Gavin Thomas pays tribute to the perenially surprising Gyorgy Ligeti.
has made a lifetime habit of the unexpected. Played out at a uniquely individual tangent to
whatever was or is considered fashionable orthodoxy, his music has been characterised throughout by
its refusal to accept ready-made attitudes and solutions, a form of continual and heroic self-doubt
which has resulted in a body of works whose sense of progressive growth and deepening, perhaps more
than that of any other living composer, has continued unabated to the present day.
The ability to achieve marked stylistic advances in one’s sixth decade and beyond is a rare phenomenon,
Verdi, Wagner and Stravinsky being obvious examples. But if, compared to Stravinsky. Ligeti’s work has been
evolutionary rather than revolutionary, it should not disguise the profound and remarkable
developments which have marked his music over the past decade.
To talk of heroism is not, in fact, so far-fetched. Ligeti’s recent works have proved not
a little controversial. The Horn Trio (1982) provokes extremes of response, as does
the Piano Concerto (1985-88), widely regarded either as a consumate masterpiece or an expression
of frivolous quackery.
Why such extremes? Certainly, this is
not the behaviour we expect of our Grand Old Men, especially one whose refusal of all musical traditions was formerly as absolute as Ligeti’s. The breezy toccata, with its frank echoes of Bartok, which opens the Piano Concerto; the second movement of the Violin Concerto, with its suggestively modal melody; the repeated invocations of the ‘Lebewohl’ motive in the Horn Trio; such things are guaranteed to surprise and perhaps even alienate all those admirers who bad celebrated the strange and seemingly rootless inventions of earlier years.
What then has happened to Ligeti’s music over the past ten years? Have they been Ligeti’s period of new simplicity? Neo-classicism? Neo-romanticism, even? Such labels may seem to describe the surface characteristics of some parts of recent scores – the sense of expressive directness, rhythmic impetus and melodic and harmonic fullness – but they tell us little about the heart of the music, or its context, in which the works of the last decade may be seen as representing the harvest of a lifetime's attempt to recover
music from the statistical chaos into which it had been flung by total serialism, against the background of which Ligeti began his composing career in the west.
The systematic recovery and reintegration of the basic constituents of western music – melody, harmony, rhythm – into a language of ever-increasing sophistication and range has resulted in a music which may at first sight appear familiar, even reassuring, but under the surface of this resynthesised language, things are, as usual in Ligeti, not quite what they seem.
Ligeti's point of passage into this new world was the beautiful passaaaglia finale to Le grand macabre. This moment marked the – by now famous – rediscovery of consonant, diatonic harmony, but achieved via a quintessentially Lgietian paradox by using the raw materials of tonal music, thirds, sixths and triads, but jumbled up so as to frustrate all natural harmonic expectations to produce an allusively tonal, yet functionally non-sensical, harmony.
This style of – for want of a better expression – displaced diatonicism simultaneously reinvented conventional harmony while turning it on its head. But that is not all. What is also remarkable about this passacaglia, but which tends to pass almost unnoticed, is its absolute rhythmic regularity. The natural consequence ef tbe new harmony was a new rhythm; a musical clock which, for the first time in Ligeti's work, refers to accepted standards of time-keeping.
Ligeti’s farewell to Brueghelland, with its simultaneous play on and subversion of received patterns of musical behaviaur, already contains the essence of the new style. The importance of these discoveries is borne out by the fact that Ligeti’s next two works, the harpsichord pieces Hungarian rock and Passacaglia ungherese, both continue the investigation of metrically regular, diatonically displaced constructions.
The cruciall (re)discovery was that the passacaglia principle can be applied not only to harmony but also to rhythm, a breakthrough which pecipitated a series of dazzling rhythmic inventions in subsequent works, These, even more than any harmonic discoveries, are the central ingredient in the vitality and freeness of the, Horn Trio, piano and violin concertos end the piano etudes, Ligeti’s systematic use of rapidly repeating rhythmic figures, or ‘loops’, may not, at first sight, appear so special. After all, what’s in an ostinato?
The answer is a great deal, and scen ined to Ligeti’s music over the past ten years? Have they been Ligeti’s period of new simplicity? Neo-classicism? Neo-romanticism, even? Such labels may seem to describe the surface characteristics of some parts of recent scores – the sense of expressive directness, rhythmic impetus and melodic and harmonic fullness – but they tell us little about the heart of the music, or its context, in which the works of the last decade may be seen as representing the harvest of a lifetime's attempt to recover
the context of a musical world in which almost any sense of regular, large-scale pulsation may be regarded as a sign of intellectual softness,
Ligeti's evolution of a rhythmic style in which complex and highly irregular rhythms can be heard against a background of
four in a bar is little short of revolutionary.
