György Ligeti (1923-2006)

Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes
György Ligeti: Portrait, A Documentary by Michel Follin (1993)
Scherzo Infernal (Soundtrack by Ligeti; dir. Walerian Borowczyk 1984)

György Ligeti was born on 28.5.1923 as the son of Hungarian-Jewish parents in Dicsőszentmárton (now known as Tîrnăveni, in Transylvania/Rumania). He studied at the Conservatory in Klausenburg with Ferenc Farkas from 1941 to 1943 and from 1945 to 1949 at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest with Sándor Veress, Pál Járdányi and Lajos Bárdos. Following the abatement of the Hungarian Revolution, he left his native country in December 1956 for both political and artistic reasons. During his time as freelancer in the West German Radio studio for electronic music in Cologne (1957-58), he undertook an intense study of the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mauricio Kagel and Pierre Boulez. In the 1960s, Ligeti was associate professor at the Summer School for Contemporary Music in Darmstadt and guest professor at the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in Stockholm. He received a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Programme (DAAD) in Berlin for 1969-70 and was Composer in Residence at the Stanford University in California in 1972 before being appointed as Professor for Composition at the Hamburg Musikhochschule the following year. The composer made a substantial impact on international contemporary music both as a university professor (up to 1989) and as an active member of the music scene and became the musical aesthetic benchmark for a whole generation. György Ligeti died in Vienna on 12 June 2006.

In specialist musical circles, György Ligeti had already caused a sensation with his electronic composition Artikulation (1958) which had been produced in the Cologne recording studio. He subsequently gained immediate fame throughout the musical world with his orchestral works Apparitions (1958-59) and Atmosphères (1961). Leanings towards extreme micro-polyphony were already visible in the works he had previously composed in Hungary, for example the a capella choral works Éjszaka and Reggel from1955. In the works from the late 1950s and 1960s, the concept of an extremely densely interwoven voice structure was increasingly contrasted with static tonal-spatial compositions. This was achieved with stunning effect: the maximum degree of movement in the voices develops into an audibly perceived spatially “static” music. In the 1980s and 1990s, complex polyrhythmic compositional techniques come to the foreground in Ligeti’s works. This development can be followed clearly in the Etudes pour piano which were published in three volumes and span the compositional period between 1985 and 2001. During the same period, Ligeti was working on the solo concertos for Piano and Orchestra (1985-88) and Violin and Orchestra (1990/92). These compositions – together with the Hamburg Concerto for horn und chamber orchestra (1998/99) – have subsequently been adopted in the solo repertoire of numerous soloists.

Ligeti’s full-length stage work Le Grand Macabre was composed between 1974 and 1977 (revised version 1996) and was based on a fable by Michel de Ghelderode. The persiflage on the Last Judgement in the imaginary country of “Breughelland” develops into an absurd display of the all too human needs of its citizens. Ligeti also utilises the medium of parody in his music which ranges from acrobatic bel canto and complex tone row structures to grotesque sprechgesang.

Alongside membership in the Free Academy of Arts in Hamburg and the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, György Ligeti was honoured as the recipient of numerous prizes: the following list includes only a selection of these awards: Commandeur dans l'Ordre National des Arts et Lettres, Prix de composition musicale de la Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco (both in 1988), the Music Prize from the Balzan Foundation (1991), the Ernst-von-Siemens Music Prize (1993), the UNESCO-IMC Music Prize (1996), honorary membership in the Rumanian Academy (1997) and nomination as Associé étranger der Académie des Beaux Arts (1998). Ligeti additionally received the Sibelius Prize from the Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation (2000), the Kyoto Prize for Art and Science (2001), the Medal for Art and Science from the Senate of the City of Hamburg (2003), the Theodor W. Adorno Prize from the City of Frankfurt (2003) and the Polar Music Prize from the Royal Music Academy of Sweden (2004).

György Ligeti in UbuWeb Sound
Roc Jiménez de Cisneros -- "Continuum, Expanded" (on György Ligeti), 2011 [PDF, 310kb]