Stockhausen Edition CD 23 Cover
No. 39: ATMEN GIBT DAS LEBEN (Breathing Gives Life)
Choir Opera with orchestra (live or tape)
1974/1977 (48-53 min.)

     ATMEN GIBT DAS LEBEN (Breathing Gives Life) is essentially written for a capella mixed choir, but Stockhausen also includes a somewhat secondary orchestra part (usually played as a tape accompaniment) which is used to "color" the unaccompanied choir.  There are 2 sections to this work which were written almost 4 years apart from each other.

     The first part (which has no orchestral accompaniment), was written in 1974 as part of a composition class.  Stockhausen had received a request to write a piece for amateur choir, and in his class he asked the students to write short choral works using texts from Hazrat Inayat Khan's "The Bowl of Saki".  The students never actually completed this assignment, but Stockhausen's own example composition became the basis for the first part of ATMEN GIBT DAS LEBEN.  The second part (with orchestra background) was completed in 1977, and the entire work was premiered at the Marc Chagall Museum in Nice as part of Chagall's 90th birthday.

     Besides using the text from Hazrat Inayat Khan in the first part, Stockhausen's libretto also uses six quotations from outside sources: three haiku (by Shiki, Buson, and Issa), and one sentence each from Socrates, the Gospel according to St. Thomas, and Meister Eckhart (the CD booklet includes the complete text in German and English, and gives the sources of the quotations).  There is no "story" to this opera-like work (at least in the normal sense), and so the scenes could be possibly appreciated as "episodes" in a larger work with a common sensibility.

Structure and Narrative
     The first part of ATMEN GIBT DAS LEBEN, titled "Atmen gibt das Leben" ("Breathing gives Life...") begins with a hummed choral harmony with vocal "interruptions".  After a brief tenor solo ("doch erst das Singen gibt die Gestalt" ("...but only singing gives the form")) a soprano sings soloistically over a 4-part harmony using the previous tenor text.

Form scheme for Part 2 from score, indicating the soloists and when the tutti refrains occur (inverted colors mine).
     The second part of ATMEN GIBT DAS LEBEN, "Sing ich für Dich, singst Du für mich" ("If I sing for thee, you will sing for me") uses the orchestra (or tape of an orchestra) as background coloration of the vocal forces.  This part mainly features vocal solos and duets separated by a "refrain" (choral tuttis) based on canonic variations of the phrase "Das ist wahr, oh das ist schrecklich wahr" ("That is true, oh that is very true").  The vocal solos themselves are are often very accessible and perhaps somewhat "folk-like".  In any case, these "arias" have a much more singable quality to them than, say, a strictly serial work, though Stockhausen's vocal compositions have always been relatively "tuneful" compared to his contemporaries, especially since the 1970's.

CD Trk Bar Choir Dur.
Part I: "Atmen gibt das Leben"
4 layers of simultaneous activity:
  • slow harmony from the choir (with subtle ornamentation), hummed using exhaled and inhaled vocals
  • a periodic "breathing" consonant ("phhh")
  • a periodic "hk" (or "hk-hk") on every second breath consonant
  • spoken text from a soprano and tenor soloist: "hai, EVA", "och, ADAM", "HU!"

After a male vocalist sings "atmen gibt das Leben...", choir begins singing on this text (starting with male voices).  Tenor and bass have a brief solo phrase on top of the slower female vocal harmony.
Eventually a female vocalist shouts "atmen gibt das Leben...", followed by an aleatoric chant ("gibt das Leben") and a soloists' exchange on "doch erste..."
(at 4:03)

A tenor solo ("doch erst das Singen gibt die Gestalt") is followed by more scattered "hk"'s and a choir echo. (from 8:21)
Soprano sings soloistically over a 4-part melodic harmony sung by the full choir 1:58

Fade out on "gibt des gestalt" (in free rhythm) (from 1:18)

