György Ligeti

György Ligeti was born on May 28, 1923 in a small town in the Hungarian-Romanian border region of Transylvania, about 100 km from Cluj (Klausenburg).

One of my compositional intentions is to create an illusory musical space where what was originally movement and time presents itself as immovable and timeless.

This remark made in 1990 by György Ligeti (1923–2006) on the occasion of one of his late piano études sheds light on his entire creative work. Indeed, the notion referred to here of an imaginary musical space forms the foundation of his music. In this musical space unfolding before the listener Ligeti introduces, with the greatest plasticity, pro­cesses into his work – like the gradual compression of a fabric of sound or the catas­trophic descent into the deepest regions of sound. Another key element of his music is this switching of dynamics into statics referred to in the quote. His work often displays a coagulation, so to speak, of tonal processes or, the opposite, a liquefaction of solid states. 

György Ligeti, Lux aeterna, draft of the score, p. 10 (Paul Sacher Stiftung, Basel, Collection György Ligeti)

He had an enthusiasm for both music and the natural sciences. His interest in mathematics and chemistry stayed with Ligeti his whole life receiving inspiration for music composition ideas from both disciplines.

As a Hungarian Jew Ligeti experienced traumatic xenophobia and antisemitism during his youth. His father and younger brother were deported to a concentration camp and fell victim to the Holocaust in 1945. Ligeti himself only narrowly escaped this fate. In 1949 he was able to conclude his stu­dies of music at the Budapest Academy of Music that had been interrupted by the war in 1942. In 1950 he became a professor there. 

His works from that time, which followed on from Bartok in a productive sense, were very far removed from the official doctrine of Socialist Realism and in communist Hungary had no chance of being performed.

During the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 Ligeti emigrated to the West coming into contact with the western avant-garde for the first time. He took part in the Darmstadt Summer Courses featuring Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez where he was primarily perceived as a brilliant analyst and theoretician. He caused even greater furor with the premiere of his orchestral works Apparitions (1959) and partic­ularly Atmosphères (1961). These works brought Ligeti his breakthrough as a composer.

Unlike the pointed compositions at the Darmstadt School, which were essentially split into individual events, in these works Ligeti worked with a continual stream of sound in which the individual voices were submerged. In many of his later works, once again gradually using clearly emerging melodic elements, Ligeti’s interest focused on the composition of the sound, its density, its volume, its start and finish. Although since Atmosphères Ligeti was considered a leading composer of New Music, for a long time he had to manage on grants, composition commissions and temporary lectureships including ones in Stockholm and at Stanford University.

In 1975 he finally received a professor­ship at the Hamburg Academy of Music where he taught until his retirement in 1989. Involuntarily his music was made known to a wide audience beyond the concert hall when in 1968 director Stanley Kubrick used excerpts from Atmosphères and other works by Ligeti – without the composer’s knowledge or consent – as music in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Ligeti’s only opera Le Grand Macabre, premiering in 1978, marks a turning point in his work. Upon its completion the otherwise so productive Ligeti composed practically nothing for about five years. Concluded in 1982 his Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano heralded in a new creative phase. This was marked by a new relationship to tradition involving an intense preoccupation with rhythmic and metrical issues such as the extension of the sound material through the inclusion of natural, untempered intervals. It was also during this phase that his series of piano études, which were to number 18 in total, begun in 1985. These at times farcical virtuoso pieces have already found their place in the piano repertoire. György Ligeti died in Vienna after protracted illness on June 12, 2006.

© Volker Rülke, Berliner Festspiele / Musikfest Berlin

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