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Györgi Ligeti’s organ works and the spirit of innovation within tradition

September 28, 2023
Example 1
Example 1: Frescobaldi, “Ricercare cromatico post il Credo” (subject) and Ligeti, “Musica Ricercata XI” (subject) (With permission by SCHOTT MUSIC, Mainz)

Markus Rathey is the Robert S. Tangeman Professor of Music History at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, where he teaches at the Institute of Sacred Music, the School of Music, the Divinity School, and the Department of Music. Not only a leading Bach scholar and author of several books on Johann Sebastian Bach, he has also published numerous articles on the history of organ music and organbuilding from the seventeenth to the twentieth century.

Organ recitals usually do not create a lot of drama. Even less so are rehearsals for organ recitals the stuff of dramatic tales. However, it was a rather dramatic practice session that marked the first public performance of Györgi Ligeti’s (1923–2006) most famous organ work, Volumina. The memorable event involved smoking pipes, a failing electrical system, and an exasperated organist who had to find a different church in which to perform. But more about these spectacular events in a moment.

The Hungarian composer Györgi Ligeti was one of the most influential and revolutionary composers in the second half of the twentieth century. Born on May 28, 1923, in Dicsőszentmárton (today as Tîrnăveni, part of Romania), Ligeti studied at the conservatory of Koloszvár (Klausenburg) and, after a short interruption due to the war, finished his studies in Budapest where he graduated in 1949.

In later comments about his training, Ligeti lamented that the Cold War had made it impossible to stay abreast of the musical developments in the West and that he was mostly expected to compose vocal works in a folk style that had been dominated by Hungarian national composer Zoltan Kodáli. Ligeti made early compositional experiments and developed a unique personal style; however, most of these innovative compositions had to remain in his desk until he was able to flee Hungary and move to Vienna in 1956. Soon after arriving in the Austrian capital, Ligeti not only absorbed the new developments in post-war Western European music, but he also contacted some of the leading avant-garde composers.

Already in 1958, Ligeti began teaching at the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music, one of the hotbeds of musical innovation in the 1950s and 1960s. Working with Karl-Heinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, and others expanded Ligeti’s style, and his musical visions became more and more innovative. Ligeti experimented with clusters, composed electronic music, and challenged established conventions of musical sound. His revolutionary approach to music was often paired with an ironic sense of humor, which is reflected in works such as Trois Bagatelles (1962) for piano or the satirical Fragment (1961).1

It might come as a surprise that Ligeti formed an interest in organ music. The organ, often viewed as an instrument stifled by its own traditions, was not particularly involved in the musical innovations during the twentieth century. Several factors contributed to Ligeti’s decision to write organ works.2 The earliest root of his interest in the instrument dates back to his music studies in the 1940s. As he later reports, he studied organ for a few years at the conservatory of Koloszvár, and he proudly describes that his skills were sufficient to play Bach’s Sonata in E-flat Major, BWV 525.3 He abandoned his organ studies when he left Koloszvár during the war, but we have a few traces of his organ playing in later years. Most importantly, he played his own organ work Volumina on a small, mechanical-action organ in Vienna in 1962,4 even before the disastrous rehearsal for the first public performance took place. Ligeti did not play the piece in public (so it does not count as an official performance), but it demonstrates that he was still able to play the instrument twenty years after he had taken his first organ lessons.

Musica Ricercata

Ligeti had even composed a small organ work when he still lived in Hungary. This composition grew out of a cycle of contrapuntal and experimental pieces with the name Musica Ricercata.5 Written in Budapest between 1951 and 1953, the eleven movements, originally composed for piano, document Ligeti’s search for a new musical style. As the political separation of Eastern Europe had cut him off from the latest developments in the West, Ligeti fundamentally re-envisioned the musical material with which he was working.

In Musica Ricercata, each of the movements is based on a limited set of pitch classes. Movement I only features two pitch classes (A and D), movement II expands this to three (E-sharp, F-sharp, G), and each of the following movements adds another pitch class until in the eleventh movement, all the twelve pitches of the chromatic scale are included. In a way, the collection traces the path from simple musical models to complex twelve-tone music. As a nod to history, Ligeti based the last movement of Musica Ricercata on a chromatic subject from Girolamo Frescobaldi’s “Ricercare cromatico post il Credo” from the collection Fiori musicali (1635). Ligeti expands Frescobaldi’s chromatic subject into a complete dodecaphonic row (Example 1). The composition, however, does not slavishly follow the restrictions of dodecaphony but rather treats the material more freely.

