The Composer György Ligeti (1923–2006)

Significantly more people know his music, or at least snippets of it, than know his name. And even so, György Ligeti—whose 100th birthday rolls around this year—was one of the 20th and early 21st centuries’ most famous composers. His sudden rise to worldwide fame in 1968 was owed above all to the congenial use of four of his compositions in Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Alongside hits by Aram Khachaturian, Johann Strauss, and Richard Strauß, the masterful director used excerpts from Ligeti’s sound compositions Atmosphères for large orchestra and Lux Aeterna for sixteen-part mixed a cappella choir as well as his Aventures and Requiem. While all of these works were from the 1960s—as was the composer’s Lontano for large orchestra, featured in the horror movie The Shining—Kubrick’s infallible sense of musical and dramaturgical effect led him to select a movement from Ligeti’s early-1950s Musica Ricercata for solo piano for his final film Eyes Wide Shut, produced at the threshold of the new millennium. Even laypeople can immediately recognise how entire worlds lie between this piece and the others in terms of the sonic resources on which they draw.

Ligeti, who was born in the Transylvanian town of Diciosânmărtin (now called Târnăveni) in 1923, was influenced during his formative years in Hungary by the prevailing folkloristic modernism of Bartók and Kodály as well as by intense study of Bach’s works. Like many artists, however, he found his creativity severely stifled by the Stalinist restrictions that were in place. 1956 saw Ligeti flee to Austria, after which he moved from Vienna to Cologne. There, he took a job at the Studio for Electronic Music of WDR (West German Broadcasting), a magnet for that era’s avant-garde, and familiarised himself with the latest composing techniques. It was not long, however, before he assumed a critical stance towards the dominant Darmstadt School with its stringent serialism (which required the arrangement of one’s “material” in rows according to pitches, note values, dynamic values, etc.), a stance about which he also wrote. In turn, Ligeti soon began surprising people with experiments of his own. Fame was achieved above all by his sound compositions Apparitions and Atmosphères, with their finely granulated micropolyphony: sweeping fields of sound moving within one another, incidentally not dissimilar to contemporaneous developments by Krzystof Penderecki and Friedrich Cerha. To the latter, Ligeti—upon seeing the score of his Spiegeln—is said to have exclaimed: “You’re writing my piece!” Ligeti’s huge success with this approach in the musical world did not, however, seduce him into remaining with it. Instead, he proceeded to make repeated changes to his compositional methods as early as the 1960s, such as in the colourful Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures: there, much like Luciano Berio and Dieter Schnebel, he hit upon an experimental musical language where “language” can be taken quite literally. Combining human sounds beyond the realm of words—an unheard-of element at that time—with quick changes between expressive extremes, he gave rise to a type of “absurd musical theatre” (Ulrich Dibelius) that could be understood as a parody both of artistic modes of expression and of human behaviour in general.

As a composer, Ligeti remained a master of surprises his entire life long. Once, he announced his intention to compose a Poème Symphonique, eliciting expectations of a programmatic orchestral work after the manner of the 19th century. The instruments ultimately heard in this work, however, were a full 100 mechanical metronomes with their pendulums swinging at various speeds for predetermined running times, resulting in a dense sound surface with individual voices diverging and eventually going mute. Among other things, this could be taken as a statement aimed at an ambitious but vacuous art scene. And it was then as a metaphor for the entire world that Ligeti created his only opera, premièred in 1978 and entitled Le Grand Macabre—a parable of looming global catastrophe but at the same time a wicked parody of the operatic genre itself.

In the 1980s, the composer went on to shock and enthuse the musical world with his legendary Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano and its unabashed continuation of the romantic tradition. At the time, people overlooked the fact that such references had always accompanied Ligeti—and they also failed to hear the clearly dissociated quality of the Beethoven quotation with which this piece opens. Elsewhere, Ligeti likewise continued to experiment—such as in his etudes for solo piano, which employed techniques that were entirely new and highly virtuosic. His colourful and diverse output thus features reduction and expansion as well as irony and melancholy in close proximity. This dual character also characterised Ligeti as a human being: personally present as one of contemporary music festival Wien Modern’s featured composers in 2003, just three years prior to his death, he impressed those who were there with both great mental presence and an aura of cheerful wisdom despite his physical frailty.

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