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György Ligeti: Centenary in 2023

György Ligeti 100 Logo


In 2023, the music world will celebrate György Ligeti's 100th birthday. This special edition of Schott Journal and our centenary playlist offer a wealth of repertoire ideas, with programme notes by Sebastian Hanusa, translated by Lindsay Chalmers-Gerbracht. We also invite you to highlight your activities using the hashtag #Ligeti100 and add the anniversary logo which we can offer as a download, so that we may work together internationally towards this momentous event.

György Ligeti (1923–2006) was a central figure in the western European post-war avant-garde, despite his relatively short affiliation with the group surrounding Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Gottfried Michael Koenig, Luigi Nono and Bruno Maderna. Ligeti fled to Austria in 1956 after the Hungarian uprising and was subsequently employed in a studio for electronic music in Cologne in 1957/58. By then this avant-garde group had long been formed, core works had been composed, and aesthetic discourse already conducted. Ligeti’s own musical thinking was already well-developed along somewhat different lines: he was now in his early thirties, had concluded his composition studies at the Budapest Conservatoire and since 1950 had been a lecturer there in music theory. Nevertheless, his orchestral works Atmosphères (1961), Aventures (1962) and Novelles Aventures (1962-1965) for singer and chamber ensemble, and the Requiem (1963-1965) became some of the key works of the 20th century. At the beginning of the 1970s, Ligeti embarked on a new stylistic path prompted by the fundamental tension with much of the avant-garde ideology of the time. Characteristic of his music is the search for a new expressions 

  • Le Grand Macabre

    Le Grand Macabre is simultaneously a grand opera and a parody of the genre.  Termed by the composer himself as an “anti-anti-opera”, this is his only complete music theatre work and at the same time one of the few operas dating from the late 20th century which has become well established in the opera house repertoire. Le Grand Macabre depicts how Nekrotzar, the personification of death, arrives in morally depraved Breughelland ruled by Prince Go-Go and his incompetent secret police force. Nekrotzar has come to inform the population of the approaching apocalypse, but is made so intoxicated by the court astrologist Astradamor and his drinking companion Piet the Pot that he oversleeps the end of the world in his state of inebriation.

    Le Grand Macabre contains a greater number of quotations, borrowed formal and stylistic elements, exaggerated operatic gestures and themes than any other of Ligeti’s compositions. This is all blended into a racy revue collage which oscillates between shrill grotesquerie and tragi-comic abysses whose profound depths are exploited. Adhering to operatic conventions, Le Grand Macabre opens with a Prelude which is however only thirty seconds long and performed on twelve car horns with different pitches.

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  • Concert Românesc

    Music-ethnological studies modelled on Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály were a fixed element in the study courses at the Academy of Music in Budapest during the period following the Second World War, frequently accompanied by field research study trips. In 1949/50, Ligeti undertook a trip of this nature to the Bucharest Folklore Institute and to Transylvania, the region of Romania where he had grown up within the Hungarian-speaking group of the population. He based his first orchestral work on the material he had collected there: while not denying the influence of Bartók on the Concert Românesc, the composition already displays Ligeti’s skilled mastery in the creation of colourfully instrumented and effective orchestral music. Numerous elements from Balkan folk music can be detected, for example the characteristic alternation between duple and triple groupings in the melodic line of the elegiacally flowing first movement. Ligeti did not experience the first performance of the Concert Românesc until decades after its composition: after only a single rehearsal, the composition was prohibited by the Stalinist censor as even the mild dissonances clouding the modal-tonal structure of the work did not correspond to the regulations of social Realism.

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  • Musica ricercata

    In 1951, György Ligeti began composing a series of short piano pieces which he collected in the cycle Musica ricercata. His chief objective here was “to experiment with simple rhythmic and tonal structures, quasi in order to create a New Music from nothing” in his situation of utter isolation from the contemporary international musical world. The first piece of the cycle consists purely of the note A which is however highly differentiated in a variety of octave registers, articulation and rhythm, only joined right at the end by the note D. The second movement is constructed from three different pitches. Throughout the cycle, the range of utilised pitches steadily increases up to the eleventh and final piece of Musica ricercata which contains all twelve notes of the chromatic scale.

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  • Éjszaka · Reggel

    Ligeti composed over thirty works for a capella choir during his years in Budapest. Alongside numerous folk song arrangements, a significant number of these compositions are settings of poems by Sándor Weöres. There was no other author whose poems Ligeti set more frequently in this fashion, particularly in works from significant phases of his compositional development.  Éjszaka – Reggel (Night – Morning) was composed in 1955 for ten-voice mixed choir. Ligeti utilises clusters in Éjszaka which are constructed from canonic individual vocal parts, depicting the image of a mysterious nocturnal forest; in contrast, Reggel imitates the sounds at daybreak created with machine-like impulses and onomatopoeic sounds.  Éjszaka – Reggel were initially composed “for the back drawer” and only received their first performance in 1968 in Stockholm sung by the Swedish Radio chamber choir under the direction of Eric Ericson.