While originally composed for piano, Ligeti soon reworked the final movement for organ. The composition remained unpublished during the composer’s lifetime, and it would take until 1990 before it finally appeared in print. The texture of the piece and the musical techniques employed remain still very conventional. Only toward the final measures does Ligeti show his budding interest of unusual textures by requesting a registration that was reduced to a 32′ stop in the pedal and only 4′, 2′, and 1′ stops in the manual. The result is that the highest and lowest notes are nine octaves apart while the middle range remains empty. This is a far cry from Ligeti’s revolutionary compositions of the 1960s, but it already shows that the composer wanted to expand the conventions of the organ sound. He just did not know yet how to do it. Even Ligeti himself saw the composition more as an experiment. He commented, “The piece is intentionally monotonic: I wanted to balance the polyphonic technique with a monotonic rhythmical structure, [and thus] almost eliminates the polyphony.”6

While Ligeti’s own organ studies and his first organ work remain within the realm of tradition and only hint at the wish to break the mold, the later 1950s brought new creative impulses. After fleeing Hungary, Ligeti witnessed (and participated in) numerous musical innovations. Several avant-garde composers in the late 1950s and early 1960s had become interested in composing for the sound of the organ in innovative manners. While neoclassical styles were still abundant in central and northern European organ music (France saw a different development), and the Organ Reform Movement (Orgelbewegung) with its focus on Baroque models dominated the discourse, several composers found ways to break out of this tradition and to explore new paths. The Swedish composer Bengt Hambraeus (1928–2000) started composing with clusters, manipulated pipes, and other musical and technical innovations in the late 1950s; other composers and organists adopted his ideas and built on them.7


In 1961 the north German public radio station Radio Bremen commissioned a series of new organ works that showed the possibilities of the old instrument in a new musical context. Instrumental for the commissions was the composer, organist, and head of the music department at the radio station, Hans Otte (1926–2007). Otte commissioned three of the most innovative composers of his time to write new works: Bengt Hambraeus (1928–2000), who has already established himself as a revolutionary in the realm of the organ; the German-Argentinian composer Mauricio Kagel (1931–2008); and Györgi Ligeti. Hambraeus wrote the piece Interferenzen and Kagel composed Improvisation Ajoutée, while Ligeti contributed his Volumina.8

While Ligeti had some experience with the organ, he relied heavily on the advice and the inspiration of Hambraeus, and he especially consulted with the Swedish organist Karl-Erik Welin. It is not a coincidence that Ligeti composed Volumina during a stay in Stockholm during the winter of 1961–1962. Welin took him to his church and demonstrated ways to manipulate the sound of the organ and how to incorporate new techniques. He was a trusted advisor throughout the process of the composition. Welin’s suggestions helped Ligeti envision a new type of organ composition that left behind traditional parameters such as melody, theme, and harmony, and instead focused on sound-colors and textures. Ligeti had already explored these musical ideas in his orchestral work Atmosphères (1961),9 and the exchange with Welin provided him with the technical knowledge to adapt these ideas for the organ.

Ligeti operates with clusters of notes that take different shapes, move across the keyboard, and create ever changing sonic colors. In his performance instructions, the composer differentiates between three types of clusters:

Chromatic cluster—depress all keys (or as many as possible) between the indicated limits;

Diatonic cluster—depress all the “white” keys between the indicated limits;

Pentatonic cluster—depress all the “black” keys between the indicated limits.10

The clusters are manipulated in different ways: they can move up and down the manuals (and pedal); the clusters can have internal movement (while the outer margins remain fixed); and they can expand and contract, thus creating crescendo effects. To notate these musical details, Ligeti decided to abandon classical notation and to use a graphic notation instead that indicated the qualities and movement of the clusters.

