three performances at Avery Fisher Hall in New York as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, beginning appropriately on Thursday, 18 July (Tommasini 2013).

Donnerstag is an opera for 14 performers (3 voices, 8 instrumentalists, 3 dancers) plus a choir, an orchestra, and tapes. It was composed between 1977 and 1980. In the larger context of Licht, Thursday is Michael's day. Thursday's exoteric (primary) colour is bright blue, and its esoteric (secondary) colours are purple and violet (Stockhausen 1989a, 182; Stockhausen 1989b, 200. Thursday is also the day of plants (Stockhausen 1989b, 201).


RolePerformerPremiere cast (La Scala, 1981)London cast (1985)
MichaeltenorRobert Gambill (act 1), Paul Sperry (act 3)Julian Pike (Frieder Lang on Wed. 18 Sept.)
MichaeltrumpeterMarkus StockhausenMarkus Stockhausen
MichaeldancerMichèle NoiretMichèle Noiret
EvesopranoAnnette MeriweatherAnnette Meriweather
Evebasset hornSuzanne StephensSuzanne Stephens
EvedancerElizabeth ClarkeElisabeth Clarke
LuciferbassMatthias HölleNicholas Isherwood
LucifertrombonistMark TezakMichael Svoboda
Luciferdancer-mimeAlain LouafiAlain Louafi
Michael’s AccompanistpianistMajella StockhausenMajella Stockhausen
Invisible ChoirschoirWDR Choir, Karlheinz Stockhausen, cond. (16-track recording)WDR Choir, Stockhausen, cond. (16-track recording)
Clownesque Pair of Swallowsclarinetists (2nd doubles basset horn)Alain Damiens, Michel ArrignonDavid Smeyers, Beate Zelinsky
Two Boyssoprano saxophonistsHugo Read, Simon StockhausenSimon Stockhausen
Old WomanactressElena Pantano
MessengertenorGiovanni Mastino
Penguins at the South Pole (act 2)orchestraOrchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Péter Eötvös, cond.Orchestra of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Péter Eötvös, cond.
Heavenly Choirs and Orchestra (act 3)choir and orchestraOrchestra and Choir of the Teatro alla Scala, Péter Eötvös, cond.Orchestra and Choir of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Péter Eötvös, cond.


Archangel Michael, Cologne Cathedral, north portal

The time and place are universal.


The Thursday Greeting is performed in the foyer as the audience is arriving.

Act 1: Michaels Jugend[edit]

The first act consists of three scenes that follow one another without a break.

Scene 1: Kindheit[edit]

In "Childhood" Michael, a son of poor parents, demonstrates exceptional gifts. His father, a schoolteacher, teaches him to pray, hunt, shoot, and perform in theatre. From his mother he learns singing and merry-making, dancing—and seduction. His parents quarrel, and a younger brother, Hermannchen, dies in infancy. The mother goes mad, attempts suicide, and is hospitalised. The father turns to drink, and goes off to war.

Scene 2: Mondeva[edit]

In the forest, Michael encounters Mondeva (Moon-Eve), half woman, half bird, and falls in love with her. As he discovers how to control her music through erotic play, in a parallel scene Michael’s mother is being killed by a doctor in an asylum.

Scene 3: Examen[edit]

Michael undergoes a triple admission examination to the conservatory. First as a singer, then as a trumpeter, and finally as a dancer, he amazes the jury, who enthusiastically admit him.

Act 2: Michaels Reise um die Erde[edit]

In the second act, Michael undertakes a journey around the world in what is essentially a trumpet concerto with orchestra, performed in a huge rotating globe set against a starry firmament. There are seven "stations" along the way, at each of which the music takes on colour from the locale: Germany, New York, Japan, Bali, India, Central Africa, and Jerusalem. Michael's formula gradually evolves from a simple beginning form to increasingly florid extravagance, finally shattering into incoherent fragments in stations 5 and 6. When he reaches Central Africa, Michael hears a distant basset horn, and orders the globe to stop turning. Michael commands the earth to rotate in reverse as the seventh station, Jerusalem, is reached, and he begins a new process of rehabilitation in a therapeutic conversation with a double-bass player. Mondeva appears, and they perform a duet in which their melodic formulas merge and intertwine until each plays the other's formula. Two clownish clarinet players, costumed as a pair of swallows, mock and—together with the orchestral low brass, an emblem of Lucifer—"crucify" him, after which the act ends with a musical "ascension" in which the sounds of the trumpet and basset horn circle around until they are united in a trill (Kurtz 1992, 213–14; Kohl 1993, 209–12).

