PRINT September 2006


György Ligeti

WE SPEAK OF “live” performances, of “live” recordings—of music as a “live” art, and of musical compositions as having the qualities of living beings; we say that they breathe, are able to speak, can gesture, have particular ways of moving. And no music of recent times was more alive than that of Hungarian composer György Ligeti, even though—whether he was expressing loss and lament, rage, or hilarity—he found his subject matter so often in death.

There he had rights. Born to Jewish parents in a small town in Transylvania in 1923, he was saved by virtue of the draft, for Hungarian Jews conscripted into the military labor corps were not shuttled to concentration camps—a fate that befell his father and brother, neither of whom returned. Then, within a few years of the defeat of Nazism, Hungary entered another dark age when the iron curtain was drawn tight enough to smother dissent and eliminate those who protested.

Again Ligeti survived, and survival became his music’s way of life. He found metaphorical deaths and disasters in the immense upheavals that music had experienced since 1900: the collapse of traditional tonality; the disappearance of the standard musical forms, styles, and genres; the extinction of almost everything that had given the art meaning. His music survived all this, came through to the other side. To do so it needed what he himself surely needed as a Jew under the Nazis and as a freethinker under the Communists: inner strength. And it gained that strength from the old discipline of counterpoint—from lucidity and resilience in the relationship of one musical line with another.

Ligeti in his twenties—studying and then teaching at the academy of music in Budapest during the immediate post-1945 era, and composing piano and choral music all the time—made himself a master of the contrapuntal arts, as manifest in Renaissance music, in Bach, and in the work of his great Hungarian predecessor Bartók. As a result his music developed excellent bone structure. Its essential lines, which may be tangled over with any amount of complication, would always be sure, its fine detail, which one might need an aural microscope to detect within these lustrous surfaces, exquisitely efficient.

But his timing, so precise within his work, was seriously off where the world outside was concerned. By the time he graduated from the academy, in 1949, Hungary had been seized by Stalinists, and the cultural effects were deadening. Much of the music a young composer might be interested in—including the more challenging compositions of Bartók—was officially banned, and Ligeti had to piece together his knowledge of new and recent music from diverse sources (an uncle abroad, foreign radio broadcasts). This may account for an element in his work of straining to hear something going on elsewhere. It may also account for a curious and lively mix of supreme technical proficiency with a homemade, handmade quality. For the moment, the more adventurous scores he produced, out of a fascination with Bartók, Stravinsky, and Webern, had to be held in reserve; the only pieces he could publish in Hungary were folk-song arrangements and simple choruses.

In December 1956, following the Soviet invasion of the previous month, he escaped with his wife to Austria, and from there made his way to Cologne at the invitation of Karlheinz Stockhausen, who was pioneering electronic music. Now Ligeti could begin again, with the hope that the electronic medium would give him the means to realize the kind of complex music he felt he had glimpsed in a childhood dream:

I dreamed once that I could not find a way through to my little bed (which was provided with trellises and provided a perfect sanctuary), because the whole room was filled up by a fine-threaded but dense and extremely complicated web, like the secretion of silkworms. . . . Beside me there were other beings and objects hanging up in the vast network: moths and beetles of every kind, trying to reach the light around a few barely glimmering candles, and big damp-blotched cushions, their rotten filling tumbling out through tears in the covering. Each movement of the stranded creatures caused a trembling carried throughout the entire system, so that the heavy cushions incessantly lurched hither and thither, and so themselves caused a heaving in the whole. . . . The transformations of the system were irreversible; once a state had been passed it could never occur again. There was something inexpressibly sad about this process, the hopelessness of elapsing time and of a past that could never be made good again.

Much in his work may be related to this vision: the tangled textures, the soft light, the unreachability of home, the bewilderment, and the overwhelming tragedy. But electronic music did not, after all, provide a way to realize such images. After creating two short studies—Glissandi (1957) and Artikulation (1958)—and planning a third, Ligeti left Cologne and the studio. He settled his family in Vienna and embarked on a nomadic life as a teacher, engaged for long periods in Stockholm and Hamburg. Henceforth all his works would be for conventional means: the orchestra, voices, the string quartet, the piano, the standard modern-music ensemble of a dozen or so crack instrumentalists.

