Welcome to the first London Sinfonietta Listening Club with Philip Cashian, composer and Head of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music.
Philip will be exploring the music featured in our concerts this season through monthly audio-illustrated blog posts and we’re inviting you to get involved in the discussion by posting any questions or comments you might have by clicking “leave a comment” at the top left hand side of this article. Philip will follow up with a post based on the main themes that you are interested in exploring!
Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), Gruppen
for three orchestras
duration: c.23 mins.
First performance: The Cologne Radio Orchestra, Cologne, 24 March 1958, conducted by Karlheinz Stockhausen (Orchestra 1), Bruno Maderna (Orchestra 2) and Pierre Boulez (Orchestra 3)
Stockhausen wrote Gruppen (Groups) between 1955 and 1957 at the same time as working on the groundbreaking tape piece Gesang der Jünglinge (Song of the Youths) in the North West German Radio electronic music studio in Cologne. In writing Gruppen he said that he wanted to “physically experience the movements of sounds in space” and the influence of working in the studio with purely electronic sound is evident in his dazzling handling of instrumental colour, sonority and the brilliant balance, juxtaposition and sharing of instrumental texture between and within the three groups; Gruppen really has to be experienced live for the listener to fully appreciate this physical movement of sound around the concert hall.
He was interested in hearing layers of music co-existing at different tempi and, at times, he also independently slows down or speeds up individual orchestras to momentarily relax or intensify their musical discourse in relief to the other two groups. Three orchestras positioned around the hall each with their own conductor made this possible and the layering and juxtaposition as well as the coming together of these three distinct ensembles (each has their own instrumental ‘flavour’) is the essence of what makes the piece so exhilarating to listen to.
Here it is in full:
For the first five minutes or so we will hear the first violins as they are contrasted and juxtaposed against larger groups of instruments.
The first solo instrument to be heard is a solo violin from orchestra 1:
Then we hear a solo violin from orchestra 3 a few moments later:
Soon after that a solo violin from orchestra 2 articulates a brief silence:
The first violins of orchestra 1 are a constant thread before settling onto a long sustained D sharp:
The following section is an interlude for brass with spiky figures thrown around the three groups which build to a climax at 15:29 as a sustained chord is playfully passed around the hall. During this passage listen out for the piano in orchestra 2 which gradually creeps in (initially with low note ‘stabs’) and takes over with it’s own mini cadenza at 15:46-16:21 after the brass chord exchange:
One of my favourite moments comes here in the splintered aftermath of the piece’s climax (which is quite conventionally about two thirds of the way through) in a brief moment of unexpected lyricism for woodwind and strings in orchestras 1&2 that has the quality of Webern or even Berg. And it’s the sense that the music is almost a three dimensional object that can twist and turn in any direction whilst being in a constant state of grace and re-invention that thrills me most about Gruppen:
For a work written nearly 60 years ago, when Stockhausen was still not thirty, it’s influence in the exploration of musical space as a physical entity for the listener is far reaching and can still be seen today, even amongst the younger generation of composers.
We want you to join in. Post any questions you have relating to Gruppen by clicking on “leave a comment” at the top left hand side of this article and Philip will follow up with a post based on the main themes that you are interested in exploring!