CD Trk Section Choir Orchestra Dur.
Part II: "Sing ich für Dich, singst Du für mich"
3 Section 1
for Soprano 1
Soprano 1 solo: "Das Singen ja Singen ja Singen gibt die Gestalt...Sing ich für mich, singst Du für Dich..." Sustained strings  0:50
for Section 1
Choir (1st refrain led by sopranos) sings aleatoric (free rhythm) canon in German "Das ist wahr, oh das ist schrecklich wahr" ("That is true, oh that is very true") Sustained string chord on each beat 0:54
5 Section 2
for Alto 1
Alto 1 solo: halting, out of breath, but told "like a continuous tale", using a mixture of pitched and unpitched syllables ("CHRIST was here, secret messenger...") Sustained winds/brass, starting loud and becoming soft 1:05
1st 13 bars orchestra alone, then tenors, then full choir joins in (aleatoric canon, this time in English) Canonic variations 1:16
7 Section 3
for Tenor 1
Tenor 1 solo (based on a Shiki Haiku) Sustained winds, subtle accents 1:02
Aleatoric canonic variations in both German and English, starting with altos.  The altos and choir also have individual and ensemble crescendi. Sustained winds with accents on each beat, also crescendi 0:57
9 Section 4
for Soprano 2
Soprano 2 solo: in an "instructive, brilliant voice", using hand gestures ("A ray of muons shoots...") Sustained strings, fading in and out 0:47
10 Section 5
for Bass 1
Bass 1 ("mysteriously, like a magician") enters ("When the mesons..."). Soprano 2 mimics Bass 1, and tries to take over (sometimes yodeling).
Bass 1, annoyed, stamps his feet, driving away Soprano 2.  He continues with a comical solo, pausing when the female choir also begins to mimic him ("Mu--ons").
Sustained strings fade out for Bass solo 1:33
11 (Cont'd, 
Chord 5)
Bass 1 quiets the female choir with a shout, and then continues his solo.   Strings and winds sustained  1:07
12 TUTTI for
4 & 5
(4 bars before)
Immediately after Bass 1's final handclaps follows thick, chaotic, canonic variations in German.  In this section the groups start together and then drift apart, finally fading out one group at a time. Contrapuntal melodies, strings legato and winds tongued notes 1:19
13 Section 6
for Alto 2
Alto 2 solo: makes gestures indicating the approach of an object from the sky ("HE came from the center of the universe and Lucifer could not stop HIM")
The choir repeats "Je-su-s" on single pitches
Soft layered brass entrances (overlapping) 1:12
Canonic variations in German and English, staggered entry (Sopranos, altos, tenors, then basses) Soft layered brass entrances, eventually becoming rhythmic accents 0:51
15 Section 7
for Alto 3
Alto 3 solo, with "teaching" gestures, interspersed with different-pitched "pyps" ("Even ghostlier particles are neutrinos..."). Rhythmic brass accents fade out, replaced by sustained strings with subtle accents 2:11
Rhythmic variations on "pyp" (canonical, but much more synchronous) as the choir (except for Soprano 1 and Bass 1) slowly leaves the stage (with gliding jerks of the feet). Rhythmic pizzicato strings in 12/8, sometimes changing intensity 2:08
17 Duet As the choir moves off backstage, Soprano 1 and Bass 1 greet and have a duet ("hai...EVA!",  "och, Adam...").  The two singers arrange a rendezvous backstage and leave, after which Soprano 1 screams.  
She returns and sings "Not to mention neutrinos...", and then the full choir (including the soloists) quickly returns in backwards motion (singing "pyp") to where they were before they left the stage.
(tacet) 1:26
18 Sections 8
for Tenor 2
Section 9
for Bass 2
Tenor 2 and Bass 2 have a brief drama where Bass 2 mistakenly thought it was his turn (to sing an Issa Haiku).  Tenor 2 proceeds but Bass 2 attempts to cut in. Sustained brass 1:50
19 Section 10
for Soprano 3
(chord before) 
Soprano 3 attempts to begin her turn (a Socrates quote), but Tenor 2 and Bass 2 are still trying to finish their own texts (Bass: "For Heaven's Sake, can't you let a person finish his phrase!").  Bass 2 is finally allowed to sing his part in peace. Sustained winds 0:56
20 Trio A temporary compromise is reached with a 3-part harmony from all 3 soloists, eventually becoming polyphonic (using parts of all 3 soloists' texts). Sustained brass and strings swell twice and then become accents on each bar 0:54
21 TUTTI for
8, 9, 10
4 choral/orchestral tutti blocks (canonic variations in German and English) halted by piano and metal percussion strikes 4 choral/orchestral tutti blocks (1 layer of sustained strings with bar accents, and 1 layer of melodic strings and brass)  halted by piano and metal percussion strikes. 1:48
22 Section 11
for Bass 3
After introductory orchestra accents, Bass 3 has a solo, "The stomach retires - the heart does overtime" (and regards his stomach and heart). Winds, piano and metal perc. play accent chords on bar accents (winds with falling tail glissandi), and then sustain 0:43
Canonic variations (busy, chaotic) in German and English, unison entries, but gradually becoming displaced. After a rhythmic winds and drums beginning, winds sustain chords with accents on downbeats 1:08
24 Section 12
for Tenor 3
Tenor 3's solo (text from Gospel according to Saint Thomas, sung on a single pitch).  The choir repeats "Je-su-s" on held single pitches  Sustained brass 1:00
Canonic variations in German and English Pulsing brass harmony rhythm 1:27
26 Section 13
Male Choir
(2nd bar)
Tenor and Bass choir groups sing a harmony melody (using a Buson Haiku text, followed by a quote from Meister Eckhart) Winds, then strings, then brass (sustained chords with long individual pauses ) 1:18
Full choir (in English) starts as individual voices, but in harmony (staggered entrances, but in rhythm).  After 13 refrains, the voices gradually shift into independent layers, reducing tempo.
After a brief choir pause (at 2:26), the singers resume the refrains (faster and then slowing down, changing intensity), and also adding individually shouted personal "calls" (in the style of a yodel, American Indian call, African dance yell, or Gospel singer cry).
The singers individually exit the stage (fading out and reducing tempo).  Outside, the choir seems to regain energy once again...
Full orchestra starts as individual voices (flute leads), but in harmony (staggered entrances), after 3 refrains gradually shifting into independent layers, and reducing tempo.
Tuba and contrabass play only on downbeats, providing a constant downbeat pulse.

