Harlekin (1975) is one of the best known and most appreciated of Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s works for the originality of its mise-en-scène and mode of composition: the clarinettist, in fact, plays, mimes and dances contemporaneously.

Stockhausen developed the concept of the composition for Formulas already tried, in, among others, Mantra (1970 and Inori (1972): the Formula, the extreme evolution of the post-Weberian series, is a collection of notes, dynamics, rhythms and detailed phrasing connected, as in a living organism, by close internal bonds balanced by precise mathematical calculations.

Stockhausen’s Harlequin no longer possesses almost anything of the mask of the commedia dell’arte: the character that we see on stage does not express himself through the word but through music and body language. Harlequin‘s unknown aspect is revealed, his hidden essence, the seven faces of his spirit. The pantomime, in its entirety, becomes an abstract representation of man’s life.

The Formula of Harlekin consists of 13 sounds which evolve and are modified, in the space of 43 minutes, through seven sections, to which Stockhausen gives an exact title.


1st Section The dream messenger

Harlequin comes on stage, sleepily playing a light trill on the first notes of his Formula. Following an ideal spiral and turning around, he adds to a growing number of sounds until he performs the entire melody in a contracted form: from this disconnected and rhythmless phrase which represents his musical DNA, Harlequin extracts, one by one, the notes of the Formula, holding them in the air, and waking a little on each one of them, and attributes parameters of pitch, rhythm and dynamics to them.


2nd Section The playful constructor

His musical identity revealed, Harlequin explores the Formula and the space at his disposal through

some scores of subtle variations underlined by sharp movements of the dance.

The Formula is extended in time, moving from a metronomic velocity of 200 to one of 36, and descends gradually from the high register to the low one of the clarinet.


3rd Section “The enamoured lyric”

Still in the centre of the stage, Harlequin plays the Formula in its original version as if to enchant the listeners; he sits cross-legged with a serious expression.


4th Section The pedantic teacher

Harlequin is seated at the centre of the stage and writing the Formula in the air with the clarinet, trying to teach it to the listeners. Like an old master, he wants to be as precise as possible, but he continues to make mistakes and his mood darkens. This section has a clear pedagogical intention: the audience must concentrate on each note, identifying pitch, duration and dynamics.

Once the exercise has concluded, Harlequin is happy and rises to his feet; having noted that a precise pitch of the notes corresponds to the position of the clarinet in the air, he gives play to exaggerated evolutions and tours de force which cause his instrument not to play correctly.


5th Section “The roguish joker”

Harlequin, who has regained control of his clarinet, tries to play the highest note of his melody but does not succeed: it is the fault of the excessive length of the instrument. With mad stratagems he achieves his purpose and exults, jumps, plays and jokes like a buffoon.


6th Section The passionate dancer

Harlequin dances, plays with an imaginary wind and is paralysed in photographic poses. After having taught his Formula to his right foot, he dances with the percussive accompaniment of his feet and is distracted from playing.


7th Section “The spinning spirit

Trying not to be heard by the shadow projected on the background, Harlequin tries to recompose the notes of his melody by arpeggios and variations. In the light of this experience, however, he also realises that the Formula, like his soul, has evolved and been modified. Harlequin takes his leave of the 13 notes that have accompanied him by playing them fortissimo like a desperate cry and making them rise to the sky in dizzying circles; having reached the last note, however, he realises that the end is near, that it is time to go. He looks at the space in which he was born and grew, in which he cried and rejoiced, learnt and taught, and accepts his destiny: he plays the thirteenth note, the top A, and ridding himself of all he possesses, finally surveys the public and bows.


Michele Marelli

Translated by Jonathan West  



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