That stimulated him to be a compelling apologist, articulate and amusing about what was to be heard, referring to himself often in the third person with a total lack of dogma, as if the composition was a phenomenon he was examining. With his words and his charm, he encouraged audiences to find a way in. Composers among themselves talk a good deal about acuteness of ear, and as ears go, Ligeti and Pierre Boulez were the finest in their generation. Ligeti was a master contrapuntist too: examine any of his scores, staves racing from top to bottom of the page, bar-lines bulging here and there to accommodate extra notes, and see in the detail of the invention how the voices go one against the other.
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That stimulated him to be a compelling apologist, articulate and amusing about what was to be heard, referring to himself often in the third person with a total lack of dogma, as if the composition was a phenomenon he was examining. With his words and his charm, he encouraged audiences to find a way in. Composers among themselves talk a good deal about acuteness of ear, and as ears go, Ligeti and Pierre Boulez were the finest in their generation.
Ligeti was a master contrapuntist too: examine any of his scores, staves racing from top to bottom of the page, bar-lines bulging here and there to accommodate extra notes, and see in the detail of the invention how the voices go one against the other.
No one of his generation was a finer craftsman. Born in the Transylvanian town of Dicsoszentmarton, lost by Hungary to Romania in , and now known as Tarnaveni, he belonged to a Hungarian Jewish family in which art and craft were valued: his paternal grandfather had been a painter of murals.
As a student at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest from , his own training in counterpoint was rigorous - out of Palestrina, Ockeghem and the old techniques - and he taught theory, harmony and counterpoint there after graduating in Over the next few years, before the shutters came down, he got to know music that was officially banned - Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and much of Bartok and Stravinsky - and set out to see whether he could arrive at a "Hungarian modernity", out of Bartok.
He could not, of course, not in a way acceptable to his conscience, or to the authorities that regulated public performance. So, in , he fled, hidden in a mail-train until he could make a dash across the border into Austria. With him went Vera, his second wife before and after, though not at the time; their marriage ended in divorce after two years, though they remarried, for good, in We have come to think of this as a sonorous texture - the "Ligeti sound" - so dense that the interwoven voices are absorbed and lose their individuality; and so it sometimes is.
But in Apparitions there is a lot more going on - broad movements in register and changes in degrees of activity, as well as wild outbursts. Moments of theatre, too, in one of which, as part of a sequence of eruptions, a percussionist smashes a sackful of bottles with a hammer. And looking back now, it is clear they are not apprentice pieces, but no less characteristic than what came after: no one else could have written them. They say Ligeti should be happy, he is now famous in America.
On arriving in the west, Ligeti found himself in paradise, he said, soaking up the unfamiliar music like a sponge - "and right away I began to write my own music".
Yet Ligeti had brought baggage from Budapest, and the new stuff was in line with ideas that had gradually been ripening there. One of those was to create music from non-semantic "poems" of phonetic material, and Aventures and its sequel Nouvelles Aventures , to radically meaningless texts, are "adventures" in form and expression for three voices and an instrumental septet in which distinct emotional modes are suggested as a succession of small scenes passes before us like a strip cartoon.
Playfulness and flamboyance continued to be other characteristic qualities of Ligeti, even after the thrilling modernist venture ran out of steam. There is an element, too, of the ridiculous in the Requiem, as if any up-to-date treatment of the Dies irae verses were bound to include it.
It was this sequence of the Requiem text that particularly attracted him. As with all Ligeti, the intention is serious, but easily embraces the crazy. And perhaps a man who twice survived a terrestrial day of judgment in his own country - Nazi and Stalinist - could be allowed to make passing comedy from the idea of Death as someone who has difficulty getting his act together. When we reach the Lacrimosa, however, we realise we have come out on the other side of something, and that matters cannot be quite the same again.
There, and in a separate setting of the Lux Aeterna words, written for unaccompanied voices in , we sense there has been a change; that the resource of harmony has been reclaimed from the scorched Earth of his earlier manner. Ligeti was always moving on, making his music new.