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  • Artikulation

    Shortly after he fled Hungary, Ligeti was given the opportunity of working in the electronic studio at the German broadcaster WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk) in Cologne. This was where his only electronic compositions were created in collaboration with Gottfried Michael Koenig: Glissandi (1957), Artikulation (1958) and the Pièce électronique No. 3 which was not realised by Ligeti himself. These pieces are however of great significance for the development of his compositional output, representing the adoption of and confrontation with serialism, for “massed sounds” which were constructed from a variety of individual elements and for the creation of music from its fundamental ingredients – in the form of synthesis, sounds from individual sine tones, noise tapes and impulses. While Glissandi lives up to its name, exclusively consisting of glissando notes and note groups, Ligeti explores the concept of imaginary abstract dialogues between sounds with differing characters in Artikulation.

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  • Lontano

    Ligeti experienced his breakthrough within the world of Western European music with the premieres of the two orchestral works Apparitions, performed in Cologne in 1960 and Atmosphères a year later in Donaueschingen. Both works can be categorised under the catchword “timbre composition”, delineating a radically logical extension of serialism. The increasing tendency towards the levelling of harmony through the statistically equal treatment of pitches ultimately led Ligeti to the elimination of the parameter of pitch and to a compositional style consisting of clusters in varying degrees of density, texture, progressive form and tonal colouring. The instrumental parts are no longer individually perceptible within the clusters, although they are composed and interwoven with each other in a compositional technique which Ligeti termed as “micropolyphony”.

    Ligeti continued to develop this technique further during the remainder of the 1960s: in his next orchestral work, he permitted individual chords and melodic lines to emerge indistinctly and disappear within the micropolyphonic sound textures, an effect he described as “harmonic crystallisation”. Lontano plays with figures and backgrounds, individual events and mass sounds within an imaginary musical space, utterly in the sense of the performance instruction forming the title: “lontano” – “as if from afar”. Lontano not only found its way into the concert repertoire, but was also utilised by Hollywood directors who were attracted by the suspense-packed music, for example Stanley Kubrick in “The Shining” (1980) and Martin Scorsese in “Shutter Island” (2010).

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  • Streichquartett Nr. 2

    Ligeti adapted the musical language developed in his orchestral works in the Second String Quartet for this intimate and yet traditional chamber music genre. In the five movements of this composition, he traversed widely varying worlds of expression with the aid of a broad spectrum of compositional and performance techniques. A highly nuanced style with subtle tonal variations is combined with melodic lines which – for the first time in Ligeti’s compositions – also develop in microtonal intervals. He superimposes pulsations with varying degrees of density and movement patterns on shimmering ribbons of sound while the action is at the same time repeatedly interrupted by abrasive eruptions or even completely dominated by them – as in the case of the “Presto furioso” in the fourth movement.

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  • Kammerkonzert

    The scoring of the Chamber Concerto for thirteen instrumentalists is located at a midway point between chamber music for soloists and symphonic sonority. At times, Ligeti composes tonal fields of orchestral density and at other times certain individual instruments emerge from the texture with exposed melodic lines reminiscent of Schoenberg and Berg’s melodic-expressive twelve-note technique or in solo episodes quasi in the mode of a cadenza as an outburst from within the metrical framework of the ensemble texture: here the individual instrumentalists come to the foreground in the role of virtuoso soloists.

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  • San Francisco Polyphony

    Ligeti composed San Francisco Polyphony, his final work for orchestra, to mark the 60th anniversary of the San Francisco Symphony. This marks the end of a line spanning Apparitions (1960) and Atmosphères (1961) via Lontano (1967) to Melodien, first performed in 1971. Within this stage of development, Ligeti had traversed a wide diversity of possible relationships between individual events and planar tonal masses: from the radical levelling of an individual note to a network of clearly audible individual lines as in Melodien.

    San Francisco Polyphony represents the continuation of this development “in the direction of polyphony which was more transparent, more clearly delineated, thinner and more brittle” as expressed by Ligeti. An orchestral composition was created which is characterised by its great richness in musical character images and a diversified dramaturgy.
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  • Monument · Selbstportrait · Bewegung

    Ligeti repeatedly undermined the holy earnestness of contemporary music with humour and a substantial helping of irony, as in the three pieces for two pianos dating from 1976. The second movement of this work, entitled Self-portrait with Reich and Riley (and Chopin is also there) plays on the fact that Ligeti had achieved similar tonal effects with his repeated and superimposed patterns independently from his two American colleagues. In this movement, these patterns are tripped up with a pianistic trick: both pianists play racing figurations as fast as possible with their right hands, but only some of the notes are actually heard as their left hands simultaneously hold down several keys silently. This produces a lively and yet stumbling homage to minimal music and the bliss of patterns. The central movement is framed by two pieces poking fun at the genre with their showy, virtuosic piano writing: Monument with its solemnly placed towers of chords and Movement with its accelerating perpetuum mobile of pianistic drive from which a melody in mirror canon develops, created with consummate compositional artistry.

