The Late Works of György Ligeti (1923–2006)

by Michael Schell

The Pacific Northwest seems in the midst of a Ligeti boom. Last year the Seattle Symphony presented the regional premiere of his Requiem, along with a live-music presentation of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which features music from the Requiem and three other Ligeti scores from the 1960s. Second Inversion marked the occasion with a profile of the Hungarian composer (see György Ligeti’s Musical Odyssey) and the groundbreaking works from that era that made him one of the 20th century’s most influential musical figures. This Thursday and Saturday, the Seattle Symphony is back with Augustin Hadelich to offer the local premiere of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, a late and quite different piece that offers an opportunity to examine the composer’s post-Odyssey music.

Opera in Breughelland

Ligeti’s output, like Beethoven’s, divides rather neatly into three style periods. The early works, written while he was still in Hungary, are Bartókian and often folkloric. The middle period works, coming after his escape to the West in 1956, include sonorist compositions such as Atmospheres, Lux Aeterna, and the first two movements of the Requiem—pieces that aren’t based on conventional melody and harmony but are pure explorations of timbre and texture. It’s this music that was made famous by the monolith and stargate sequences in Kubrick’s film. Others works from this time, like the little pseudo-operas Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, and the third movement of the Requiem, express Ligeti’s idiosyncratic take on the Darmstadt pointillist style. (Each of these works are surveyed in our previous article.)

Ligeti’s middle period is considered to culminate with the 1978 premiere of Le Grand Macabre, his only full-length opera, and by far his longest work. Much of it resembles Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures, but at other times it points in several new directions, including that quintessential postmodern technique, pastiche. There are many musical references to the past: a Can Can quoting Offenbach, a bourée that’s modeled after the Baroque dance, a midnight clock scene that parodies the cemetery chimes in Verdi’s Falstaff, and a Don Giovanni-style moralizing finale where the singers address the audience directly.

The opera’s most famous passage is a passacaglia based on a crazy distortion of the theme from the finale of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. It accompanies the entrance of Nekrotzar, the opera’s villain and namesake, one of the most debauched processional scenes in opera history.

Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony through a distorting mirror in Le Grand Macabre.

Beethoven isn’t the only reference here. Look closely and you’ll see that Ligeti’s tune uses a Schoenbergian 12-tone row. But since the tune has 13 notes in it, each iteration begins on a different pitch (the first two passes are shown above). After 12 times through, the cycles line up again, a technique perfected centuries ago in the isorhythmic motets of Machaut and Dufay.

The libretto, adapted from a play by the Belgian dramatist Michel de Ghelderode, is a farcical sendup of operatic clichés, influenced by carnival and commedia dell’arte traditions, and by the allegorical imagery of Breughel, one of Ligeti’s favorite visual artists (indeed, the work’s setting is the imaginary country of Breugelland). Besides Nekrotzar and his Sancho Panza-like sidekick, the characters include a court astrologer (kind of a cross between Klingsor and Dr. Frankenstein) and his dominatrix wife, an incompetent secret police chief, and a couple whose male half is a trouser role sung by a mezzo-soprano in the manner of Cherubino or Octavian. The plot, such as it is, concerns Nekrotzar’s attempt to destroy the world, an effort eventually foiled by ineptitude and drunkenness.

Although Ligeti was attracted to Ghelderode’s drama for its unconventionality, the resulting libretto has not proven terribly popular, striking many people as more daft than profound. And younger composers like Louis Andriessen have had better success liberating new music theater from conventional narrative by jettisoning full-throated bel canto singing and other accoutrements of traditional opera-making. Nevertheless, Ligeti’s mastery at eliciting an almost unbroken succession of unexpected colors from voices and instruments has earned Le Grand Macabre a foothold in the repertory of international opera companies—one of the very few post-Britten operas to accomplish this.

An arrangement of the opera’s music for coloratura soprano, called Mysteries of the Macabre, has become a favorite showpiece for Barbara Hannigan, who has performed it in various concert stagings, including the above version where she both sings and conducts the ensemble.

At a Crossroads

Le Grand Macabre ends with a second passacaglia that manages to be triadic but practically atonal. Although each of the chords are themselves consonant, they clash sufficiently with each other that no clear key or chord progression can coalesce. Ligeti called this consonant atonality, and it was the first time since escaping from Hungary that he had used traditional harmonies. Having reached a point in his career where he felt he had little more to say in the vein of his most experimental works, he was interested in reclaiming music based on pitch and rhythm. But as a survivor of both Nazism and Communism, he deplored both the dogmatism of the avant-garde and the insouciance of the neoromantic and post-minimalist styles that were then coming into vogue. So how to use melody, consonant intervals and well-defined rhythms outside the permissive context of operatic pastiche and without reverting to hackneyed tonal chords and melodies?

