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György Ligeti

Gavin Thomas introduces the work of György Ligeti (1923–).

  • Overview


Ligeti’s creative outlook has been formed by his experiences under two dictatorships – those of Hitler and Stalin.

A Jew born in Transylvania just as Hungary was losing that region to Romania, he survived World War II in a labour camp (his brother and father, less fortunate, both died in Auschwitz).

Following the war, he studied and taught at the Budapest Academy, but fled after the crushing of the anti-Soviet uprising in 1956. Arriving in Cologne he became an associate of Stockhausen at the WDR electronic music studio, where he rapidly caught up on the musical developments from which he had been cut off in Hungary.

In the 1960s he emerged as a leading member of the international avant-garde. Since then he has lived mostly in Hamburg and Vienna, becoming an Austrian citizen in 1967.

As Ligeti has remarked of the traumatic experiences which have shaped his life and artistic outlook, “I am permanently scarred; I will be overcome by revenge fantasies to the end of my days.”

And yet, despite his work’s penchant for the surreal and the grotesque, he is the most approachable, as well as one of the most fascinating and compelling, of postwar composers.

A feeling of loss and nostalgia characterizes much of his output, often evoked by the haunting modalities of East European folk music – but pathos is balanced by absurdist humour, most notoriously in the twenty-minute Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes, a surreal jeu d’esprit which, composed shortly after Ligeti’s arrival in the West, signalled his intention of finding an entirely personal route out of the creative impasse of post-war music.

Ligeti’s highly individual creative trajectory – as embodied by the tongue-in-cheek Poème – was developed in his orchestral works of the 1960s such as Apparitions, Atmosphères and Lontano.

Rejecting the serial complexities favoured by contemporaries such as Stockhausen and Boulez, these early works instead embarked on a back-to-basics re-examination of music from the bottom up, stripping away all extraneous musical matter in favour of a style based on pure texture, with vast masses of sound in the process of slow creation and transformation.

At the same time, Ligeti’s maverick sense of humour expressed itself in the quasi-theatrical Aventures and Nouvelles aventures, a pair of exuberant vocal works setting nonsense phonetic texts, and the imposing Requiem, Ligeti’s summatory early work, which combines the sound-mass textures of the orchestral pieces and the zany theatricals of Aventures to disturbing effect.

The cloudy sound-masses of these early works are typically created out of microscopic tangles of intertwined instrumental lines – a kind of musical spider’s web, described by the composer as “micro-polyphony”.

In Ligeti’s works of the later 1960s and early 1970s the lines gradually become clearer, reintroducing a sense – albeit a rather peculiar one – of melody, counterpoint and harmony, while rhythm also resurfaces, often in the form of crazily superimposed pulses or psychotically fast instrumental outbursts, like the deranged functioning of some vast mechanical instrument.

In works such as the Chamber Concerto, Melodien and the Double Concerto for flute and oboe Ligeti pushes this style to its limits, creating a compellingly strange musical world, at once eerie and beautiful.

Ligeti’s major project of the 1970s, the opera Le Grand Macabre, both summed up all his previous creative preoccupations and sowed many of the seeds which were to germinate in subsequent works.

Following the opera (premiered in 1978) and a period of serious illness, Ligeti’s style underwent a profound evolution, as first demonstrated by the moving Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano of 1982, a work in which a kind of tonality and traditional metre reappear in his work for the first time in over two decades, but lopsided or dislocated to comic or disturbing effect.

It was in subsequent works – most notably two prodigious concertos, for piano and violin, and an ongoing sequence of études for piano (currently numbering 17) – that Ligeti finally brought to fruition the long work of musical recovery that had begun with Apparitions.

In all these works there are overt references to traditional classical (and other) music, often with a decidedly Eastern European flavour, but recontextualized in Ligeti’s inimitably personal manner and often expressed in a complex rhythmic style in which conflicting layers of tempos are used to drive the music forward.

Article and review pages originally published in The Rough Guide to Classical Music