Act 3: Michaels Heimkehr[edit]

In the third act Michael—in his threefold manifestation as tenor, trumpeter, and dancer—returns to his celestial home.

Scene 1: Festival[edit]

Michael fighting the Dragon (Bonn University, main entrance)

As the invisible choirs sing all around, he is welcomed by Eve—also in threefold form as soprano, basset hornist, and dancer—five choirs (delegates from various parts of the Michael Universe), five orchestral groups, and a background string orchestra (Stockhausen 1989a, 412).

Scene 2: Vision[edit]

In a process of 15 cyclical transpositions, Michael explains (in threefold appearance as singer, trumpeter, and dancer), his experience and opposition to Lucifer.


Archangel Michael as trumpeter (Christuskirche, Mannheim)

The Thursday Farewell (also called "Michael's Farewell") is performed outside the opera house following the performance, by five trumpeters who begin as the last scene, Vision, is concluding. They are costumed as Michael and positioned on the rooftops or on balconies surrounding the square, floodlit like statues on a tower. They each repeat one segment of the Michael formula, with long pauses between repetitions, for about 30 minutes, withdrawing at the end in the order in which their respective segments occur in the formula (Stockhausen 1989a, 488).

Unsichtbare Chöre[edit]

The Invisible Choirs are played back in the theatre over eight channels throughout most of act 1, and again in act 3, scene 1, and is composed in such a way that they could never be sung by a choir live, in part because there are as many as 180 separate voices, and in part because of the demands of polyphonic synchronicity, exactness of intonation, and dynamic balance (Stockhausen 1996, 77). There are three texts sung in Hebrew ("Judgement Day" from The Ascent of Moses, "The End of Time" from the Apocalypse of Baruch, and a Hymn of Praise, "The Heavens Rejoice", from the Book of Leviticus), as well as a different passage from "The End of Time", sung in German (Stockhausen 1989a, 206–207).

Critical reception[edit]

The staged premiere of Donnerstag was very well received in Italy, where it was awarded the Italian Music Critics' Prize for best new work in December 1981. The German press reception, on the other hand, was harsh and often ad hominem (Kurtz 1992, 214–16). The Covent Garden production in 1985 also provoked contrary points of view in the press, in part divided over the question of the music versus the theatrical conception. Paul Griffiths, writing in the Times, for example, found that "it contains much quite extraordinary music" but "the opera never for a moment works as the mystic revelation it pretends to be. … It is very wondrous to contemplate—wondrous, that is, when it is not just silly" (Griffiths 1985b). Andrew Porter, on the contrary, found the "variety of forces, forms, textures, and matter … a strength and a pleasure", and the "somewhat ramshackle construction saves the work from solemn pretentiousness. There's even a playful quality about much of it, although its essential seriousness is not in doubt and inner musical integrity is not compromised" (Porter 1985, 127). Porter concludes,

hearing and seeing the drama is an engrossing, enjoyable, and elevating adventure. Ear, mind, and spirit are engaged. And, as I suggested, moments of jokiness, naïveté—silliness, even—save the work from being unbearably solemn: Stockhausen-Sarastro has a vein of Papageno in him. There is a great deal to listen to and to watch. Some of the spans, especially in the last scene, are traversed slowly. But things happen; the music doesn't fall into simplistic repetitions or numbing stasis. There are counterpoints to follow. There are supple melodies and rich harmonies. There are wonderful sounds—new and stirring sounds. The score is a culmination of the marvellous musics—in whose making Michael's vision, Lucifer's technical skills, and the inspiration of Eve's love seem to have conspired—that have poured from Stockhausen during the last thirty years. … But what matters most now is the excitement of entering this huge, ambitious work, responding to its sounds and sights, trying to understand it, and feeling, perhaps, that it is—by intention at least—something like a Divine Comedy and a Comédie Humaine in one. (Porter 1985, 131)




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