The material on the music staves are the canonic melodic texts, as well as the 2 layers of contrapuntal and sustaining instrumental elements.  At the top of the page (in the box) is a "form scheme" which indicates how and when to "employ" the notated material as 4 tutti blocks.
Live Performance
     In a live performance, the vocalists have specific physical attitudes which reflect either the text, the music, or both.  At times the vocal soloists may demonstrate text with gestures, have and "argument" with another soloist, "seduce" another soloist, herald the arrival of Jesus, etc...  Much of the drama comes from tension arising when a new singer's "turn" is up, and the previous singer doesn't want to leave.  This creates situations where the singers "bunch up", such as in Sections 8, 9 and 10, where the confusion is settled by a trio.  At one point, the choir slowly tiptoes off stage, but after a featured vocal duet, they return in "film-running-backwards" motion.  Some of these visual elements are described in the narrative above, but the CD sadly cannot impart the sometimes very comical visual aspects of this work.

Sound Impressions
     The 2 parts of ATMEN GIBT DAS LEBEN were written several years apart, and frankly they are indeed quite different, though they share a common sensibility I suppose.  The first part, "Atmen gibt das Leben", comes across to me as stark and subdued, with the "hiccups" being a kind of time-marker of sorts.  The most fascinating part of this section is the way the layers of choral voices navigate around each other in semi-heterophonic phrases.  When the choir falls into the ending 4-part harmony phrase, it's a beautiful moment, almost as if air were being let into the static environment created by the slow, droney vocals of the preceding section.

     The second part of ATMEN GIBT DAS LEBEN, "Sing ich für Dich, singst Du für mich", is very fascinating for the way Stockhausen writes for small and large groups of choral forces.  Each of the solos, duos and trio have their own "situation" and mood, and since the melodic material is very accessible (ie - not 'obviously' serial) these solos are very evocative and expressive.  The other really interesting element here is how Stockhausen uses the same Tutti refrain over and over again (in essentially the same canonic structure), but finds ways of making each one unique-sounding through vocal mixtures, layering sequences, dynamic envelopes, coloration from the orchestral forces, etc... All of this is incorporated into a somewhat satirical stage drama disrupted by scored moments of "misunderstandings", and all using a vocal text consisting of Japanese Haiku, the writings of Socrates, St. Thomas and, Meister Eckhart, and something about Jesus, Satan and particle physics... 

     Far in the future, Stockhausen would revisit some of the basic structural ideas of ATMEN GIBT DAS LEBEN in his LICHT opera cycle, especially in the works UNSICHTBARE CHÖRE and DÜFTE - ZEICHEN.

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