GOEYVAERTS Karel (1923-1993)

Karel Goeyvaerts was born on 8 June 1923 in Antwerp, and died there on 3 February 1993. From 1943 to 1947 he studied piano, harmony, counterpoint, fugue, composition and music history at the Royal Flemish Music Conservatory in Antwerp, and went on to study at the National Conservatory in Paris, where he pursued studies in composition under Darius Milhaud and analysis with Olivier Messiaen, and where he mastered the “Ondes Martenot” with the inventor of this instrument, Maurice Martenot. It was particularly Messiaen who left a great impression on the young Goeyvaerts. The Sonata for 2 Pianos, written in 1950-51, can, for instance, be seen as a synthesis of certain of Messiaen’s ideas with Webern’s application of dodecaphony, of which Goeyvaerts made detailed analyses. This sonata was to have a major influence on the young generation of avant-gardists in general and Karlheinz Stockhausen in particular. Witness to this are the many personal and musical links between the two men, the extensive correspondence, and compositions by Stockhausen which almost literally took over the basic concept of this sonata (for instance, Kreuzspiel). In 1953, Goeyvaert and Stockhausen, together with several other composers, realised the first music produced by means of electronic generators (in the studios of the WDR in Cologne). In 1957 he temporarily withdrew from the musical world, although he continued to compose. In 1970, he was appointed by the Belgian Radio and Television (BRT) as producer at the Institute for Psycho-Acoustic and Electronic Music (IPEM) in Ghent. After several years, he became the head producer for New Music at Belgian Radio 3 (the classical channel) in Brussels. In June 1985 he was chosen Chairperson of the International Composers’ Rostrum a prestigious and active association under the auspices of the UNESCO International Music Council. Goeyvaerts was a member of the Royal Academy for Science, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium. In 1992, he was named as first holder of the KBC Chair for New Music in the department of Musicology at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. This position required him to teach a course for final-year undergraduates and to write a composition. The composition Alba per Alban, which he was writing to fulfil the obligations of this position, remained unfinished at the time of the composer’s sudden death on 3 February 1993.




In the analysis class given by Olivier Messiaen, Goeyvaerts quickly assimilated the achievements made in New Music since 1910. For his own compositional practice, Goeyvaerts saw particular possibilities in Messiaen’s rhythmic innovations and in Anton Webern’s structuralist application of serialism. In this composition technique, the twelve tones of the octave are organised into a series which then forms the structural basis (the “grammar”) of a composition. Webern had perfectly mastered this serial principle to the point that the musical content and the musical form both flowed directly from the original series or tone row. Karel Goeyvaerts would be the first composer in music history to succeed in applying this serial principle not only on the level of pitch but also on the levels of rhythm (note length), sound intensity and articulation. His Second Violin Concerto (completed 12 January 1951) and his Nummer 1. Sonata for 2 Pianos (winter 1950-51) are also clearly transitional works in which the composer aims for absolute structural purity, without however quite achieving his goal.

In the first case, the serial intentions collide with the demands of the genre: writing a serial concerto is an invitation to problems. In the second case, the traditional writing style of movements 1 and 4 contrast sharply with the purity of the middle movement. In contrast to accepted opinion, only Nummer 2 for 13 instruments can truly be considered the first total serial composition in music history.

Goeyvaerts was also one of the first to move in the direction of electronic music, which allowed him to bring even more discipline to both the composition and the “performance” (via magnetic tape). Nummer 4 met dode tonen (with dead tones) (December, 1952) was the occasion of this first: it is the first score intended for purely electronic realisation. The subtitle of Nummer 5 (“met zuivere tonen” — with pure tones) again speaks volumes: the abstract sound structure is characterised by a perfected purity on both technical and aesthetic levels.