The idea of using graphic notation had its roots in Ligeti’s own compositional process. He had been employing graphic sketches as a tool when planning his large-scale works such Atmosphères. These sketches served as an orientation for his compositions, which he then wrote down in classical notation. In Volumina, however, Ligeti decided that the graphic representation captured his musical intentions much more precisely than any traditional notation would have been able to. As a result, Volumina is the only work by Ligeti that features graphic notation. In later comments about this decision, Ligeti points out that he does not want the graphic elements to be understood as being random or just a prompt for improvisation. Instead, he states that the graphic notation (in conjunction with verbal performance instructions) captured precisely his intentions for how the composition should sound.11

In addition to the graphic notation and the consistent use of clusters, Volumina also features several techniques that are intended to manipulate the sound of the instrument. One way is the manipulation of wind pressure while pulling the stops. Ligeti writes:

. . . by pulling out or pushing in the stopknobs slowly, fluctuations in intonation and “intermediate sounds” can be created. The tone-colour transitions should be realized as delicately and continuously as possible. The player and/or his assistants can take their time, leaving the stopknobs in intermediate positions ad lib.12

The result is, of course, a reduced wind pressure, which leads to fluctuations of the sounds of the pipes. Ligeti will return later to this idea when he composes his organ etudes towards the end of the 1960s.

A second, even more effective technique of manipulating the sound of the organ, is the use of the organ motor. Volumina begins with a broad cluster that ideally encompasses the whole keyboard. The organist presses down all the keys with their arms, while the organ is still turned off. Only then, one of the registrants starts the organ, and we hear not only a crescendo but a wild combination of overtones, pipes that start sounding at different times, and a wall of sound that slowly builds up. Like the manipulation of the register stops, this only works on a mechanical-action organ, where the stop controls and keys work independently from the electric motor. In 1967 Ligeti published a revised version of Volumina that also includes suggestions for other organs.13

The organ motor becomes a dominant part of the performance again at the end of Volumina. The piece ends on a high, chromatic cluster of notes when the organ motor is turned off, and the sound slowly fades away, again with the typical fluctuations in sound that come with a decreasing wind pressure and the different ways in which the individual pipes respond to this. Ligeti’s comments from the revised (1967) score, which also include the instructions for organs with electric key action, show not only the sonic ideal the composer wants to accomplish, but they also hint at other new ways for how to manipulate the sound of the organ, some of which are later picked up by Ligeti himself or by other composers:

The marking “Blower off” does not apply to those organs with electric key action, on which the wind is immediately discharged from the pipes as soon as the current is cut off. On these organs, however, the gradual fading out of the sound, together with the typical pitch fluctuations which are created by the decrease in wind pressure, can be accomplished by other means. First the full cluster . . . is sustained for a while; then the keys are slowly released one by one from the lower to the upper extreme, lingering on some keys longer than on others, so that the cluster gradually becomes narrower and softer, and ultimately disappears. To complete this process, several small pipes may be removed from the organ in advance, these are blown by mouth very softly by the player and his assistant . . . . This produces a “denatured,” “out-of-tune,” and extremely delicate sound, which may continue for some time after the played cluster has died away.14

We can see how Ligeti aims at manipulating the traditional sound of the instrument in a way that considers the mechanical (and electrical) features of the organ. These manipulations involve technical changes of the instrument, which some organists (and church councils) might frown upon. This brings us to the memorable rehearsal I mentioned at the beginning. Karl-Erik Welin, with whom Ligeti had cooperated during the composition of Volumina, was asked to play the premiere of the piece in Bremen Cathedral in 1962.

After Ligeti had completed the composition (and played through it on a small mechanical-action organ in Vienna), Welin tried to practice the piece at an organ in Gothenburg, Sweden. The rehearsal did not go as planned, as Ligeti reports:

Already the opening cluster was too much for the electrical system of the church. The moment the motor was started (with the notes of the cluster pressed down), smoke rose out of the organ pipes and the smell of burning rubber filled the church. The insulation of the electrical wires had melted, and it turned out that the mechanical parts that were made out of softer materials had also melted. The insurance of the church refused to pay for the costly repair of the instrument because, as it turned out, somebody had replaced a missing fuse with a sewing needle.15

Needless to say, the authorities at the Bremen Cathedral were shocked at the destructive effects of Ligeti’s composition (even though it was not his fault) and withdrew their permission to perform the piece (and also the two other pieces commissioned by Radio Bremen) in the cathedral. Karl-Erik Welin quickly found another church in Stockholm where he was allowed to record Ligeti’s piece. However, the tape provided by Swedish Radio was too short for the performance, and only a part of Volumina was recorded. Only a last attempt, now at the Westerkerk in Amsterdam, was successful, and Volumina was finally successfully recorded to be broadcast by Radio Bremen.