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  • Mysteries of the Macabre

    The coarse, grotesque humour of the opera Le Grand Macabre is achieved musically through elaborate and frenetic means, for example the head of the Secret Political Police (abbreviated from the German to “Gepopo”) is sung by a coloratura soprano. In the soprano arias, the ludicrousness of a merciless security force is displayed in overwrought fashion through witticisms with nonsensical semantic wordplay and concrete poetry, and the technocratic abrasiveness of the head of police is expressed in shrill and virtuoso coloratura. Edgar Howarth arranged three of these arias to form an effective concert piece for soprano and chamber ensemble entitled Mysteries of the Macabre. This work also exists in a version for large orchestra with the original instrumentation in which the soprano part can also be played by a solo trumpet.

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  • Konzert für Klavier und Orchester

    Ligeti’s continual development of his musical language up to an advanced age went hand in hand with his wide interest in the arts, politics, and sciences, specifically philosophy, biophysics, chemistry and mathematics. In the latter subject, Ligeti discovered numerous parallels to his works, particularly within the area of fractal geometry. He also had great interest in literary figures such as Sándor Weöres, Boris Vian, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges and also Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”. Ligeti held fascination with music from diverse historical periods and traditions, for example, the complex polyphony of ars subtilior from the 14th century, Conlon Nancorrow’s rhythmic hyper-complex Studies for Player Piano, note systems from Java, Melanesia and southern African countries and the songs of the Aka Pygmies from Central Africa. In the latter he discovered the phenomenon in which the superimposition of complex rhythmic pulsations shifting against each other could create so-called illusionary patterns, making harmonies and melodic lines audible as quasi “acoustic meta-phenomena”.

    Ligeti attempted to integrate this into his own compositions, such as in the Piano Concerto, composed in 1985/86 and augmented by two additional movements in 1987, which the composer referred to as his “aesthetic credo”. Although he remained bound to post-modernity and the post-war avant-garde in numerous ways, in this work Ligeti distanced himself from both. Despite their “prohibition of tonality”, the illusionary harmony in the third movement displays echoes of tonal and modal music, even comprising jazz chords. These are fused into an overall soundworld entirely the composer’s own, which appears in highly varied guises in each of the movements. In the first movement, 12/8 and 4/4 structures are superimposed to create complex rhythms, whereas the second movement develops out of a type of lamentation motif leading into distant, fragile tonal worlds in a combination of low notes on the piccolo and high notes on the bassoon blended with alto ocarina, lotus flute and harmonica. The complexity of rhythmic and harmonic superimpositions reaches its zenith in the final movement in the form of a racing and light-footed Presto, intensifying into a classical finale.

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  • Der Sommer

    The brief piano lied Der Sommer, a setting of the eponymous poem by Friedrich Hölderlin, is a solitary work in Ligeti’s output. Complex pulsations are completely absent from this unadorned poetic miniature; on the contrary, the unpretentious vocal melody in the Locrian mode perfectly captures the atmosphere of the text in a purely syllabic setting with the simplest means.

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  • Konzert für Violine und Orchester

    The Concerto for violin and orchestra was composed in 1990, shortly after the Piano Concerto, was premiered as a three-movement work but revised by Ligeti only two years later with the addition of two further movements. A feature not present in the Piano Concerto is the use of micro-tonality, applied in similar fashion to the second string quartet to fill the spaces in the lines and overall sound between chromatic semitones, thereby making the harmonic space denser and more colourful. Here Ligeti exploits the constructional characteristics of a number of orchestral instruments: the horns for example are treated as natural horns in the second and third movements. In addition, one first violin and a viola are tuned in scordatura, blending with the non-tempered natural harmonics of individual double bass strings. As in the Piano Concerto, Ligeti also employs the ocarina with its fragile and not completely tuneable notes, here in a quartet with sopranino, soprano and alto ocarinas.

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  • Sonate für Viola

    The Sonata for solo viola was composed in several sections. Ligeti initially created two individual movements Loop (1991) and Facsar (1993), to which he subsequently added six movements to form a sonata first performed by Tabea Zimmermann in 1994. Ligeti exploits the full range of the viola from a lyrical cantabile tone to virtuoso double stopping and rapid runs, also displaying the highly varied facets of his musical world in the microcosm of this work while simultaneously returning to his roots. According to Ligeti, the first movement entitled Hora Lungă was written “in the spirit of Rumanian folk music”.  The literal meaning of the title is “slow dance”, denoting a type of melancholy and solemn folk song whose rhapsodic free flow is decorated by ornamentation.

