A Singer’s Account of György Ligeti’s Requiem

by David Gary

Last week the Seattle Symphony and Chorale presented the Pacific Northwest’s first ever performance of György Ligeti’s ethereal and rarely performed Requiem (1965), conducted by Music Director Ludovic Morlot. This weekend, they’ll present a portion of it again as part of their live performance of Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Perhaps best remembered for his dense harmonies, tone clusters, and micropolyphonic textures, Ligeti was famous for crafting nearly impossible repertoire—and the fact it has taken half a century to mount a Seattle performance of his Requiem is a testament to its difficulty. This musical undertaking was certainly out of the typical chorale wheelhouse and was an audacious selection for the Symphony to perform. As a member of the chorale, I had the opportunity to learn this requiem and will share my experience in doing so.

Looking at the Score for the First Time

The physical score is bulkier than a standard choral scores, elongated both vertically and horizontally by the 20-part chorus notation. As singers, we are typically accustomed to four-part staffs—so it was immediately evident that this was not our standard choral repertoire.

Much of the Introit movement is written with sustained tones with shifts in tonality over quintuplet figures. The intended effect mimics a large crowd murmuring the Latin text of the Requiem Mass. However, the text throughout this movement remains entirely discernable because it is melismatic over so many different parts. (Ligeti’s own instructions call for a distant sound.) For many of us this piece was well outside our comfort zone, so this movement was a pragmatic place to begin breaking into Ligeti’s musical paradigm.

We quickly realized that pitches would not be our main focus throughout our work on the Requiem. Given the short time we had to learn the piece—only about three or four months with multiple other concerts sprinkled in—and the sheer difficulty of the written pitches, our pitch focus was aimed more at staying within certain range clusters and not wandering too far from the tonal core we were looking to find. Because finding pitches was going to prove so difficult, we put much of our initial energy on learning the rhythmic regime of this piece

Unique Musical Challenges

Like many musical undertakings, this piece presented three large challenges: notes, rhythm, and musicality.

Notes: One of the first things we realized was that we would not be able to learn our pitches as they were written. (This is not to say it is an entirely impossible task, but given our time constraints it would have proven impossible.) During the time of composition, Ligeti himself had to retract and edit some of his harmonies because choirs were unable to learn and perform their parts. There are times in the score where a thick black line appears over a vocal part indicating sections where exact pitches can be jettisoned. This is a challenge for any choir who is accustomed to learning and performing exactly what is on page.

Rhythm: This piece was easy to get lost in, so fighting to stay on track in this score was important. For instance, Ligeti subdivides some of his beats over 7 or 9. These unconventional rhythmic figures create an aural effect of dense clouds of quickly moving harmonies—but they are also incredibly difficult to learn and even harder to execute in context. Another challenge of this piece was remaining on your part’s staff within the score. In rehearsals, there were frequent times where upon flipping a page I would shift to a different line without noticing I was singing the wrong part for several measures.

Musicality: Some of the more important musical gestures in the piece have less to do with notes or rhythms than they do with the shaping of a particular phrase to achieve a human (rather than musical) effect. This sometimes proved a bit of a challenge, since many of us as singers are used to having our phrasing guided by melody and word stresses rather than purely visceral emotion.

Presenting the Performance

We had no idea how this piece would be received. For many of us, a piece like this wasn’t exactly the reason we had joined the chorus. Because it was so easy to get lost in the score, performing was a frantic combination of counting, score following, watching our conductor for the count, and finding first pitches. As any performer knows, one does not get on stage to necessarily listen and enjoy the performance but rather to focus in on one’s task as a musician: to present an audience with entertainment and an unforgettable experience. I believe we achieved this goal and helped evoke emotions in the audience that Ligeti strove to encapsulate in this piece.

Though this was an atypical finale for our regular season, I think many of us ultimately found great satisfaction in how this piece was received and the level of admiration bestowed upon presentation. As we move on to our next challenges, we can all agree that as a group our musicianship has been augmented—and I look forward to bringing what I learned from Ligeti to my next musical projects.

David Gary is the Development Coordinator at Classical KING FM 98.1 and a bass in the Seattle Symphony Chorale. The Seattle Symphony and Chorale perform Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on June 30 and July 1 at 8pm. For tickets and additional information, click here.