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Ligeti, György (1923-2006)

György Ligeti

born: 28 May 1923
died: 12 June 2006
country: Romania

György Ligeti grew up during the politically turbulent 1920s and 1930s as an outsider—a Hungarian Jew in Romanian-speaking territories at a time of rife anti-Semitism. During the Nazi occupation of Hungary in 1944, he avoided deportation to concentration camps (most of his family did not survive), and later dramatically escaped from Hungary to Austria in late 1956, following the Soviet invasion. Ligeti’s personal experiences of the brutality of the Nazis and Communists left him with a healthy suspicion of authoritarian regimes and dogmatic positions, whether political or artistic.

His arrival in the West brought him into contact with the European avant-garde, a new source of inspiration (the music of composers such as Stockhausen, Nono and Boulez had been difficult to obtain in Hungary). Over time, however, the hegemony of serialism became increasingly oppressive to a composer whose music displayed an essential tendency towards experimentation, maverick dissent and stylistic diversity—each piece having its own rules. Later during the 1970s, Ligeti became equally suspicious of resurgent neo-romanticism—a reaction against the avant-garde that to him seemed retrograde, saccharine and insouciant. His ‘flirtation’ with minimalism (as in Selbstportrait mit Reich und Riley) did not last long, and after the completion of his opera Le grand macabre (completed in 1977), a five-year compositional silence ensued. It was during this period that an extensive search for a new stylistic path took hold.

Unlike major piano-étude composers such as Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov and Debussy, Ligeti was no composer-pianist in the traditional sense. He began piano lessons relatively late, aged fourteen, and Musica ricercata (1951-53) was his only previous significant work for solo piano. Yet it was his newly regular contact with the piano while teaching at Hamburg’s Hochschule für Musik und Theater (in 1973 he had been appointed professor of composition) that proved an important catalyst for the composition of Monument, Selbstportrait, Bewegung for two pianos (1976), the Trio for violin, horn and piano (1982), and the Études. Ligeti himself spoke of the physical pleasure of playing the piano, and its essential role in his compositions for the instrument:

I lay my ten fingers on the keyboard and imagine music. My fingers copy this mental image as I press the keys, but this copy is very inexact: a feedback emerges between ideas and tactile/motor execution. This feedback loop repeats itself many times, enriched by provisional sketches … The result sounds completely different from my initial conceptions: the anatomical reality of my hands and the configuration of the piano keyboard have transformed my imaginary constructs.

In 1980 Ligeti discovered the complex polyrhythmic Studies for player piano by the American composer Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997)—pieces that, despite being mostly unplayable by a solo pianist, opened new imagined avenues for virtuosity. Also around that time, Ligeti became fascinated, via the work of ethnomusicologist Simha Arom, by African polyphony, particularly music of Banda-Linda horn ensembles. One of Ligeti’s composition students, the Puerto Rican Roberto Sierra, brought recordings of Latin-American music to class for discussion. Add these musical discoveries to Ligeti’s knowledge of the Western canon (including fourteenth-century ars subtilior and Renaissance polyphony), Balinese gamelan, the jazz of Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk, and Eastern European folk traditions, and the panorama of Ligeti’s musical inspirations acquires awe-inspiring and encyclopaedic proportions. In addition, Ligeti’s extra-musical interests encompassed mathematics, science, literature and visual art; hence mathematical chaos theory and fractal geometry (as developed by Edward Norton Lorenz and Benoit Mandelbrot respectively), the ‘impossible drawings’ of Escher, and the metaphorical writings of Jorge Luis Borges and Lewis Carroll also emerged as pivotal sources of ideas.

from notes by Danny Driver © 2021


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