From the 1960s, Goeyvaerts no longer played such a key role in the fundamental changes in New Music, but did keep a close eye on these changes. His experimental, aleatory, repetitive and neo-tonal works from the years 1960-93 can thus be understood as attempts to explore the international developments in New Music in terms of its usefulness for personal compositional intentions. Despite the most diverse stylistic and composition-technical manifestations, these works are in fact remarkably homogeneous. A good example in this connection is the Stuk voor piano en tape of 1964. In this work, all manner of relations between a fixed recording on tape and a piano part performed live are systematically explored. The even distribution of these possibilities around a central axis recalls the serial procedures in Goeyvaerts’ works of the 1950s. Repetitive music also fell under Goeyvaerts’ gaze. The five Litanieën which he wrote between 1979 and 1982 using this technique form without a doubt the highpoint of this group of works. Goeyvaerts carried the austerity and reduction of means characteristic of this “minimal music” on to the aesthetic level. In his works written after 1980 he was thus able to reclaim the expressive intention and tonal techniques more associated with the Neo-Romantic style.

In his opus ultimum, the large-scale opera Aquarius (1983-93), all these elements flow together. The vocal scoring numbers eight sopranos and eight baritones which only perform collectively; there is an orchestra, there is a vague apocalyptic-astrological theme (the growth towards a more harmonious societal form), but for the rest there are no characters, no real libretto, no semantically comprehensible text. Only by a roundabout means are we able to arrive at Goeyvaerts’ vision of the staging of Aquarius: in his correpondence with a visual artist it appears that the composer envisaged a non-symbolic and geometric-abstract stage design. This can lead to two conclusions: Goeyvaerts remained an innovative artist to the end of his life, despite the many changes in style and apparently restorative movements he went through; and his bent for abstraction since the strictly serial music of the 1950s never truly let go of him. This is noticeable on a musical level as well. Goeyvaerts’ specific application of neo-tonality, a technique that is in principle in diametrical opposition to serialism, is, for example, unthinkable without the serial purity of the 1950s. The string quartet De Zeven Zegels (The seven seals) (1986), which also forms the basic music for the finale of the opera, is clear evidence for this. There are, it is true, seven tonal centres which are stabilised by means of a major triad, but apart from this, the pitch material is handled distributively. This means that the tones can be used interchangeably in horizontal combination (in succession) and in vertical combination (as chords). This highly serial procedure is far removed from a tonal practice. In addition, the micro- and macro-structure correspond to one another in De Zeven Zegels: the form is unique and issues from the choice and combination of the tonal material. The circular structure, symmetrical construction around a central axis and the numerical symbolism, finally, means that this work too — as pars pro toto — embodies Being of Time, a compositional fetish that had obsessed Goeyvaerts since the early 1950s. Upon closer analysis, it turns out that the successive stylistic shifts are merely superficial transformations, behind which lies a remarkably homogeneous compositional oeuvre.


List of works

Orchestra: Second Violin Concerto (1951); Zomerspelen (1961); Al naar gelang (1971); Litanie III (1980); Aquarius (symphonic version) (1991)

Ensemble: Tre Lieder per sonar a venti-sei (1949); Nr. 2 voor 13 instrumenten (1951); Nummer 3 met gestreken en geslagen tonen (1952); Nr. 6 met 180 klankvoorwerpen (1954); Pour que les fruits mûrissent cet été (1975); Erst das Gesicht… (1978); Zum Wassermann (1984); Avontuur (1985); De Heilige Stad (1986); Das Haar (1990)

Opera: Aquarius (l’ère du verseau) (1983-93)

Vocal-instrumental: Elegische muziek (1950); Mis voor Paus Johannes XXIII (1968); Bélise dans un jardin (1972); Litanie IV (1981); De Stemmen van de Waterman (1985)

Choir: Mon doux pilote s’endort aussi (1976)

Chamber music: Nr. 1. Sonate voor 2 piano’s (1951); Ach Golgatha! (1975); Litanie II (1980); Aemstel Kwartet (1985); De Zeven Zegels (1986); Voor Strijkkwartet (1992)

Piano: Litanie I (1979); Pas à Pas (1985)

Tape: Nr. 4 met dode tonen (1952); Nr. 5 met zuivere tonen (1953); Nr. 7 met convergerende en divergerende niveaus (1955); Nachklänge aus dem Theater I-II (1972)

Instrument(s) plus tape: Stuk voor piano en tape (1964); Pianokwartet (1972); You’ll never be alone anymore (1975); Litanie V (1982)

For a more detailed list of works, please follow this link.



