György Ligeti

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

Picture © Schott Music, Milan Wagner


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.

Picture: Piano Concert MP 126


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.

Picture © Schott Music, H.J. Kropp

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

Ligeti wrote it in such a way that it looks un­play­able, even though it is entirely play­able. It was also his aim for all the etudes to be very challenging for the per­former. He literally wan­ted to place them in danger, he wanted to make their efforts part of the per­formance.“ (Pierre-Laurent Aimard)

(Paul Sacher Stiftung, Basel, Collection György Ligeti)

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