Welin remained one of the most active interpreters of Ligeti’s organ work. In the mid 1960s, he was joined by the German organist Gerd Zacher, who not only played Volumina frequently but who also advised Ligeti in the revised version of 1967. Out of the collaboration between Ligeti and Zacher grew the plan to write four more organ works, etudes, that would further expand the musical vocabulary of the organ. Of the four projected etudes, only two were eventually executed.16 The first one was Harmonies. Composed in 1967, it requires the organist to play a dense chord in which all ten fingers are in constant contact with the keys. Gradually, one finger shifts to the next key, while the other fingers remain in place. The result is a slow-moving, almost static sound (Example 2).

Although the harmonic progressions are not random (Ligeti notates it very precisely), the sequence of harmonies does not follow a specific, goal-oriented plan. Instead, it is determined by the adjacent keys to which one of the ten fingers is able to glide. As an additional feature, Ligeti again requires the organist to mechanically manipulate the sound of the organ. As earlier in Volumina, the registrants are asked to pull and push the knobs of the registers slowly, thus creating inconsistent wind supply. Ligeti also suggests that the organist can press the keys slowly, which also leads to an inconsistent supply of wind for the individual pipes.

In addition to these techniques that can be accomplished from the console of the organ, Ligeti (on suggestion of Zacher) asks to reduce the wind pressure by manipulating the organ motor. The preface lists a number of suggestions, which were devised by Zacher and other contemporary organists:

by using a weaker motor like that of a vacuum cleaner, inserting the hose into the reservoir (Gerd Zacher);

by adjusting the valve in the chief wind-receiver between the fan and the reservoir (Gábor Lehotka);

by opening the windchest (Gerd Zacher);

by reducing the rotation of the speed of the fan by loading the circuit (installing an adjustable resistance in the circuit, for instance);

by removing some low pipes from a pedal reed register so that some of the wind escapes (Zsigmond Szathmáry).17

Most remarkable, and Zacher’s original suggestion, is probably the use of a vacuum cleaner instead of an organ motor. Shortly after composing Harmonies, Ligeti gave a talk at an organ builder symposium wherein he advocated for organs in which the power of the motor could be reduced electronically, so that there would be no need to bring a vacuum cleaner up to the organ loft.

The second etude, composed 1969, presents Ligeti’s interest in the organ from a different perspective. In Coulée, the organist plays alternating eighth notes at a rapid tempo, creating the impression of an almost static sound. Ligeti had already used a similar idea in his harpsichord composition, Continuum, written the previous year. Like Harmonies, the intervals only change gradually, and the organist is again in constant contact with the keys throughout the whole piece. The alternating eighth notes then transition gradually into short ascending (left hand) and descending lines (right hand), before Ligeti returns to the alternation between lower and higher pitches.

The intervals gradually become smaller until we hear short chromatic lines played in contrary motion between the left and right hand. The intervals expand to major seconds and thirds until the etude closes with sequences of thirds in contrary motion. The last note is to be played very short, as Ligeti comments: “last tone in both hands very short and fleeting”18 (Example 3).

While this second etude does not rely on technical manipulations of the instrument, Ligeti has a very precise vision of the sound he wants the organist to create. As in Continuum, where the natural timbre of the harpsichord already creates a transparent, somewhat sharp sound, Ligeti asks in Coulée for a registration that keeps the individual notes distinguishable, even at a very high tempo and in a reverberant space. He writes:

Dynamics of the two manuals must be balanced (the manuals are of equal importance), while the tone colours may differ. To preserve the continuous character of the piece, it is recommended that the same registration is kept throughout. The selected registration in both manuals should be sharp and colourful, so that the striking of the keys is audible and that the extreme speed of the piece evident (a registration that is too weak would create a static continuum, which is not desired; as stated, the individual tones must not be distinguishable as such, but the key action—despite the enormous speed—must have the effect of a very fast time-grid).19

The second etude is not only a direct sister work to the harpsichord piece Continuum, but it also reflects Ligeti’s interest in mechanical processes, which can be found in many of his works from the 1960s and early 1970s. The same “pattern-meccanico” technique20 can also be seen in chamber music works, such as his Ten Pieces for Wind Quintet (movement 8) or the final movement of his Second String Quartet. Ligeti’s interest in mechanical patterns correlates in an interesting way with his interest in the organ as a large-scale machine. While the second etude does not include experiments with wind pressure or unusual registrations, its mechanical motion fits well into Ligeti’s fascination with the mechanical and technological side of the organ.