– K. GOEYVAERTS, Das elektronische Klangmaterial, in die Reihe, 1, 1955, p. 16
– R. TOOP, Messiaen/Goeyvaerts, Fano/Stockhausen, Boulez, in Perspectives of New Music, 13, 1, 1974, p. 141-169
– H. SABBE, Het muzikale serialisme als techniek en als denkmethode, Gent, 1977
– H. SABBE, …wie die Zeit verging…, (Musik-Konzepte, 19), Munchen, 1981
– H. SABBE, Vom Serialismus zum Minimalismus. Der Werdegang eines Manierismus. Der Fall Goeyvaerts, “Minimalist avant la lettre”, in Neuland. Ansätze zur Musik der Gegenwart, ed. H. HENCK, 3, Keulen, 1982-83, p. 203-208
– K. GOEYVAERTS, Een zelfportret, Gent, 1988
– M. DELAERE (ed.),The artistic legacy of K. Goeyvaerts. A collection of essays, thematic issue of Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap, 48, 1994
– M. DELAERE, Namen werden hier zu Menschen. Zur Frühgeschichte der Darmstädter Ferienkurse. Zwei unveröffentlichte Briefe von K. Goeyvaerts, in MusikTexte. Zeitschrift für neue Musik, 54, 1994, p. 29-30
– M. DELAERE, Sonate voor 2 piano’s van K. Goeyvaerts, in Muziek en Woord, mei 1994, p. 41-42
– W. VERVLOET, Transformatietechnieken in een repetitief werk: een analyse van Karel Goeyvaerts’ “Pas à Pas”, in Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap, thema-nummer ed.
M. DELAERE, The Artistic Legacy of Karel Goeyvaerts, 48, 1994, p. 119-132
– H. SABBE, Goeyvaerts and the Beginnings of “Punctual” Serialism and Electronic Music, in Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap, thema-nummer ed. M. DELAERE, The Artistic Legacy of Karel Goeyvaerts, 48, 1994, p. 55-94
– J. LYSENS en D. von VOLBORTH-DANYS, Karel Goeyvaerts: A Chronological Survey of Works, in Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap, thema-nummer ed. M. DELAERE, The Artistic Legacy of Karel Goeyvaerts, 48, 1994, p. 15-34
– P. DECROUPET en E. UNGEHEUER, Karel Goeyvaerts und die serielle Tonbandmusik, in Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap, thema-nummer ed.
M. DELAERE, The Artistic Legacy of Karel Goeyvaerts, 48, 1994, p. 95-118
– R. POLS, The Time is Near… Karel Goeyvaerts’ Apocalyptic Utopia in his Opera “Aquarius”, in Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap, thema-nummer ed. M. DELAERE, The Artistic Legacy of Karel Goeyvaerts, 48, 1994, p. 151-172
– D. VERSTRAETE, Staging the Ideal Society. Goeyvaerts’ Conception of the Visual Aspect in “Aquarius”, in Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap, thema-nummer ed. M. DELAERE, The Artistic Legacy of Karel Goeyvaerts, 48, 1994, p. 173-192
– M. DELAERE en J. D’HOE, Structural Aspects of New Tonality in Goeyvaerts’ String Quartet “The Seven Seals”, in Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap, thema-nummer ed. M. DELAERE, The Artistic Legacy of Karel Goeyvaerts, 48, 1994, p. 133-150
– M. DELAERE, The Projection in Time and Space of a Basic Idea Generating Structure, in Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap, thema-nummer ed. M. DELAERE,The Artistic Legacy of Karel Goeyvaerts, 48, 1994, p. 11-14
