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) with reference to one of his late piano études sheds light on his entire creative work. Indeed, the notion mentioned here of an imagined space in music constitutes the foundation of his music. In this imagined space unfolding before the listener, Ligeti intro-duces, with the greatest plasticity, processes into his work – like the gradual compression of a sound segment or the ominous descent into the deepest regions of sound. Another essential element of his music is the aforementioned change from dynamic to static. In his works, one can often observe the concretion of tonal processes or the opposite, the liquefaction of solid forms.

György Ligeti was born on 28th May 1923 in a small town in the Hungarian-Romanian border region of Transyl¬vania, about 100km from Cluj (Klausenburg). He was equally enthusiastic about music and the natural sciences. Indeed, his interest in mathematics and chemistry remained with Ligeti throughout his life, and he drew inspiration for musical ideas from both disciplines. As a Hungarian Jew, Ligeti experienced xenophobia and anti-Semitism to a traumatic degree in 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 complete his musical studies at the Budapest Academy of Music, started in 1942 and interrupted by the war. He became a professor there in 1950. His works from that period, drawing productively on Bartok’s style, were conceivably far removed from the official doctrine of Socialist Realism and had no chance of being performed in Communist Hungary.

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 music theorist. Consequently, the world premiere of his orchestral works "Apparitions" (1959) and, above all, "Atmosphères" (1961) caused an even greater sensation. These works marked Ligeti's breakthrough as a composer. Unlike the essentially pointillist compositions at the Darmstadt School, which were essentially fragmented serial complexes, in these works, Ligeti introduced sound mass in which the individual identities disappear. In many of his later works, he once again used distinctive melodies, focusing on the composition of sound, its density, its volume, phasing, and phase shifting.

Despite being considered a leading composer of new music since "Atmosphères", Ligeti had to eke out a living with scholarships, composition commissions and temporary lectureships, among others in Stockholm and at Stanford University, for a long time. In 1975 he was finally offered a professorship at the Hamburg Musikhochschule, where he taught until his retirement in 1989. Inadvertently, his music became known to a wide audience outside the concert hall when the 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" in 1968. His only opera, Le Grand Macabre, which premiered in 1978, marked a tur¬ning point in his work. After its completion, the otherwise prolific Ligeti composed virtually nothing for about five years. The Trio for violin, horn and piano, completed in 1982, ushered in a new creative phase. It is characterised by a new approach to tradition, which included an intensive exploration of rhythmic and metrical problems as well as the expansion of the sound material through the inclusion of untempered natural harmonics. The series of 18 piano etudes, begun in 1985, was also written during this phase. The pieces, some of which are of dazzling virtuosity, have already found their place in the piano repertoire. György Ligeti died in Vienna on 12th June 2006 after a long illness.

György Ligeti

© Guy Vivier

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