We find Ligeti’s own reflections on organ sound and organbuilding in a paper he read at a conference of the Walcker-Stiftung in 1968 (subsequently published in print).21 The paper reads like a commentary on the ways Ligeti had manipulated the sound of the organ in Volumina and in his two later etudes. He explains the significance of wind pressure, the possibilities of manipulating the pressure through different means, and his particular fascination with lower pressures that make the organ sound “sick.” From there, Ligeti speculates about ways to construct organs that invite similar and additional manipulations—electronic dials that can regulate the wind pressure of the organ, technologies that change the intonation of individual pipes while playing, etc. Ligeti envisions a Baukastenorgel, an organ consisting of building blocks that can be easily reconfigured depending on the piece that is being played. Ligeti’s paper reflects the innovative spirit of the 1960s and the attempts to include new technologies (including computers) in the process of music making.

At the same time, it is important that Ligeti does not want to replace the pipe organ. Computers and other technological aids are used to support, modify, and expand the sound of the traditional organ. But as in his other instrumental works (with the exception of his earlier experiments with electronic music in the late 1950s), Ligeti saw the future of his own music within the realm of traditional instruments, which were pushed to new limits to create new and revolutionary sounds.

As far as I know, Volumina has not caused another organ to go up in smoke or an electrical system to fail. Ligeti’s composition, while played by few organists, has become a milestone in the history of organ music in the second half of the twentieth century.



1. For these compositions see Benjamin R. Levy, Metamorphosis in Music: The Compositions of György Ligeti in the 1950s and 1960s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), pages 132–134.

2. See also Kimberly Marshall, “György Ligeti (1923–2006),” in Christopher S. Anderson (ed.), Twentieth-Century Organ Music (New York/London: Routledge, 2012), 
pages 262–285.

3. György Ligeti, “Orgelwerke,” in G. Ligeti, Gesammelte Schriften II, ed. by Monika Lichtenfeld (Mainz: Schott, 2007), page 184.

4. Ligeti, “Orgelwerke,” page 185.

5. See Sean Rourke, “Ligeti’s Early Years in the West,” The Musical Times 130, no. 1759 (September 1989), pages 532–535.

6. György Ligeti, “Über Musica ricercata,” in G. Ligeti, Gesammelte Schriften II, ed. by Monika Lichtenfeld (Mainz: Schott, 2007), page 155.

7. See the excellent study of Hambraeus’s and Ligeti’s work by Per F. Broman, “Back to the Future”: Towards an Aesthetic Theory of Bengt Hambræus (Göteborg: Göteborgs Universitet, Avdelningen för Musikvetenskap, 1999).

8. See the overview of these three pieces in Ulrich Schmiedeke, Der Beginn der Neues Orgelmusik 1961/62 (München: Katzbichler, 1981).

9. A good introduction to Ligeti’s Atmosphères can be found in Levy, Metamorphosis in Music, pages 113–127. For the relationship between Atmosphères and Volumina see also Jan Lehtola, “György Ligeti—Traditional Reformer or Revolutionary Discoverer? Ligeti’s Organ Music and its Influence on Organ-Playing Technique,” TRIO 1–2/2019, pages 99–100.

10. György Ligeti, Volumina, “Instructions for Performance,” page 1.

11. György Ligeti, “Bemerkungen zu Volumina,” in G. Ligeti, Gesammelte Schriften II, ed. by Monika Lichtenfeld (Mainz: Schott, 2007), page 188.

12. Ligeti, Volumina, “Instructions for Performance,” page 2.

13. For performance practice and interpretation of Volumina see Beth Loeber Williamson, “Performing New Music: Ligeti’s ‘Volumina’,” The American Organist 13/10 (October 1979), pages 32–36.

14. Ligeti, Volumina, “Instructions for Performance,” page 4.

15. Ligeti, “Orgelwerke,” page 185.

16. For the two remaining pieces, see György Ligeti, “Was erwartet der Komponist der Gegenwart von der Orgel?,” in G. Ligeti, Gesammelte Schriften I, ed. by Monika Lichtenfeld (Mainz: Schott, 2007), page 227; see also Lehtola, “György Ligeti,” page 102.

17. György Ligeti, Etude No. 1, “Harmonies,” page 4.

18. György Ligeti, Etude No. 2, “Coulée,” page 5.

19. Ibid.

20. Cf. Levy, Metamorphosis in Music, page 244.

21. Ligeti, “Was erwartet der Komponist der Gegenwart von der Orgel?,” in G. Ligeti, Gesammelte Schriften I, 217–230.

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