The solution took a while to develop (like Beethoven, Ligeti endured a few years of artistic quiescence before his late works started to emerge), but eventually a compelling new line of musical thought synthesized in his imagination, spurred in large part through contact with several composers from America.

American Ingenuity

Ligeti had a formative experience in 1972 when he traveled to the US for a half-year residency at Stanford University. Among other things, he encountered the West Coast fascination with alternative tunings, a perspective associated with Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison, but above all with Harry Partch, then largely unknown in Europe. Ligeti visited Partch in his Encinitas home, chatted about the latter’s unique tuning system and self-built instruments, and jammed a bit on the diamond marimba. But whereas Partch strove to create pure consonance, the complexity-craving Ligeti wondered how clashes between different tuning systems could create new dissonances—what he called a “dirty sound,” but one under the control of the composer. Ligeti had previously used quarter tones (intervals halfway between the adjacent keys of a conventionally-tuned piano), but Partch’s system suggested a different and more systematic approach.

One of the first manifestations of this approach is the Hungarian Passacaglia, a little harpsichord piece that Ligeti dashed off in 1978. Ligeti asks for the instrument to be tuned in meantone temperament, an adaptation that causes the thirds and sixths in the repeating ground to be pure, but makes them sound strangely out of tune with each other. The effect in this otherwise straightforwardly polytonal piece is akin to adding exotic spices to an otherwise bland dish.

Hungarian Passacaglia.

In his 1982 Horn Trio, Ligeti plays off natural harmonics in the horn with the conventional tuning of the piano and violin. The clashes are quite audible in the third and fourth movements.

It was also at Stanford that Ligeti first encountered American minimalism, specifically its rhythmically lively strain (which originated in the Bay Area) to which he paid explicit homage in his Self-Portrait with Reich and Riley. This 1976 piece for two pianos also looks back at the finale of Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata, one of the 19th century’s most important precursors to minimalism.

Once back in Europe, Ligeti conveyed his excitement over these discoveries in an article titled “Tendenzen der Neuen Musik in den USA: Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Harry Partch.”

American Rhythm

Ligeti’s North American explorations of 1972 also took him to Mexico City, where he met several local composers, but ironically not the one that would later become a crucial influence: Conlon Nancarrow. It wasn’t until 1980 that Ligeti finally heard the music of this most obstinate and isolated of American Mavericks, a reticent expatriate who labored patiently for four and a half decades with two player pianos and a machine for hand-punching pianola rolls to create music of unprecedented rhythmic density and complexity.

Nancarrow and Ligeti.

Nancarrow’s Study 40b is a straightforward example. Two player pianos play the same music, but the second one enters 28 seconds after the first, playing its roll at 9/8 the first piano’s tempo, so that it gradually catches up as the piece goes on. Both pianos finish together in a loud cadential flurry.

Nancarrow’s influence is heard in the third movement of Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, which is notated in three simultaneous time signatures and often gives the impression of different cascades of notes tumbling along at different tempos. Ligeti was so impressed by Nancarrow’s work (“the greatest discovery since Webern and Ives“) that he authorized player piano versions of some of his own compositions, such as the piano etude Vertige.

Another key American was Ligeti’s composition student, Roberto Sierra, who from 1979 onward made available his extensive LP library of non-Western music. Ligeti was especially interested in the polyphonic music of Central Africa, such as this example from the Banda people which became a model for his piano etude Fém. Ligeti’s infatuation with complex African music passed on to his son, Lukas, a drummer and composer who often collaborates with African musicians.

Violin Concerto

All of these new interests from the 1970s and 1980s—pastiche, intonation, polyrhythms, concepts from non-Western music—find a voice in the Violin Concerto, a kind of résumé of Ligeti’s late period music. Completed in 1993 and scored for soloist and a chamber orchestra of two dozen musicians, its seeds go back to the Stanford residency, which had been arranged by John Chowning, a pioneer of computer music and inventor of the technology later used in the popular Yamaha DX7 synthesizer. Through his friendship with Chowning, Ligeti obtained a DX7ii with a custom enhancement that allowed him to experiment with complex alternative tunings.