– M. DELAERE (ed.) Karel Goeyvaerts: Paris-Darmstadt 1947-1955. Excerpt from the Autobiographical Portrait, in Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap, thema-nummer ed. M. DELAERE, The Artistic Legacy of Karel Goeyvaerts, 48, 1994, p. 35-54
– M. DELAERE, Goeyvaerts-Feldman. Over sacraliteit in een geseculariseerde samenleving, in Muziek en Woord, november 1995, p. 23-26
– M. DELAERE, A Pioneer of Serial, Electronic and Minimal Music. The Belgian Composer K. Goeyvaerts, in Tempo. A Quarterly Review for New Music, 195, 1996, p. 2-5
– M. DELAERE en D. VERSTRAETE, Het Goeyvaerts-fonds in de Centrale Bibliotheek K.U.Leuven. Inleiding en Catalogus, in Musica Antiqua, 13, 1, 1996, p. 28-32
– M. DELAERE, Y. KNOCKAERT en H. SABBE, Nieuwe Muziek in Vlaanderen, Brugge (Stichting Kunstboek), 1998
– M. DELAERE, D. VERSTRAETE, E. SIMOENS en J. CHRISTIAENS, Catalogus K. Goeyvaerts-archief, New Music Research Centre K. Goeyvaerts, Universiteitsarchief K.U.Leuven, 1998, 45pp. (typoscript en website)
– M. DELAERE, Very abstract Music.
Karel Goeyvaerts and the Internationalisation of New Music in Flanders, in The Low Countries. Arts and Society in Flanders and the Netherlands. A Yearbook, Rekkem, 1998, p. 294-296
– M. DELAERE, art. Karel Goeyvaerts, in I. ALLIHN (ed.), Kammermusikführer, Stuttgart-Kassel, 1998, p. 224-228
-M. DELAERE, Das Analyseseminar Olivier Messiaens und die Entwicklung der seriellen Musik, in Chr. M. SCHMIDT e.a., in Musikwissenschaft zwischen Kunst, Ästhetik und Experiment. Festschrift Helga de la Motte-Haber zum 60. Geburtstag, Würzburg, 1998, p. 89-104
– M. DELAERE, Auf der Suche nach serieller Stimmigkeit. Goeyvaerts’ Weg zur Komposition Nr. 2, in O. FINNENDAHL (ed.), Die Anfänge der seriellen Musik (Kontexte. Beiträge zur zeitgenössischen Musik, 1), Hofheim (Wolke Verlag), 1998, p. 13-36
– M. DELAERE, J. LYSENS en Chr. WAUTERS, Karel Goeyvaerts’ Litany V for Harpsichord and Tape or for Several Harpsichords: an Analysis, in Contemporary Music Review, 19, 4, 2000, p. 117-128
– M. DELAERE, Karel Goeyvaerts en de nieuwe muziek in België sinds 1950, in L. GRIJP e.a., Een muziekgeschiedenis der Nederlanden, Amsterdam University Press, verschijnt in 2001
– M. DELAERE, art.
Karel Goeyvaerts, in S. SADIE (ed.) The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2de uitg., verschijnt in 2001



– LITANIES, Megadisc MDC 7872/73
– STRING QUARTETS (Quatuor Danel), Megadisc MDC 7853
– WORKS FOR PIANO (Jan Michiels), Megadisc MDC 7848
– Aquarius (16 vocal soloists, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of Flanders, G. Llewelyn), Megadisc MDC7850/51
– THE SERIAL WORKS (Champ d’Action), Megadisc MDC 7845
– WORKS 1959-1985 (Various ensembles), Megadisc 7829/30



CeBeDeM (from 1951 to 2015)



Karel Goeyvaerts archive at KU Leuven



Texts by Mark Delaere
Last update: 2017