Le grand macabre György Ligeti: Surprisingly topical opera about the end of time

In Le Grand Macabre, the only opera György Ligeti ever composed, the protagonist Nekrotzar announces the end of time, but at the moment supreme he is the only one who perishes. The absurdist work was staged in this country in 1998 by the Netherlands Travelling Opera. On 27 November, the NTRZaterdagMatinee presents a concert performance, with the Netherland Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Netherlands Radio Choir conducted by regular guest conductor James Gaffigan.

György Ligeti (1923-2006) was an original mind, who did not let anyone dictate the rules. In 1956, he fled the Hungarian dictatorship and knocked on the door of Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne, whose tape composition Gesang der Jünglinge had made a deep impression on him. He had once heard it on a German radio station – in a mutilated version, because the Hungarian government distorted Western broadcasts with electronic signals.


Although he was generously included in the circle of avant-garde composers around Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, Ligeti refused to embrace their serialism, based on mathematical principles. He had not fled a political dictatorship in order to submit to a musical one. In contrast to the strict ordering of all musical parameters, he placed a large degree of freedom. Instead of the imperative tone and rhythm sequences, he used clusters of microtones swarming through each other in a free rhythmic pattern. In 1960, he established his name for good with the orchestral work Apparitions.

But he was too idiosyncratic to limit himself to one particular style and, moreover, cared little for the heavy-handed seriousness of many of his colleagues. In his music there was room for humour and irony. For Die Zukunft der Musik, he chalked only a few instructions on a blackboard in 1961, and a year later he placed 100 metronomes on the stage in Poème symphonique. With their ticking in different tempi, they created a complex ‘micropolyphony’.

Premiere Poème symphonique Town Hall Hilversum 1963

The world premiere in 1963 in the town hall of Hilversum caused quite a stir. It had been commissioned by the Gaudeamus Music Week and was performed at the closing concert of this international competition for young composers. The audience listened attentively and applauded politely afterwards, but the municipality of Hilversum asked the national broadcasting company NTS not to show the film.

The newspaper Trouw deemed the concert a success, however: ‘It was a delightful parody on the musical experiment that so many young composers are pursuing with deadly seriousness. In 2003, the piece was performed in NTRZaterdagMatinee and in 2020, the filmed recording was recovered and shown at the Gaudeamus Festival.


Time and again, Ligeti chose new paths and continued to surprise his audience. In 1966, for instance, he created harmonic anchor points in his choral work Lux Aeterna. From 1974-77, he worked on what would become his magnum opus, the opera Le Grand Macabre. It is based on the absurdist play Ballade du Grand Macabre by the Belgian author Michel de Ghelderode and is set in Breugel’s time. The hero Nekrotzar – the ‘Grand Macabre’ of the title – announces the end of time, which will take place at midnight. The fear of death constantly haunts the play, but when twelve o’clock finally strikes, 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 alienating recitatives and abyssal screams. The singers burp and we are treated to the sound of whips and other ‘unmusical’ objects. This gives the musical references to predecessors such as Rossini and Monteverdi an ironic charge.

The opera premiered in Stockholm in 1978, but Ligeti radically revised the score in 1996. He made several cuts and set spoken passages to music after all. This revised version was premiered at the Salzburg Festival in 1997, directed by Peter Sellars. His staging greatly displeased Ligeti. Instead of the intended ambiguity the American director had made the approaching Apocalypse explicit with references to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. By turning it into a ‘pamphlet against nuclear energy’, Sellars had robbed him of his opera, Ligeti felt.


A year later, the Dutch Travelling Opera staged Le Grand Macabre for the first time in our country, on the occasion of Ligeti’s seventy-fifth birthday. The French director Stanislas Nordey was responsible for the direction. The Asko and Schönberg Ensemble and the Choir of the Travelling Opera were conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, a great advocate of Ligeti’s music. – Five years later he was the one to put the Poème symphonique on the programme of NTRZaterdagMatinee.

