Ligeti festival – ode to an adventurous and idiosyncratic composer

The Hungarian composer György Ligeti (1923-2006) suffered under several dictatorships. The Nazis killed his father and brother during World War II, and after the war the communists forced him to write bland ‘folk music’. After the Hungarian uprising of 1956 he fled to Vienna and from there to Cologne, where he was confronted with yet another type of dogmatism from the musical avant-garde.

In the West he soon established himself as an idiosyncratic composer. He resisted the dogmas of the avant-garde and took a different direction in which microtanility, irony and humour play an important role. From Thursday 5 to Sunday 8 April he will be featured in the large-scale Ligeti festival in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ Amsterdam.

Love for Bartók

György Ligeti was born in 1923 in a Jewish family in a small town in Transylvania. In 1941 he started studying composition with Ferenc Farkas, but three years later the Nazis called him up for a labour camp. Only after having lived through this and the war had ended, he was able to resume his studies. He at once moved to Budapest, where he again studied with Farkas, and with Sándor Veress. They relegated their love for Bartók to him, which shines through in early compositions such as the First String Quartet. This will be performed by the Dudok Quartet on Saturday, April 7.

In 1949, Ligeti completed his studies at the Franz Liszt Conservatory in Budapest, where he was then employed as a harmony teacher. Meanwhile, the communists had taken over the helm and there was a strong pressure to incorporate ‘folk’ elements in art music. In principle Ligeti had no problem with this, since Bartók had also been inspired by folk music. Within the given constraints, Ligeti looked for ways to create a personal sound world. For example in the Cello Sonata, which he composed for the Hungarian Radio in 1953.

‘Formalistic tendencies’

This was banned immediately after the broadcast because it harboured ‘formalistic tendencies’; from now on Ligeti composed for the proverbial desk drawer. Meanwhile, he kept the authorities satisfied with choral works in Kodály-style. That same year he completed Musica ricercata, a collection of eleven pieces for solo piano. These are on the programme of the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard on Friday 6 April. The first movement opens with only two tones: a fundamental and its octave. In each subsequent variation one tone is added, until in the eleventh movement all twelve tones of the western tonal system are heard.

Just after World War II, Hungary was officially cut off from the pernicious West, which did not prevent Ligeti from secretly listening to German radio stations at night. These were distorted by signals from the Hungarian Government, so that mainly the higher frequencies came through. In this mutilated form he heard works such as Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony and Herbert Eimert’s electronic music. Their line of thought corresponded with his own need for renewal. As soon as a period of thaw set in in 1954, he bought scores and records of modern composers.

From communist to musical dictatorship

During this period, Ligeti also heard the first radio broadcast of Stockhausen’s tape composition Gesang der Jünglinge. He was deeply impressed and contacted his German colleague by letter. He also wrote to Herbert Eimert, director of the electronic studio of the WDR in Cologne. One month after the invasion by the Russians in November 1956, Ligeti fled to Cologne, where he was welcomed by Stockhausen and Eimert. In their electronic studio he completed his first ‘Western’ composition, Artikulation for tape.

Although Ligeti basically agreed with the principles of Stockhausen and his fellow avant-gardists, he deplored the rigidity of serialism in which all musical parameters are arranged according to strict rules. Having escaped one dictatorship, Ligeti refused to submit to a new dictatorship from the musical avant-garde. He became fascinated by the idea of replacing strict order with a large degree of freedom. Thus he used unfettered rhythms instead of mathematically organized ones, while at the same time replacing the twelve tone series of the serialists by clusters. The resulting harmonies contained many microtones, a novelty in Western art music.

Music from metronomes

In 1960, this led to the ground-breaking orchestral work Apparitions, which caused a scandal at its premiere. – Ligeti’s name as an independent avant-gardist was established. He then composed Atmosphères and Volumina, also based on clusters. But soon he walked new roads again. In 1961 he wrote The Future of Music, consisting only of a set of instructions to the listeners, jotted down on a blackboard. A year later he created Poème Symphonique, in which 100 metronomes create a complex ‘micropolyphony’. The premiere in 1963 in the Town Hall of Hilversum caused yet another scandal.

This contrary piece had been commissioned by the Gaudeamus Music Week and will be performed live on Saturday 7 April in the entrance hall of Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ. The television registration of the 1963 premiere can be seen and heard on a daily basis. The Dutch broadcasting company NOS had decided not to air the material, and for a long time it was considered lost. Recently it was rediscovered in the archives of Beeld en Geluid (Sound and Image) in Hilversum.

Time and again, Ligeti confirmed his sovereign spirit. While his colleagues abhorred any form of tonality, he re-established harmonic centres in his music. For instance in the choral work Lux Aeterna from 1966, which was immortalized in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Nederlands Chamber Choir will perform this on 7 April under the baton of Reinbert de Leeuw, Ligeti’s favourite conductor.

Car horns & Rossini aria’s

From 1974-77 György Ligeti worked on his opera Le Grand Macabre, his magnum opus. It is based on the absurdist play Ballade du Grand Macabre by the Belgian author Michel de Ghelderode and is set in the time of Breughel. The hero Nekrotzar – the ‘Grand Macabre’ of the title – announces the end of time at midnight. But when the clock finally strikes twelve Nekrotzar is the only one to die.

In Le Grand Macabre, Ligeti brought together everything he had achieved so far; the music is often downright hilarious. The opera opens with an overture of car horns and juxtaposes Rossini-like arias with disconcerting recitatives and abysmal screams. The singers burb, and we are treated to the sound of whips and other ‘unmusical’ objects. Thus allusions to predecessors such as Rossini and Monteverdi get an ironic twist.

After Le Grand Macabre, Ligeti got somewhat into a deadlock. His adventurous and investigative mind simply refused to repeat itself. He had always pursued his own course, yet was invariably mentioned in one breath with the avant-gardists Boulez, Stockhausen and Nono. When their influence began to wane, he threatened to be dragged along in this downward spiral. The more so when a younger generation of composers returned to old forms, harmonies and tonality.

Caribbean rhythms

Though Ligeti did not care to track tail of this new euphony, he was inspired by it. In 1982 he wrote his Horn Trio, in which he combines Caribbean rhythms with Brahms-like melodies. However, they are a trifle disjointed; their irregular rhythm is somewhat related to Hungarian folk music. The Horn Trio will be performed on Saturday 7th April by Aimard, the violinist Joseph Puglia and the horn player Marie-Luise Neunecker. In 1999 he composed his Hamburg Concerto for her.

In the eighties Ligeti became increasingly fascinated by Caribbean, African and Arabic rhythms. Their ‘limping’ character infused his work with spontaneity and liveliness. Not attracted to the new tonality of the younger generation, he designed new scales and tunings.

In 1993 he completed his Violin Concerto, in which the brass play overtones. He also uses instruments with an unsteady intonation, such as ocarinas and recorders. It will be performed by Joseph Puglia on 5 April with the Asko|Schönberg under the direction of Reinbert de Leeuw.

Microtones versus perfect pitch

Ligeti continued to experiment with overtones and deviating scales in his later works. Like in the aforementioned horn concerto, in which the soloist is ‘shadowed’ by four natural horns. They have a different sound with a different spectrum of harmonics, so the score is full of microtones. Ligeti did not like this term, however, since it is based on the tempered tuning, as we know it from the piano. A mistake, Ligeti proclaimed. ‘The natural third sounds slightly lower than the tempered one. If truth be told, what we consider perfect pitch is out of tune and microtonal.’

I spoke Ligeti in 2000 about his Horn Concerto, you can hear our talk on YouTube.


About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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