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György Ligeti (1923-2006): an obituary
 
With the passing of György Ligeti on 12 June 2006 at the age of 83 in Vienna following a lengthy illness, the musical world has lost a true maverick. An independent thinker, Ligeti charted a singular route in his music with the evolution of a voice that is hard to ignore. In this respect one is tempted to put him alongside figures such as Boulez, Cage, Stockhausen and Xenakis when considering the major shapers of late twentieth century composition.
 
Ligeti was born in Romanian Transylvania in 1923 to Hungarian parents. Musical studies began in 1941 with his attending Cluj conservatoire in Romania, which led to further study at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, where he was later appointed Professor.

Following his arrest in 1943, as a result of being Jewish, Ligeti was sentenced to forced labour for the remainder of World War Two.  Survival, however, was not without its cost: the war claimed his brother and father amongst other members of his family.
 
The end of the war might have brought physical release but musically he continued to be heavily constrained by the Stalinist censorship in Hungary. For this reason much of his early work draws heavily on the use of Hungarian and Romanian folksong, reflecting the influence of Bartók and Kodály.  “I am an enemy of ideologies in the arts. Totalitarian regimes do not like dissonances”, he commented ruefully.  The Concerto Romaneşc (1951) is composed on the very limit of Stalinist dictates. One can pick up the folk music influences: Kodály in the dour Andantino, Bartók in the scherzo and distant shades of Enescu in the breathless finale.
 
After the 1956 Hungarian revolution Ligeti fled to Vienna, and to his first real contact with avant-garde composers of the day, becoming an Austrian citizen in 1967. The orchestral work Apparitions established his reputation and secured the important endorsement of Stockhausen amongst others. From that point on Ligeti rarely, if ever, looked back as a creative force. Works such as Atmosphères and Volumina expounded a personal alternative to the serialism of Webern and his followers. However, if there was a single concern that dominated his music it was change. No other contemporary composer’s work is filled with so many turning points. Some view these changes as organic growth, taking its cue from his research into chaos theory, fractal geometry and biochemistry.
 
The 1960s saw his music consumed by the use of super-dense polyphony he called "micropolyphony". Poème symphonique, written for 100 metronomes which run down at different speeds, is but a single example of this, and in extreme. Parallels of a kind were found in his use of speech sounds and nonsense syllables, which – perhaps unwittingly – can bring to mind the Dadaist conception of language-music-construction found in Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonata.
 
At the core of his artistic personality is the quality of fun, and that in no small measure has helped to make works accessible to a wide public. Extracts from Lux aeterna, Atmosphères and Requiem found their way into the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick was not one to choose his music lightly, noting that Ligeti’s work had “an extremely urgent visuality” about it.  

As if to consciously exploit populist appeal (though I am sure he would not have agreed with this view) his works of the 1970s moved back to a whole-hearted use of tonality. By way of justification he stated unapologetically, “ I no longer listen to rules on what is to be regarded as modern and what as old-fashioned.”  This ran in parallel with several important explorations of the concerto territory. Musical “forms with history”, including the étude (his proved to be the most important recent contributions to the genre) were now back on the agenda. The Piano Concerto blends more than other works elements of polyphony and folk music. The Hamburg Concerto, a horn concerto in all but name, sets the soloist against instrumental groupings including four natural horns to make possible the exploitation of overtones. The Violin Concerto recalls with more than a little nostalgia his roots and the style of folk fiddling with intentionally varied tuning of the solo instrument, to an unreservedly polyrhythmical accompaniment. This reflects the growing influence that African drumming was having upon his music in the 1990s.
 
Surrealist juxtaposition and the theatre of the absurd came to bear in equal measure upon the inception of his stage work Le Grand Macabre, an effortless mix of operetta and the darkest of black humour: “Stage action and music should be dangerous and bizarre, absolutely exaggerated, absolutely crazy.” This, he felt, was the most direct way he could reach an audience.  
 
Among the many awards and prizes his work attracted a couple stand out. The 2004Polar Music prize recognised his ability to "stretch the boundaries of the musically conceivable from mind-expanding sounds to new astounding processes, in a thoroughly personal style that embodies both inquisitiveness and imagination ", as the judges put it. The same year also brought the ECHO KLASSIK Award given by the Deutsch Phono-Akademie for Lifetime Achievement.
 
There can be little doubt that Ligeti was fortunate in having musicians with searching interpretive abilities perform his music in recent years with Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Isabelle Faust, Charlotte Hellekant, Jonathan Nott, George Benjamin and the Arditti Quartet amongst them. Without the determination of such artists the Ligeti Edition on record might never have been achieved. Requiring several labels that were willing to get involved at various stages throughout the project, more than once it seemed as if the end might never be reached. How close Ligeti came to being a major victim of the recording industry’s collective implosion.
 
Ligeti is survived by his wife and a son, Lukas, a New York-based percussionist.

  * * *

Personal recollections:
My first extended contact with Ligeti’s music came in 1989 with the ‘Clocks and Clouds’ Festival given on London’s South Bank by the Philharmonia Orchestra under the committed baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen. To say that each concert bemused me would be an understatement. What was valuable though was the context of contrasts Ligeti was set in: Debussy rang strongly at the time.  Each concert ended with a still sprightly Ligeti jumping onto the platform with armfuls of sunflowers, which he then distributed to the performers… meeting with some bemused looks in the process! That ‘Clocks and Clouds’ helped announce some key works in the Ligeti oeuvre to London was important in itself. For me, it sparked an ongoing interest in his music (not that I always get his point first on first hearing, but that says far more about me than Ligeti).

Diary notes made following Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s 2005 Wigmore Hall recital that featured a selection of Ligeti’s etudes record that I found:

Across the Études many long shadows are cast, not least by Chopin's and Debussy's compositions in the genre with the techniques of Scarlatti and Schumann. Satie, Liszt, Nancarrow or Hungarian and Balinese flavours (even the sculptures of Constantin Brancuşi) infuse and form the basis of individual studies.

Indeed, it was interesting for me to note how it took such a refined pianist as Aimard to show that the Études could "grow from simplicity to great complexity, behaving like growing organisms […] displaying high virtuosity as a response to my own inadequate piano technique", as Ligeti himself outlined they should.
 
And tradition? “There is only one tradition. Our music either stands up to it or not.” His certainly did.
 
Evan Dickerson
 
 
The complete Ligeti discography:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/cgi-perl/music/muze/index.pl?site=music&action=discography&artist_id=830324
 
Further reading:
György Ligeti by Richard Toop (Pub: Phaidon Press, 1999)
Based on interviews with Ligeti, this book surveys his life and music.

György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination by Richard Steinitz (Pub: Northeastern University Press, 2003)
A scholarly traversal of Ligeti’s compositions.
 
Image credit © Schott Music

See also
Seen and Heard Obituary by Tristan Jakob-Hoff



Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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