Karel Goeyvaerts: the amiable innovator

This week we remember composer Karel Goyvaerts who unexpectedly died thirty years ago. He was a pioneer in many fields: integral serial music, electronics and minimal music. He is known as a hard-working and committed musician, who could easily have entered history with a little less modesty.

Karel Goeyvaerts (1923 – 1993) studied piano, harmony, counterpoint, fugue, composition and music history at the conservatories of Antwerp (1943-1947) and Paris (1947-1951). In Paris, he was a pupil of Darius Milhaud (composition) and Olivier Messiaen (analysis), among others. Messiaen (1908-1992) in particular left a great impression on him. The Sonata for 2 pianos, written in 1950-51, leans both on the rhythmic innovations of Messiaen and the serial technique of Anton Webern (1883-1945), of which Goeyvaerts made detailed (structural) analyses. In 1951, he attended the legendary Ferienkurse in Darmstadt, Germany, and met avant-gardists Luigi Nono and Karlheinz Stockhausen, among others. He and Stockhausen became friends.  In 1953, Goeyvaerts and Stockhausen, along with several other composers, realised the first music produced using electronic generators (at the WDR studios in Cologne). In 1957, he temporarily withdrew from the music world, but continued to compose. After working mainly as a translator until 1970, Goeyvaerts spent the next four years working for Flemish radio, the then BRT. He was seconded as editor of electronic music in Ghent at the IPEM institute for psychoacoustics and electronic music based there. From 1974 to 1987, he held the same position at the BRT for the contemporary music sector. In 1992, Goeyvaerts was appointed lecturer at the Musicological Faculty of KU Leuven.

Integral serialism

Goeyvaerts is best known for his serial music, with Anton Webern as an example. He was the first composer to write a work to which serialism was implemented on all musical parameters. Serialism stands for a compositional technique where the 12 tones of the octave are organised into a series. That series then forms the structural basis (“rules of the game”). Webern applied this system to both musical content and musical form. And Karel Goeyvaerts went a few steps further. He elaborated this serial principle not only on the level of pitch but also on the level of rhythm, sound intensity and articulation. In doing so, he followed in the footsteps of Olivier Messiaen’s piano study Mode de valeurs et d’intensités (1949), in which the tonal material is organised on different levels (pitch, duration, strength and touch). After some transitional pieces, Goeyvaert’s Sonata for 2 pianos is now considered the first integral serial composition in music history. It was a significant step towards perfect purity.

From left to right: Luigi Nono, Karel Goeyvaerts, Karl-heinz Stockhausen. Venue: Darmstädter Ferienkurse, 1951


Goeyvaerts was also one of the first to move towards electronic music, which allowed him to add even more structure to both composition and performance (tape). Number 4 (“with dead tones”) (December 1952) was the occasion for this premiere: it is the first score to be played by purely electronic means. The subtitle of Composition Number 5 (“with pure tones”) did not steal its name either: the abstract sound structure is characterised by far-reaching purity. In particular, it refers to the use of electronic sound generators and modulators that allowed the different parameters in the music to be infinitely more differentiated. For example, between a chromatic semitone (the smallest distance in our tonal system) there are still a large number of tone levels that could not be used because traditional musical instruments were not suitable for them. In addition, tonal hours that cannot be represented in our notation system because of extremely short or long values can be realised using electronics. After all, together with a root tone (the tone we perceive) there are a large number of overtones that ultimately determine the sound colour. Using electronic sound generators, it was possible to visualise many more timbres. The use of sine tones, from which all overtones have been filtered out and only bare fundamental tones remain, proved remarkable.

Minimal music

Other works show characteristics of minimal music. Pour que les fruits mûrissent cet été (1976) fits surprisingly well with Composition Number 5, which was written according to the serial technique. Goeyvaerts thus showed that raw enemies of serialism, such as American composer Philip Glass, sometimes suffered from short-sightedness. The five Litanies he subsequently wrote according to this technique between 1979 and 1982 are undoubtedly the highlight of this group of works. Goeyvaerts carried through the austerity and reduction of means characteristic of this “minimal music” to the aesthetic level.

In his last major work, the large-scale opera Aquarius (1983-93), all these elements flow together. This work is a synthesis of the new techniques Goeyvaerts used in his work. The vocal cast includes eight sopranos and eight baritones who only perform together. There is an orchestra, there is a vague apocalyptic-astrological theme, but otherwise no characters, no accomplished libretto, no comprehensible text. What remains expresses the expectation that in the Age of Aquarius (over a hundred years from now) everyone will occupy the place they deserve according to their own abilities. The work has also been characterised as “nostalgia for the future”. With a little good will, one can say that Goeyvaerts is referring to himself here.

Listening tips:

Karel Goeyvaerts, Sonata No. 1 for two pianos – Champ d’Action

Karel Goeyvaerts, Number 4 with dead tones

Karel Goeyvaerts, Pour que les fruits mûrissent cet été – Le Florilegium Musicum de Paris

Karel Goeyvaerts, Litany II – Royal Conservatory of Brussels

Olivier Messiaen, Mode de valeurs et d’intensités – Raymond Shon (piano)

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