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György Ligeti

György Ligeti (born May 28, 1923) is a Hungarian born composer (now living in, and a citizen of, Austria), widely seen as one of the great composers of instrumental music of the 20th century. Many of his works are well known in classical music circles, but among the general public, he is probably best known for the various pieces which feature prominently in the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey.


Ligeti was born in Discöszentmáton (now Tirnaveni) in Transylvania. He received his musical training in the Cluj-Napoca Conservatory initially and later in Budapest, but his education was interrupted in 1943 when, as a Jew, he was forced by the Nazi Party to do manual work. At the same time his parents, brother, and other relatives were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp; only his mother survived.

Ligeti returned to his studies after the war, graduating in 1949. He went on to do ethnomusicological work on Romanian folk music, but after a year returned to his old school in Budapest, this time as a teacher of harmony, counterpoint and musical analysis. However, communications between Hungary and the west had been cut off by the then communist government, and Ligeti had to secretly listen to radio broadcasts to keep abreast of musical developments. In December of 1956, two months after the Hungarian uprising was put down by the Soviet Army, he fled to Vienna and eventually took Austrian citizenship.

There, he was able to meet several key avant garde figures from whom he had been cut off from in Hungary. These included the composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gottfried Michael Koenig, both then working on groundbreaking electronic music. Ligeti worked in the same Cologne studio as them, and he was inspired by the sounds he was able to create there. However, he produced little electronic music of his own, instead concentrating on instrumental works which often contain electronic-sounding textures.

From this time, Ligeti's work became better known and respected, and his best known work might be said to span the period from Apparitions (1958-9) to Lontano (1967), although his later opera, Le grand macabre (1978) is also fairly well known. In more recent years, his books of piano Etudes have become quite well known thanks to recordings of them made by Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

Ligeti took a post teaching in Hamburg in 1973, a job he left in 1989. From the 1980s, he has suffered ill health, which has slowed down his compositional output somewhat. He continues to write however, and remains a very well known composer.

Ligeti's music

Ligeti's earliest works are an extension of the musical language of his countryman Bela Bartok. The piano pieces, Musica Ricercata (1951-53), for example, are often compared to Bartok's set of piano works, Microcosmos. Ligeti's set comprises eleven pieces in all. The first uses almost exclusively just one pitch class, A, heard in multiple octaves. Only at the very end of the piece is a second note, D, heard. The second note then adds a third note to these two, the third piece adds a fourth note, and so on, so that in the eleventh piece, all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are present.

Already at this early stage in his career, Ligeti was affected by the communist regime in Hungary at that time. The tenth piece of Musica Ricercata was banned by the authorities on account of it being "decadent". It seems that it was thus branded owing to its liberal use of minor second intervalss. Given the far more radical direction that Ligeti was looking to take his music in, it is hardly surprising that he felt the need to leave Hungary.

Upon arriving in Cologne, he began to write electronic music alongside Stockhausen. He produced only a few works, however, in this medium, including Glissandi (1957) and Artikulation (1958), before returning to instrumental work. When he did, his music appears to have been influenced by his electronic experiments, and many of the sounds he created resembled electronic textures. Apparitions (1958-59) was the first work which brought him to critical attention, but it is his next work, Atmosphères, which is better known today and was used in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Atmosphères (1961) is written for large orchestra. It is seen as a key piece in Ligeti's output, laying out many of the concerns he would explore through the 1960s. It virtually completely abandons melody, harmony and rhythm, instead concentrating purely on the timbre of the sound produced. It opens with what must be one of the largest cluster chords ever written - every note in the chromatic scale over a range of five octaves is played at once. The piece seems to grow out of this initial massive, but very quiet, chord (music), with the textures always changing.

Ligeti coined the compositional technique used in Atmosphères, Apparitions and his other works of the time "micropolyphony", which he explained as follows: "The complex polyphony of the individual parts is embodied in a harmonic-musical flow, in which the harmonies do not change suddenly, but merge into one another; one clearly discernible interval combination is gradually blurred, and from this cloudiness it is possible to discern a new interval combination taking shape."

From the 1970s, Ligeti returned to some extent to a more melodic style, and also began to concentrate on rhythm. Pieces such as Continuum (1970), Clocks and Clouds (1972-3), were written before he heard the music of Steve Reich and Terry Riley in 1972, yet the second of his Three Pieces for Two Pianos, "Self-portrait with Reich and Riley (and Chopin in the background)," commemorates this affirmation and influence. He also became interested in the rhythmic aspects of African music, specifically that of the Pygmies. His Etudes for solo piano, written at various times through the 1980s and 1990s, appear to take the romantic music of Frederic Chopin and Robert Schumann as a starting point while incorporating extreme rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic complexity. In the mid-70's he wrote his first opera, Le Grande Macabre, a work of absurd theatre with many scatalogical references. Ligeti's most recent work is the Hamburg Concerto for horns.