Humour as a weapon

Comedy and absurdities in Ligeti’s music

György Ligeti “Le Grande Macabre”, performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker 2017 in the staging by Peter Sellars
conducted by Sir Simon Rattle
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Ligeti possessed an unerring sense for the comedy, absurdity and grotesqueness of life. This is reflected in many of his works – from his early Musica ricercata to the opera Le Grand Macabre, a ludicrous doomsday scenario. “It is the fear of death, the apotheosis of fear and the overcoming of fear through comedy, through humour, through the grotesque,” as Ligeti once said. In his youth, he experienced terrible things: as the son of a Jewish family, he witnessed the persecution by the National Socialists, who killed his father and brother, and later the brutality of the Stalin regime in communist Hungary. These experiences affected him deeply – his sense of humour became a life strategy, a weapon.

How is this humour expressed in his music? In his piano cycle Musica Ricercata, written in the early 1950s, for example, he develops an entire piece of music from just a single note.  And what's more, from the one note that is tremoloed on the piano, struck in different rhythms and positions, Ligeti creates an entire drama: a grand tremolo, the curtain rises, cautiously creeping, like a cat spying a mouse, this single note comes along at first, only to become more present as it progresses, claiming more and more energetic space, culminating finally in unfettered madness.

Excerpt from “Le Grand Macabre” from 2017, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle

A dramatic miniature with just one note

“Theatrical play with a single note” is what Ligeti called the first movement of his Musica ricercata, with which he emancipated himself compositionally from his musical models, above all Béla Bartók. He wanted to create a new kind of music from nothing, so to speak; rhythm and intervals are redefined and given a different status than before. In Musica ricercata, an eleven-movement work in which the tonal stock is extended by one tone in each movement, Ligeti’s tremendous creative drive and imaginative power are combined with his wit and humour. In the Six Bagatelles, in which the composer arranged six movements of his Musica ricercata for wind quintet, he went one better: through the witty instrumentation, another humorous level comes into play, because he makes the musicians the protagonists of little stories, for example, a musical argument: which has supremacy – major or minor?

The humorous side of Ligeti’s character enabled him to look at situations from a different angle, to gain surprising perspectives from them, to take the edge off the unbearable or to exaggerate the banal. And this also benefited him in his musical work – because he came up with different approaches to music than he was used to: for example, creating music from human lutes as in his Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, uniting 100 metronomes ticking at different speeds to create a Poème symphonique and transposing the insanely fast playing of Canlow Nancarrow’s electro-mechanical player pianos to a normal piano.

Ligeti himself described his style as “micropolyphony”, characterised by continuous forms and effusive, exaggerated gestures. If you are prepared to engage with Ligeti’s music, to open yourself up to it, to listen carefully, you will always recognise how multi-layered his music is – and humour is one of these many layers.

Nicole Restle