Volumina - György Ligeti

György Ligeti began lecturing regularly in Stockholm in 1961. Persuaded by Hans Otte, he wrote Volumina for organ solo for the Swedish organist Karl-Erik Welin. Volumina followed Ligeti’s first altogether successful foray into composing with masses of sound, Atmosphères for orchestra (1961). Ligeti’s technique of composing with what he called “moveable clusters” began with Víziók, started in Budapest in 1956, before the composer fled Hungary. After arriving in Cologne (where he stayed with Stockhausen for a while), Ligeti became exposed to the new musical thinking of Stockhausen and Boulez, and started working in the electronic music studio. He began to shape his idea of composing by building up many levels of sound. The composer used the technique in parts of his Apparitions (1958–59) before applying it fully in Atmosphères. The dense layers of sound in the piece are made up of many individual parts; one section is a forty-eight-voice mirror canon, with each string player playing a similar but rhythmically variant version of a short melodic motif. For the organist–soloist (with assistants to operate the stops) in Volumina such an approach was, of course, impossible. Instead, Ligeti developed a concept of moveable clusters as blocks of sound. He indicated general pitch areas and durations by using thick black lines, a wavy line or “squiggle” might mean a brief flurry of individual notes. Volumina begins with all the stops pulled out and every key of one manual depressed—this combination made the motor of the Göteborg organ catch re during a practice run. On hearing this news, the church council at Bremen, where the premiere was scheduled to take place, cancelled the performance. In the end, Volumina was premiered in May 1962 at the Bremen Cathedral via a tape recording of Karl-Erik Welin’s performance of the piece in Göteborg. Welin later premiered the revised version of the work in Kiel in May 1968. 

Robert Kirzinger