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GYORGY LIGETI (1923-2006) by Julie Williams

An avant-garde composer popularised variously by the film maker Stanley Kubrick and the pianist - and personal friend - Pierre-Laurent Aimard. He is associated not only with the more impenetrable reaches of 20th-century modernism but also with music for futuristic films - Space Odyssey 2001 and Eyes Wide Shut. At the same his music looks backwards at Eastern European musical traditions, particularly of fiddle playing, albeit through a distorting lens.

Ligeti was born in Transylvania, which at that time was territory disputed between Hungary and Rumania. His family suffered internment as Jews and both his father and his brother died in Auschwitz. It is interesting to compare his music with that of other composers profoundly affected by wartime experiences under the Nazis, such as Nono, Xenakis and Stockhausen all of whom produced music which rigorously challenges the accepted frontiers of the art form and is not always easy to listen to. Some of Ligeti’s early work can be described as ‘an intense irrationality that serves as a metaphor for a degradation from which there is no return, no respite’ (Musical Times, obituary).

After the war he lived in Budapest and in 1956 moved to Cologne, where Stockhausen was a big influence. However his hero and the greatest influence of all was Bartók. He wished, but did not succeed, in emulating the latter’s emigration to the USA, corresponding with him to try to achieve this. He managed to make a temporary visit, serving as Composer-in-Residence and Guest Lecturer at Stanford University in 1972. There he met Steve Reich and this influenced his music significantly, with its focus on pulse and rhythm and its sourcing of influence from non-European cultures. This can be heard, for example, in the creation of ‘Clocks and Clouds’.

‘What I wrote is perhaps "maximal" minimal music because of my predilection for greater complexity, but my heart was obviously turned to America’ .

During the 1970s his major musical preoccupation was the composition of operas, of which one survives – ‘Le Grand Macabre’. This has been prone to adverse comparison with his friend’s better-known ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’.

His later work, in particular the Etudes, feature ‘micropolyphony’ which has similarities to rhythms found in traditional African music. This is displayed and demonstrated in the Teldec Classics disc ‘African Rhythms’ (86584-2), in which a selection of his Etudes, played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, are intercut with Pygmy chants.

Throughout my life, I always found dogmas uninteresting. Pioneering undiscovered areas is what I consider my main challenge. Complex forms and structures built from extremely simple processes is the lesson we can draw from studying the structure of living organisms and of human and animal societies.

Julie Williams


Atmospheres (1961)



Clocks and Clouds (1973)

Chamber Concerto (1969–70)

Le Grand Macabre (1974–77)

Horn Trio (1982)

Violin Concerto (1985)

Piano Concerto (1992)

Piano Etudes (Book 1, 1985, Book 2, 1993)

Musica Ricerata (for piano, 1992 - sampled in 'Eyes Wide Shut')

Lux Aeterna


Horn Concerto (1998-99)

Ligeti on MusicWeb


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