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OBITUARY: GYÖRGY LIGETI (1923-2006)


Most obituaries for the composer György Ligeti, who has died aged 83, will refer to him as the natural heir to Béla Bartók, his Hungarian compatriot and a major influence on his early development as a composer. Like Bartók, Ligeti was fascinated by folk music, spending many years researching and arranging the traditional music of Romania, between whose borders his birthplace now lies. Moreover, it was Bartók’s music that fired his first mature creative impulses – the 1954 string quartet, Metamorphoses Nocturnes, is firmly rooted in the style of Bartók’s Third and Fourth quartets, whose daring harmonies were at that time forbidden by a repressive Communist regime.


Ligeti did much more than carry on the Bartók tradition, however, and the list of influences on his music, particularly in the last 20 years or so, were eclectic to say the least. He drew inspiration from electronics, Dadaism, minimalism, African polyrhythm and the Spectralist movement, from composers as diverse as Ockeghem, Beethoven, Webern, Stockhausen, Nancarrow and Claude Vivier. Perhaps the most lasting influences on him were non-musical – the free-association absurdity of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and the disquieting imagery in the paintings of Bosch and Brueghel were twin undercurrents in works such as his 1978 “comic strip” opera, Le Grand Macabre.


He was a late initiate to the avant-garde movement. The veil of silence drawn over Hungary in the 40s and 50s extended very much to the airwaves, but he avidly soaked up the ideas of Schoenberg and Webern from books and scores illicitly smuggled into Budapest. By the time he had fled for Vienna in 1956, he was well versed in the techniques, if not the practice, of contemporary music, and his evident enthusiasm won over the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gottfried Michael Koenig and Herbert Eimert. It was the latter who invited him to work at the WDR Electronic Music Studio in Cologne, and it was there that he first began experimenting with the ethereal soundscapes that would ultimately make his name.


His first important work for orchestra, entitled Apparitions, greatly impressed his contemporaries when it was premiered in Cologne in 1960. A tapestry of complex sounds woven from an intricate network of ever-shifting tone clusters, it marked a breathtaking departure from the ascetic ‘total serialism’ otherwise preoccupying the compositional elite of the day. It was followed closely by Atmosphères (1961), in which Ligeti mastered the art of the gradual transition, imperceptibly morphing one block of sonority into another, like a cloud changing shape in the sky. He christened his tortuously complicated technique “micropolyphony” – its roots lay in the contrapuntal contraptions of the Renaissance masters – and it reached its zenith in the 1965 Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Choir and Orchestra. In the Requiem’s haunting Kyrie, the chorus sings a five-part canon, with each part further subdivided into another, four-part canon; like a modern day Spem in Alium, the effect was not of twenty separate parts, but of a single, writhing mass, an immeasurable multitude of voices.


In 1968, the director Stanley Kubrick famously used both Atmosphères and the Requiem in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey, bringing Ligeti instant cult status – if not instant financial success. It was, infamously, only after a friend had gone to see the film at the cinema that Ligeti was made aware of his artistic contribution to it; he spent many years trying to extract royalties from the studio MGM, who eventually and reluctantly paid him the princely sum of $3,500 for services (unwittingly) rendered. Ligeti liked the film, however, saying that he “accepted artistically” the way Kubrick had used his music, and Kubrick was later given permission – legally, this time – to include Ligeti’s music in The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut.


If nothing else, his brushes with Hollywood brought him wider exposure, and he became, for many, the acceptable face of the avant-garde, the People’s Modernist. The Requiem was much imitated in subsequent film scores, and Ligeti’s highly individual soundworld was suddenly the byword for anything on screen that looked vast and unfathomable. By the mid-60s, however, another strand of his psycho-musical makeup had begun to assert itself: in pieces such as Aventures and Poème Symphonique (both 1962), Ligeti began to explore the theatrical and the absurd in true Dadaist fashion. Aventures, along with its sequel Nouvelle Aventures, was a playful parody of singing and singers, full of invented vocal techniques and riotous percussive effects (a tray of crockery is flung noisily to the ground at one stage); the notorious Poème Symphonique, on the other hand, pits one hundred tick-tocking metronomes against one another in a battle to see which will last longest. The Future of Music is a wry comment on performance art – very much in vogue at the time – for mute lecturer, blackboard and audience. 0’00” cruelly satirises John Cage, in the shortest piece of music ever written.


In the 1970s, Ligeti’s radical bent – born of his natural anti-authoritarianism – was supplanted by a more lyrical, even “melodic” sensibility. In 1971’s Melodien, he adapted the micropolyphonic and transitionary techniques he had perfected in the 60s to a series of ever-changing melodies, each one emerging from his trademark web of sound for a brief moment of clarity before being subsumed once again. The Double Concerto (1972) for Flute, Oboe and Orchestra, is a restrained and underrated masterpiece of subtle colouration and microtonally inflected harmonies, drifting dreamily from inertial calm to frenzied movement and back again. San Francisco Polyphony, written for and premiered by Seija Ozawa, must count as the most exuberant and exciting concert opener produced in the latter half of the 20th Century.


The 70s culminated in the completion of Le Grand Macabre (1978, extensively revised in 1997), Ligeti’s only opera and a veritable summation of his work to that point. Its sense of absurdity comes straight from Aventures, but the opera’s subject – the end of the world and the massacre of innocents – comes straight from Brueghel. (It is perhaps telling that, when faced with such a topic, Ligeti – whose father and brother were murdered in the Holocaust – should choose comedy as his medium.) Musically, it ranges from a prelude for four squawking motor horns, to a duet of alphabetised imprecations, to the darkly effective passacaglia that accompanies the end of the world. Its main characters, including the apocalypse-bringing Nekrotzar, the long-suffering astronomer Astradamors, and the ineffectual and effeminate Prince Go-Go, are all authoritarian figures who, in one way or another, are rendered impotent by their inability to inspire fear; it represents another instance of Ligeti thumbing his nose at the dictatorships he so thoroughly reviled.


As with politics, he was against any sort of dogmatism in music, and his attitudes contrasted sharply with those who advocated the rigours of serialism as the only ‘true’ way forward. In the 1980s and 1990s, Ligeti’s music moved further and further away from the avant-gardism with which he had made his name, eventually writing long stretches of music that could be broadly described as tonal. The Horn Trio of 1982 and the 1992 Violin Concerto both feature extended, lyrical melodies, though both utilise decidedly ‘weird’ tunings to create distinctly Ligetian harmonies. In the Piano Etudes (1985) and Piano Concerto (1988), Ligeti turned to sub-Saharan Africa for inspiration, taking an interest in the layered rhythmic patterns of Pygmy drumming as a means of creating sustained musical structures. Amongst his last works were a song that liberally pastiched Hungarian folk music, and a piano etude that used only the white keys.


Ligeti’s open-mindedness, his receptiveness to new ideas, his rigorously analytical mind, his warmth and generosity, all conspired to make him as well-loved a teacher as he was a composer. Numbering amongst his erstwhile students are such rising stars as Unsuk Chin and Hans Abrahamsen; his weekly lectures in Hamburg, along with his annual appearances at Darmstadt, were legendary. But for those composers who never got to meet him, his influence will continue to be felt. As the only composer since Stravinsky to have his entire body of work recorded while he was still alive, it is obvious that Ligeti occupies a special place in the history of modern music. His place in the hearts of millions of music lovers, now and in the future, is equally assured.


He is survived by his wife Vera and his son, the composer and percussionist Lukas Ligeti.


Tristan Jakob-Hoff

 

 

Another obituary, written by Evan Dickerson for MusicWeb's CD review section appears Here

 


 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)