Reinbert de Leeuw & György Ligeti (c) Co Broerse

In his biography, De Leeuw calls the opera characteristic of Ligeti, in whom he discerns an almost violent side: ‘That need for madness, hysteria, extreme states of mind, black humour goes a long way. This is most strongly expressed in Le Grand Macabre, in which he ridicules death. Everything is grotesque in the piece. He turns the world upside down with bizarre characters, incongruous stories, absurdist twists, but also in his instrumentation. – Just think of the opening with car horns.’

The production was well received. The newspaper NRC praised the ‘visually sober, almost concertante production’; Trouw lauded the way in which Nekrotzar was immediately recognisable as an outsider. His appearance as a ‘crazy businessman in a blue mackintosh’ contrasted sharply with the white Pierrot outfits of his fellow actors. The Eindhovens Dagblad spoke of an ‘excellent portrayal of Ligeti’s idea of a man who tries to escape death in a monstrous Breugelian landscape’.

Ligeti himself attended a performance on 8 June 1998 in the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam. His arrival had been awaited with some trepidation, considering his reaction to Sellars’ 1997 production, but this time he was extremely satisfied. At the final applause, he stepped onto the stage, bowed deeply to the performers and exuberantly shook hands with conductor Reinbert de Leeuw. Only then did he turn to the audience to receive their loud cheering.


In two acts and four scenes, we follow the drunkard Piet the Pot, who experiences the wildest of adventures and is relegated to his unwilling help by Nekrotzar (Death). Nekrotzar proclaims in increasingly ominous terms that he will destroy the world. At midnight, a comet will strike: ‘The bodies of the people will be scorched, and all will turn into charred corpses, and will shrink like shrivelled heads!’ – Words that sound frighteningly topical in the light of the climate crisis and corona pandemic.

The libretto is a dazzling parody of the human desire for debauchery, intemperance, sex and power. The names of the love couple Amanda (Servando) and Amanda (Clitoris) speak for themselves, but politics are also ridiculed. Prince Go-Go rides a rocking horse, and from this position he urges two politicians to put the ‘interests of the nation’ above their own. – A parallel with Prime Minister Rutte and Minister of Public Health Hugo de Jonge springs to mind.

The music is a long succession of humorous pastiches and persiflages of (song) styles from earlier days. The second act opens with the ringing of doorbells and alarm clocks, seemingly announcing the end of time. Mutilated quotations from Scott Joplin to Beethoven can be heard. At the end of the third scene, when the planet Saturn crashes, the strings play a raw sort of lament, followed by swelling crescendos and decrescendos in the winds. The apocalypse seems to be a fact.


In the fourth scene, Ligeti depicts the post-apocalyptic landscape with sweet chords and harmonics in the low strings, accompanied by a prominent harmonica. It appears that everyone is still alive. In a slapstick-like passage with abrasive clusters of woodwinds and furious percussion, three soldiers and Prince Go-Go set off in pursuit of Nekrotzar. He must ultimately acknowledge his defeat and disappears into thin air, under the estranging sounds of a mirror canon in the strings.

The opera concludes with a succession of tonal chords deprived of their functional context. Then the entire cast turns to the audience: The opera concludes with a succession of tonal chords deprived of their functional context. Then the entire cast turns to the audience: ‘Fear not to die, good people all! No one knows when his hour will fall! And when it comes, then let it be… Farewell, till then in cheerfulness!’

This could just as easily be an appeal both to the vaccine opponents who fear unforeseen consequences of the shot, and to those who believe that vaccination should be made mandatory…


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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1 Response to Le grand macabre György Ligeti: Surprisingly topical opera about the end of time

  1. shoreclaregmailcom says:

    Thank you for introducing us to the Ligeti opera. Will the Nov. 27 performance be broadcast on the radio or livestreamed? I would really like to experience it!
    – Clare

    Liked by 1 person

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