The premiere of his orchestral piece Atmosphères, in 1961, established him as a master of color and stillness; Aventures, completed the next year, proved he had an equal command of quick-fire humor, the work being a sequence of musical-theatrical sketches for three wordless singers and an instrumental group. Both these compositions were products of a radical simplification—Atmosphères is one mass of sound, slowly gliding through the timbres and registers of the orchestra—and his subsequent career can be seen as one of continuing growth in range and differentiation within the world of radiant beauty and strangeness he had opened. A whole new musical culture was coming into existence in his work, drawing on or reflecting an assortment of currents in other cultures: electronic music and Hungarian folk song, Brahms and the player-piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow, West African polyphony and Caribbean rhythm.

Among landmarks in the emergence of Ligetian music during the next two decades was his large-scale Requiem (1963–65), which combined the stasis of Atmosphères with the wit of Aventures and thereby brought both gravity and comedy to the contemplation of last things. Some of the eerier music of the Requiem and Atmosphères (as well as a passage from the 1966 Lux aeterna) was used by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), winning the composer a whole new audience. This was also a richly creative time for Ligeti. Besides writing several pieces for smaller forces, he returned to the symphony orchestra in Lontano (1967) and San Francisco Polyphony (1973–74), which provide increasingly detailed maps of the vast domains of Atmosphères.

With his music’s range by now so wide and various, he embarked on an opera, the comical-tragical-fantastical Le Grand Macabre (1974–77), which was first staged in Stockholm in 1978. Once again death is the subject, treated grimly and humorously: The end of the world is solemnly announced by a dark angel come to visit the opera’s “Breughelland” of monomaniacs. The reference is to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, one of several artists in whom Ligeti admired a teeming but controlled imagination like his own, the others including Bosch and Altdorfer, Klee and Miró. (One of his ancestors, Antal Ligeti, was a nineteenth-century landscape painter.) Death in Breughelland is an illusion. After the last trump, life goes on as normal.

Ligeti’s composing, though, did not. He felt that the avant-garde project to which he had contributed in the ’50s and ’60s was over and that the new postmodern neo-Romanticism was a dead end. Minimalism had its pleasures (he had enjoyed them in MonumentSelbstportraitBewegung [Monument—Self-Portrait—Movement, 1976], a piece for two pianos), but he wanted more.

He made the breakthrough in his Horn Trio (1982), which initiated a late-Ligeti style of slantwise classical form, wild polyrhythm (prompted in part by African and Caribbean music and in part by a fascination with how streams of notes could mimic the number crunching of digital processing and fractal mathematics), and estranged harmony, in which unconventional tunings play a part, as they had to a lesser degree before. The music was now in tune with the composer’s physical appearance, familiar around the world as he traveled to teach and to supervise performances: perspicacity, intelligence, and decisiveness radiating from vividly expressive features topped by a shock of white hair and enlivened, often, by the crazy zigzags of an exuberantly colorful sweater.

Central European folk music began to sound again in his work, linking back to the choruses, songs, and piano pieces of his Budapest years. And many of those early compositions he belatedly published, alongside their younger siblings: concerti for piano (1985–88), violin (1989–93), and horn (1998–2003); a sonata for solo viola (1991–94); and a sequence of eighteen piano études, begun in 1985, that carry the instrument into new regions of virtuosity, color, ramified rhythm, and cultural reference. A second big stage work, to be based on the Alice books of Lewis Carroll, was long in prospect but not seriously begun. Instead Ligeti put some of his intentions for it into a set of songs for mezzo-soprano and percussion quartet that was to be his last major work, Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel (With Pipes, Drums, Fiddles, 2000), a bouquet of magic and charm, humor and tenderness.

The spirit was always fresh. Each work comes from nowhere and grows into something never before heard. His music is as various as a human being: full of grand plans that often go awry (and usually thereby give rise to still grander plans); emotionally forthcoming much of the time but also with a capacity for being serenely cryptic; contradictory in lots of ways (giving and demanding, adventurous and nostalgic, clear and mysterious); and in everything thoroughly individual. Few contemporary composers escaped his influence. None could come near imitating him. For his world—Ligetiland—was all his own. And it remains.

György Ligeti died in Vienna on June 12, 2006, at the age of eighty-three.

Paul Griffiths is the author of a book on Ligeti (Robson Books, 1983/1997) and, most recently, of A Concise History Of Western Music (Cambridge University Press, 2006).