The results are on display in the Concerto. One of the orchestral violins is tuned about a quartertone sharp, and one of the violas is tuned flat so that both are “out of tune” with the rest of the ensemble. Brass players are often directed to use natural harmonics (produced through overblowing without changing fingering), and woodwind instruments are given the occasional quarter tone inflection. Curiously, the solo violin plays in conventional equal temperament throughout.

The Concerto starts out sounding a bit like John Adams, with consonant bowed tremolos in the solo violin, soon joined by the (detuned) first viola. But the texture quickly dissolves into a dense chromatic web as the remaining string instruments enter, each going its own way with arpeggios and harmonic glissandos. The soloist, doubled by a marimba, shoots out a sequence of accented notes that go up and down a custom scale like a roller coaster. At 1:38 , the woodwinds enter in a Nancarrowish commotion with the soloist, accompanied by a vibraphone and a couple of orchestral strings, going at a different tempo from the rest of the ensemble (see score excerpt). A little brass fanfare at 2:45 provides some punctuation as the mood of the opening returns.

The second movement is a pastiche of those Romantic violin concertos whose slow movement starts with a lyric melody that’s repeated with elaborate ornaments and filigrees added in the solo part. In Ligeti’s case, the melody is a nostalgic one, cribbed from a movement of his Musica Ricercata (an album of keyboard music written during his Hungary years that he arranged as the third of his Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet). Listen to the horns’ entrance at 2:18 as they play natural harmonics, intentionally clashing with the standard tuning of the other instruments.

At 2:38 Ligeti’s sense of humor comes out as the melody is reprised by a quartet of ocarinas, later joined by two slide whistles (all notorious for their wobbly intonation). Ligeti, like Berio, could be counted on to inject the occasional dose of playfulness into the otherwise stern proceedings of the European avant-garde. Here he was also inspired by music from the Iatmul people of Papua New Guinea who play on some of the world’s longest transverse flutes and, in lieu of finger holes, build their music exclusively from natural harmonics.

The brief third movement is like a mid-lesson review, combining the string webs and polyrhythms of the first movement with the melodic lyricism and natural brass harmonics of the second.

First two cycles of the Movement IV passacaglia.

The fourth movement is yet another passacaglia, this time over a two-voice chromatic ground played by wind instruments. It’s a bit tricky to follow because the starting notes change with each cycle (the first two cycles are shown above), and other variations creep in as the movement proceeds. But any fixed form in Ligeti’s hand is a license to do crazy things on top of it—like bringing in a Romanian village dance at 3:21, or directing the xylophone (with its limited dynamic range) to crescendo from p to ffffffff over the course of three bars at the movement’s end.

The finale returns to the sound world of the first movement, starting with the Adams-like tremolos. Woodwinds enter with a descending figure in whole tones (a kind of inversion of the passacaglia theme), then the soloist enters with accented notes, quickly leading us into another Nancarrowish brouhaha, which sounds chaotic but is strictly notated by Ligeti. At 1:53 the soloist and woodwinds seem to be playing two different dance tunes in two different tempos, with hints of a waltz rhythm in the bass. After a couple more minutes in the stylistic blender we arrive at the violin cadenza, which the soloist can either devise herself (in the tradition of Classical concertos) or reproduce from music supplied by Ligeti and Saschko Gawriloff (the work’s dedicatee). Eventually the cadenza is rudely interrupted by the orchestra in a bravura flourish—inspiring a few performers to ham up the ending a bit.

Despite being challenging to perform, the Violin Concerto has become one of Ligeti’s most frequently played and recorded large ensemble pieces. Its influence on younger composers is evinced in the eclecticism, layering and unpredictable rhythms of a piece such as Unsuk Chin’s Violin Concerto. And the emphasis on tuning clashes and derivation of musical ideas from overtone patterns creates results not far from the world of spectralist composers such as Grisey, Murail, and Avram.

Ligeti went on composing for another decade, bringing forth a viola sonata, songs, more piano etudes and the Hamburg Concerto (which puts the idea of clashing natural horn harmonics on steroids). But it’s the Violin Concerto that seems the best summation of the musical ideas that intrigued him in his later years—a quarter century of work capping off a lifetime of innovation.


Augustin Hadelich performs the Ligeti Violin Concerto with the Seattle Symphony on Thursday, Jan. 4 at 7:30pm and Saturday, Jan. 6 at 8pm. Click here for tickets and more information.

Click here for a list of recommended recordings of Ligeti’s music.

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