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  • Études pour piano

    The piano etudes composed between 1985 and 2001 are considered one of Ligeti’s principal works from his later creative phase. In its structure and ambitious demands, the cycle follows on from the studies of Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Scriabin and even Debussy as a coherent sequence of different character studies, showing the possibilities available from the combination of pianistic virtuosity and his own compositional development at the time.

    White on White, the first study in the third volume of etudes, is performed exclusively on the white keys of the piano.  The second section of this movement, with its juxtaposed layers of racing runs, is “typical Ligeti”. In contrast, the first section consists of a consistently flowing progression of chords, which on closer inspection reveals itself to be a contrapuntal showpiece: two identical voices are superimposed according to the historical model of a stretto canon, sounding merely at the octave to each other at the canonic distance of a minim.

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  • Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedűvel

    Texts by Sándor Weöres accompanied Ligeti throughout his life up to the composition of Sippal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel for mezzo-soprano and four percussionists in 2000. The title translates as “With Pipes, Drums, Fiddles” and is part of a well-known Hungarian children’s counting rhyme. The musical setting of the texts as linguistic games show an affinity with concrete poetry and children’s nonsense lyrical poetry. The percussion ensemble includes a broad spectrum of customary orchestral percussion instruments accompanied by mouth organs, ocarinas and police whistles, with which Ligeti creates highly differentiated and frequently onomatopoeic tonal images.

    One of these images appears in the final movement, depicting a ceaselessly chattering parrot with a repertoire of only four words heard in various permutations on repeat: “tanárikari” (teaching colleagues), “karika” (a ring), “paripari” (paper factory) and “paripa” (horse). This vocabulary has been set to music by Ligeti as a cheeky and boisterous tongue-twister which brings the otherwise somewhat melancholy Sippal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel to its conclusion.

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  • Hamburgisches Konzert

    Between 1973 and 1989, György Ligeti taught as a professor of composition at the Musikhochschule Hamburg, which had become the second centre of his life alongside Vienna. The city on the river Elbe provided the impulse for Ligeti’s last completed composition: “Somehow, Hamburg wished to make a gesture towards the old Ligeti who has lived in Hamburg for so long, but was not performed very often in the city. The very friendly Manfred Lahnstein and Michael Göring came from the Zeit foundation and told me: ‘We would like to give you a commission for a work, but you are free to choose what you would like to compose.’ I then suggested a concerto with solo horn with four natural horns in the orchestra.”

    Ligeti had already undertaken an intense study of this instrument in his Horn Trio and the treatment of the orchestral horns in the Violin Concerto was paradigmatic for his style of microtonal composition. His starting point for the new composition was to juxtapose a modern valve horn as a solo instrument with four natural horns as an augmentation and quasi sound shadow. The natural horns are each tuned differently and alter their fundamental pitch with the aid of tuning crooks during the progress of the work. This provided Ligeti with an enormous store of various non-tempered overtones and their infinite combinations. These were coupled with a formal structure consisting of seven very brief individual movements containing elements from his various stages of composition blended with south European folk music and traditional form models and movement types.

    The final two movements of the concerto are a brisk, racy Capriccio and a solemn Hymnus. The Capriccio is brought to an abrupt stop with several delicately balanced overtone chords following a forte outbreak. In contrast, the Hymnus sounds more like the shadow of itself, merely containing fragile string sounds in the highest positions and the four natural horns displaced micro-tonally to each other, doubly fractured by mutes and flutter-tonguing.

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  • Le Grand Macabre

    So what comes after the end of the world? Or did it simply not take place because all participants including Death himself were unfortunately all lying around in a state of complete inebriation? The final scene of the opera Le Grand Macabre is without doubt a classic “morning after”, in which it remains open whether the world has in fact experienced an apocalypse – with everything continuing as before in the underworld – or whether it was all just a huge masquerade. Certainly Astradamors and Piet the Pot are still as thirsty as before, while Nekrotzar retreats into his grave, frustrated by the prevailing banality. In turn, Amando and Amanda climb out of the same grave where they had retired to be able to make love undisturbed and now establish: “’Neath terrors dire, let others bow: for us there’s only here and now.” This is the beginning of the final scene of the opera: a consonant-rich passacaglia gradually fading away into nothingness, commented by the sarcastic and distanced text of the ensemble: “Fear not to die, good people all! No-one knows when his hour will fall. And when it comes, then let it be… Farewell, till then in cheerfulness!”

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