Whether music of the Middle Ages or from Central Africa: György Ligeti was interested in almost everything. His endless curiosity also led him to try out every conceivable form of expression in his own works. A body of work emerged that impresses the listener with its ingenuity, expressiveness and, not least, humour.
György Ligeti wrote music for almost all genres, for small and large ensembles, instrumental and vocal, for the concert hall and the stage. In his youth, he continued the legacy of Béla Bartók, researching, composing and teaching the folk music of his Hungarian homeland; later, he was part of the radical avant-garde for a time, and finally arrived at a synthesis of the old and the new. He absorbed countless sources of inspiration, for example from the music of medieval mensural notation, the multidimensional polyphony of Guillaume de Machaut and the metrical superimpositions of Guillaume Dufay. He was inspired by Conlon Nancarrow’s polyrhythmic player piano studies, by the music of the Central African Aka Pygmies, by the Mandelbrot sets of mathematics and, last but not least, by jazz. But never fear: however complex the structures and influences underlying his compositions, the music is always sensuous, conceived for expression and impact.
Born to Jewish parents in a small town in Transylvania in 1923, the young György actually wanted to study physics, but as a Jew this was denied him – so he began a musical education at the conservatory in Cluj. After serving in the Hungarian army and captivity in the Soviet Union, he was able to escape in 1944, but the persecution of the Jews brought death to his father and brother in a concentration camp; his mother survived as a camp doctor in Auschwitz. After the war, Ligeti studied composition in Budapest under Sándor Veress and Ferenc Farkas and then taught music theory there himself.
In 1956, he fled to Austria in the wake of the Hungarian uprising; from Vienna, he soon went to Cologne to work in the electronic studio at the German radio station WDR. His encounter with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gottfried Michael Koenig as well as his interest in the possibilities of studio technology fundamentally changed his understanding of music. Having worked as a teacher, he continued to pass on his knowledge after he emigrated – at the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music, then in Stockholm and, from 1973 to 1989, as a professor at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hamburg.
Everything that holds music together at its core was put to the test
Even in his youth, Ligeti was in many respects an outsider: as a Hungarian in Romania, as a Jew among Christians, and as an intellectual in the provinces. The political course of events added to this, with war service, fascist persecution, Soviet occupation and emigration to Austria. This gave rise to his lifelong abhorrence of repressive social systems – and also his mistrust of the codification of aesthetic categories, which reminded him all too much of official decrees. So it was essential for him to create his own artistic cosmos. He began to do this in Budapest, when he set out in search of “static music at rest in itself”, “which knows no development and no traditional rhythmic forms”. His goal was “to build a new kind of music, starting from zero, so to speak”. Everything that holds music together at its core was put to the test: “Intervals and rhythm were to be completely reconsidered, not to dismantle them per se, but in order to make room for the composition of finely woven musical network formations in which the formative function is primarily transferred to the weave of these formations”.
In this way, Ligeti reinvented the way music is understood and experienced. His curiosity about unknown, undiscovered musical territory burned incessantly. In addition to “net structures” such as Apparitions, Atmosphères and Lontano, he also wrote a completely different type: vocal works such as Aventures, which use an artificial language and render all kinds of emotions in a quasi onomatopoeic manner, from great comedy to deep sadness, with rapid changes from one to the other. For example, in Ligeti’s work, on the one hand, there are pieces with slowly changing tonal clusters in which time seems almost suspended, and on the other hand, eventful, rhythmically small-scale works with rapid developments. His music always oscillates between these two extremes, in the most varied gradations and combinations. The dramatic stands next to the static, the event next to the soundscape: a contrast that a choral composition from 1973 entitled Clocks and Clouds – ticking clock movements and billowing clouds – sums up in a nutshell.
A Happening: Ligeti’s “Poème symphonique” for one hundred metronomes
He was rebellious, almost cheeky, too. Once, a work innocently named Poème symphonique was to be premiered at the closing reception of a New Music Festival. No one was prepared to witness a happening: one hundred wind-up mechanical metronomes were started more or less simultaneously, ticking at different speeds, condensing into an impenetrable tangle and, as the spring tension of the devices eased, producing ever new rhythmic forms. People were outraged. Yet for Ligeti, the whole thing was much more than a joke. The reflections hidden in the Poème symphonique form a strand of his creative work that was to preoccupy him to the end: the simultaneity of different speeds, as he found them in certain West African music and adopted them most exemplarily in his piano etudes.
Ligeti’s laughter is always also a reaction to the bitterness of existence with its inevitable end: “As the only survivor of a large Jewish family, I am deeply moved by the fear of death and the human desire to live forever or to rise again after death. These are the central ideas of my Requiem, in which I use parts of the Catholic liturgical text.” His only opera Le Grand Macabre, in turn, was for him “a farce about the fear of death”. When he died at the age of 83, many an ambition remained unfulfilled. It was specifically the stage that he wanted to conquer once more; three years before his death, he mused about “a completely different kind of musical theatre” that was not opera, but could be performed in an opera house. This was never to happen.
Nevertheless, Ligeti’s music continues to be performed all over the world. Many films use the expressive power of his music – Stanley Kubrick used it to great effect in 2001, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut, and other directors have followed suit. Probably few composers who belong to the forefront of modern music in the 20th century have achieved such widespread recognition as Ligeti, and the freshness of his works is proof of their genuine novelty, which has not faded with the passage of time.