And while every piece remained instantly recognisable, he seemed to be revising his position after each work he completed.
He was an artist who let radical transformations determine his life and ways of thinking, distancing himself from ideologies and taboos. To find the "single right way"? Not a bit: "I cannot understand this idea of you have avant garde, and you have this postmodern neo-tonal stuff, as if these were the only two possibilities, there could be no third way. There are always a hundred ways. You have to find them. The playfulness and flamboyance were prominent in his opera Le Grand Macabre , where the half-nonsense texts of the arias for the Chief of the Secret Political Police coloratura soprano - inspired casting are very much a continuation of the Aventures idea.
Nekrotzar, the sinister reaper, arrives in the corrupt kingdom of Breugelland to announce the end of the world. But apocalypse now, or when exactly? And later was that really it? It is certainly to be regretted that Ligeti never yet had a theatrical champion of the calibre of his musical ones.
Later, there were tantalising might-have-beens. And to the end of his life he was attached to the notion of Alice in Wonderland as a theatrical fantasy - "very very light, and full of humour and moral. Just Lewis Carroll. After Le Grand Macabre, Ligeti produced next to nothing for five years until the Trio for horn, violin and piano , dedicated to Brahms.
It marked another turning-point. By then, progressive spirits were assailing him for reactionary tendencies, but the Trio has no links to "retro" movements of any kind. It is modern music; Ligeti was never driven to shelter in the past from the currents of the present. Rather, he was seeking to admit a new depth of expressivity to his work, and he confronted Brahms in a spirit not dissimilar from that in which Stravinsky broached the past.
There are thematic shapes and strongly outlined forms, conjuring ghosts of old feeling, some say, but in the last movement the gradual intensification of the weeping figures conveys an atmosphere of melancholy and resignation. Very Brahmsian, yes, but the real thing. The lamenting began to appear quite frequently in Ligeti from then on in the magnificent Sonata for solo viola, for instance , and when he was like this the keening, and the density of it - intensified by the Hungarian diction of his later work - could leave listeners quite wrung out.
Lamenting for what? The dislocations of a catastrophic century? The loss of living traditions, the destruction of his cultural homeland? The murder of his gifted younger brother by the Nazis? No message, and anyway not our business. The music is enough actually. But Ligeti was not a happy man. His inventiveness and subtlety of mind never left him, in the domain of rhythm particularly.
He was fired by ideas drawn from literature, the visual arts, the sciences, the psychology of perception, fractal mathematics, puzzles, chaos theory, complex decoration; and when it came to instrumental techniques - the more rhythmically interesting the better - he was a magpie, making what attracted him his own. Never mind ideas about music, though, it was the music itself that mattered. His goal was always to create something new from within the sound: that made him new, but always the same.
Ligeti never altered his stance on meticulousness and honesty. If modern music meant making new sounds, experiments of the kind that did away with the old criteria - "the idea that you can put shit on the table, spray it with gold and call it art" - were of no interest to him. In this, like Boulez, he was the conscience of contemporary music. Among other notable works were more concertos, for cello , for piano , for horn the Hamburg Concerto, ; the Double Concerto for flute and oboe ; the Chamber Concerto ; Lontano , Melodien and San Francisco Polyphony for orchestra; and much chamber music, instrumental and vocal.
He was a great composer, and much of this will surely live. Even in his lifetime, a lot of what he gave us has achieved classic status. Vera and their son, Lukas, survive him.
Ilona Somogyi. His family was Hungarian Jewish. Ligeti recalled that his first exposure to languages other than Hungarian came one day while listening to a conversation between Romanian-speaking town police. He did not return to the town of his birth until the s. His mother was the only person to survive in his immediate family.
György Ligeti: Violin Concerto; Lontano; Atmosphères
Ligeti: Violin Concerto, Lontano, Atmosphères & San Francisco Polyphony