György Ligeti

1923 2006

György Ligeti



The Hungarian composer György Ligeti was at the forefront of the avant-garde movement of the late 20th century and his music achieved a remarkable level of popularity for the genre. He created his own unique compositional method, deeming it “micropolyphony,” and is known for the many unconventional sounds he called for from instrumentalists and from vocalists in particular.

Ligeti was born into a Hungarian-Jewish family in Transylvania, Romania. He began taking piano lessons at the age of 14, writing his first composition soon after, and continued with composition studies with Ferenc Farkas, beginning in 1941. Ligeti’s studies were interrupted when his life was torn apart by the Nazi regime, and he spent two years in a labour camp while his father and brother died in Auschwitz, which his mother survived. Upon his liberation from the camps in 1945 Ligeti moved to Hungary, where he finished his musical education at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest and became a professor there the following year. At this time his musical voice was suppressed by the oppressive Hungarian Communist regime, and Ligeti’s chief musical outlet was in avidly studying and transcribing folk music from Romania and Hungary. Most of his early works from this period show the heavy influence of fellow Hungarian Béla Bartók, and it was not until the mid-1950s that Ligeti’s signature compositional voice would emerge.

The 1956 Hungarian revolution was another major upheaval, forcing Ligeti and his wife to flee yet again, this time taking shelter in Vienna, Austria. Shortly afterwards he travelled to Cologne to study for two years at the electronic music studio of the West German Radio (WDR). It was there that he met with many members of the Cologne avant-garde scene and began intensely studying artists such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. His first major work from this period,Artikulation (1958), was a pioneering work in the fledgling world of electronic music, and set Ligeti apart from many of his contemporaries in the avant-garde scene due to his non-serial, non-structural approach.

Ligeti’s works over the next few years rapidly gained him increased attention and admiration. His emerging style is very evident inAtmosphères (1961), an orchestral piece consisting of a seemingly static group of cluster chords and no noticeable melody, with gradual shifts in timbre, dynamics and pitch of individual voices providing an underlying sense of undulation and development. Ligeti called this method “micropolyphony,” and continued using it to great effect for much of his career.Atmosphères was extremely well received on the international stage and cemented Ligeti’s growing reputation. Along with two of his other works,Requiem (1963-65) and the choral piece Lux aeterna (1966), it famously appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 science fiction film2001: A Space Odyssey, providing music for many of the most memorable points of the movie, which would go on to become a huge success and a cult classic.

Many of Ligeti’s most famous works are for voice or chorus. Aventures (1962) and Nouvelles Aventures (1962–65) both do away almost entirely with traditional vocal techniques, eliciting sounds from the choir that are alternatively reminiscent of orchestral instruments or contain phonetic gibberish in a language Ligeti invented. He was also experimenting with micro-intonation, such as inRamifications (1968-69), which featured two string ensembles playing similar material but a quarter-tone apart, and theDouble Concerto for flute, oboe and orchestra (1972). Many of his works were even more esoteric, including Poème symphonique (1962), which was written for 100 metronomes, and Future of Music—A Collective Composition (1961), which consisted of the audience’s response to Ligeti writing instructions such as “crescendo” and “don’t let yourself be manipulated!” on a blackboard. Future of Music created a sizeable stir and is often likened to John Cage’s4’33”, both in terms of its premise and its significance.

Perhaps Ligeti’s greatest work from this time is his opera, Le Grand Macabre (1974-1977), which combined nearly all of the influences previously seen in his music, and at the same time hinted at where it was going. The work is based on an apocalyptic fable by Michel de Ghelderode, and parodies complex issues such as life, death and rebirth in a manner clearly influenced by the experience of Ligeti and his family during World War II. Stylistically,Le Grand Macabre is a jumble of different techniques and effects. While some parts are written using fairly straight-forward serialism, others parody composers including Monteverdi and Beethoven. The prelude was written for “motor horns” and the use of extended vocal techniques is prevalent throughout.

A central element to the opera is the juxtaposition of two writing styles, which he called “clocks” and “clouds.” Whereas “clouds” represented the ephemeral, glacial grandeur of many of Ligeti’s earlier works, most notably Atmosphères, “clocks” attempted to reach the same effect of slow-paced movement but using rapid instead of sustained notes. Ligeti discovered that through quick repetition and the overlap of many voices he could create a hazy result, which effectively transformed clocks into clouds, a phenomenon he first explored in the 1968 piece,Continuum. In spite of its progressive attitudes, Le Grand Macabre was extremely successful, enjoying showings in numerous European cities including Hamburg, Paris, and London. Eventually Ligeti grew tired of the work and drastically overhauled it in 1996 in preparation for its re-release the next year in Salzburg.

Although Ligeti was offered teaching positions in Hamburg, Stockholm and California and was the recipient of many awards including the Grawemeyer Prize (1986) and the Music Prize of the International Music Council (1996), he was always wary of the musical establishment. He was however equally reticent about associating with the avant-garde, often lamenting that there was no place for him in either world. On music and his place in it he famously said, “Now there is no taboo; everything is allowed. But one cannot simply go back to tonality, it’s not the way. We must find a way of neither going back nor continuing the avant-garde. I am in a prison: one wall is the avant-garde, the other wall is the past, and I want to escape.” It is this restless spirit that drove him to create some of the most radically innovative music of the 20th century.