Gyorgy Ligeti

(Hongrie - Hungary)

György Ligeti was born May 28, 1923 to Hungarian parents in Dicsöszentmárton (now Târnarveni) in Transylvania, Romania. When Ligeti was a child, his family moved to Cluj (Kolozsvár, Klausenburg), where he was educated and in 1941, began studying composition with Ferenc Farkas at the city's conservatory. After taking private lessons in Budapest with Pál Kadosa in 1942-43, he was sent into forced labor as a Jew. The Nazi occupation destroyed his family, but Ligeti resumed his studies with Farkas and Sándor Veress at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest at the end of World War II. He spent a year doing field research in Romanian folk music after his graduation in 1949 but returned to the Liszt Academy in 1950 as a teacher of harmony, counterpoint and formal analysis. He remained there until he fled from Hungary after the revolution in 1956.

Until Ligeti arrived in the West, his published works consisted primarily of folksong arrangements and music based on Romanian or Hungarian folk music. Political repression and censorship had restricted his access to new musical ideas and his ability to publish or share his more experimental works. His arrival in Vienna late in 1956 led to his introduction to key figures in avant-garde of Western European music, notably Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gottfried Michael Koenig and Herbert Eimert. Ligeti was invited by Eimert to join the Electronic Music Studio of Westdeutscher Rundkfunk (West German Radio) in Cologne, where he worked from 1957 to 1959. While there, his mature style took shape, notably in the electronic work Artikulation (1958), consolidating musical ideas that had begun to emerge in his scores as early as the late 1940s. Ligeti also began developing the orchestral work that became Apparitions (1958-59), which established his international reputation in its memorable premiere at the ISCM Festival in 1960 in Cologne.

The success of Apparitions was confirmed by Atmosphères (1961) and the organ work Volumina (1961-62), making it clear that Ligeti was forging for Western music a powerful alternative to post-Webern serialism. A key feature of his style was the use of extraordinarily dense polyphony, which he called "micropolyphony", resulting in complexes of musical colour and texture so rich and intense that they virtually dissolved the distinctions of melody, harmony and rhythm. At the same time, Ligeti extended his experiments in polyphony in a different direction, to include a kind of fabricated, colouristic language, built on the kaleidoscopic use of articulate speech sounds and inflections, heard in Adventures (1962) and Nouvelles aventures (1962-65). His music throughout the 1960s relies on one or both of these contrasting techniques. The Requiem (1963-65) and Lux aeterna (1966) add a contrapuntal complexity to Ligeti's evocative sound-world. At its Stockholm premiere in 1965, the Requiem made a powerful impression, and it went on to win the Bonn Beethoven Prize for Ligeti in 1967. The Cello Concerto (1966) is closely related to Lux aeterna (itself a reflection of the Requiem) in sound and design - a combination of dazzling intricacy and the most lucid of musical images. Two years after its premiere, Lux aeterna - along with Atmosphères and the Requiem - reached a mass audience when an excerpt from the score was used on the soundtrack and the best-selling soundtrack recording of the Stanley Kubrick film "2001: A Space Odyssey." From the beginning, when it reflected the influence of Bartók and Kodály, Ligeti's style has been in a sure but constant state of evolution. In the 1970s, his writing became more transparent, even melodic, though in a highly personal, elusive manner. The flickering melodic shapes of Melodien (1971) seem to be a step ahead of the listener's ear, and in later works, he transforms the idea of melody and harmonic structure through the use of micro-intervals and deviations from the tempered scale. As early as Ramifications (1968-69), Ligeti wrote for two string ensembles that had been tuned a quarter-tone apart.

Wit and satire are powerful elements in the music of Ligeti. The results can be scathing, as demonstrated in 0'00", described as the shortest known composition, poking fun at John Cage's 4'33". In a similar vein, The Future of Music (1961) is a piece for non-speaking lecturer and audience that ridicules the idea of performance art and, at the same time, questions the nature of musical communication. The opera Le grand macabre, premiered in Stockholm in 1978, has a comic aspect though Ligeti uses it to illuminate a dark and ominous tale.

In 1979 Ligeti took time to reconsider the direction in which his music was moving, and the works that followed in the 1980s revealed yet another transformation in his style. He extended his compositional range to include a complex polyrhythmical technique that allowed him to move away from the static structures of his earlier works. The Piano Concerto (1985-88), for instance, is typical of Ligeti's work of this recent period - arresting and compelling music that immediately disarms the listener, despite the fact that the composer himself considers it his most complex and difficult score.

Since 1956, Ligeti has lived in Germany and Austria, and he became an Austrian citizen in 1967. For many years he was a visiting professor of composition at the Stockholm Academy of Music, and he was later appointed professor of composition at the Hamburg Music Academy (1973-89). He also served as visiting professor and composer-in-residence at Stanford University in 1972. In 1975, Ligeti was awarded the German decoration "Pour le mérit" and the Bach Prize of the City of Hamburg. He was also the recipient of the Grawemeyer Prize in 1986.

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