Times change, and time changes; to restore the almost Stavinskian sense
of rhythm as the play on a constantly p[erceptible but constantly evaded sense of pulse (although recent works owe more to Ligeti's encoutner with African and
Carribean music, the work of Conlon Nancarrow or the music of the early-15th-century Ars sutilior than to any recent European modeals) has
been the latest and perhaps most profound of all his rediscoveries.
The first comprehensive investigation of this brave new rhythmic world was in the exhilirating and typically zany second movement of the Horn Trio. This (and the very similar fourth piano etude, 'Fanfares')
is Ligeti's new osinato technique at its simplest. An eight-note scale (a combination of C and F# majors) is repeated in a
constant 4/4 (or, more precisely, 3+3+2/8, although the subdivisions are constantly varied). A series of secondary metres
are then superimposed on to this background: the pianist's left hand continues
in 4/4 while the right hand plays first in 5/8, then diverges into 12/8, then l3/8, and so on,
through a series of increasingly manic polymetric collisions.
The Horn Trio also shows a parallel harmonic deepening.
The displaced tonal harmonics are no longer purely consonant,
but have now absorbed a range of harmonic references from the purely diatonic to the totally chromatic.
The middle section of the second movement (a vigorous chorale which, starting
in C, cadences rapdily in C#, B and F via a series of variously diatonic and chromatic chords)
is a good example, as is the finale's passacaglia, which slides down
from one E minor triad to another via an Ab minor, two whole-tone and one chromatic triad.
Another feature of the work which has become the most characteristic Ligeti
sound of the 80s is the use of natural horn harmonics.
As in earlier works such as the Double Concerto, the use of such mistunings
is not structural but colouristic.
(The mean-tone harpsichord tuning of Passacaglia ungherese is another recent example,
while the – now discarded – original first movement of the Violin Concerto
also exploited this idea, as a mistuned orchestral violin and viola shadowed the soloist's line,
producing a harmonic ‘halo'.)
To compose with harmony and pulse is also, in a sense, to compose with the past.
Ligeti’s technical innovations reopened an expressive world which would have seemed unimaginable in previous works.
The Horn Trio, the first major work of the ‘new’ Ligeti announces not only a brand new set of technical preoccupations but also a vastly expanded emotional world, one whose frank evocation of the past may appear the most perplexing and unsettling aspect of the recent works.
To the recovered tr'uuty of melody, harmony and rhythm, Ligeti adds a fourth dimension: moory. The ‘lebewohl’ motive which runs thmugh the Horn Trio would have been unthink-able only a few years previously, the context for such historical allusiveness simply did not exist. The trio, particularly the hyper-romantic expressive directness of the outer movements, is the first and in some ways the most extreme work of this latest creative phase. The daringly simple first movement is permeated with a sense of classical phraseology, couched in the simplest of ternary forms which recapitulates its opening section with shocking literal-ness (exact repetition – yet another taboo flaunted). Although not all listeners respond to the work’s atmosphere of inuninent self-anaihilation or the sense of historical role-playing, this deeply mov-ing work is one of Ligeti’s most personal – and perhaps therefore most uncomfortable – statements.
The heart of Ligeti’s work in the ten years since the Hom Trio has been contained in three major projects: the violin and piano concertos and the two books of piano etudes.
If, after the Hom Trio, the Piano Concerto marks a return to more characteristic expressive territory (the slithering chromatic canons and extreme sonorities of the second movement, in particular, bear the expres-sive stamp of much earlier work), it is also the work in which Ligeti’s at-last recovered and fully reintegrated music burst into exuberant flower.
The opening of the concerto immediately announces both a new sense of confidence (who but the very brave or the very foolish would open a work in such a jauntily swung B& major?) and a subtle new set of compositional strategies. The at first Bart6kian soundworld – the low piano and bass drum at b.28, for instance, seem to have stepped straight out of that earlier Hungarian master’s first concerto – conceals an undercurrent of not one but two rhythmic loops, one in 4/4 and one in 12/8, which run regular but unsynchmnised courses thmughout the movement, coin-ciding once every 15 bars. It looks simple, but the subtle polarity between duple and triple times produces rhythms of extraordinary complexity (all those 12/8 bars actually disguise a series of totally irregular proportions. The very opening, if barred according to nat-ural stress, could read 11/8, 9/8, 2/4, 3/4, 6/8, 5/8 etc., although such a barring would then make it impossible to notate the string parts – such notational considerations alone offer a succinct demon-stration of the truly complex, as opposed to merely complicated, nature of this music.) An equally simple yet drastic polarity under-pins the harmony of this movement (and also that of the first piano etude, ‘Disorder’), which employs tbe almost Hoffnungesque tactic of having the pianist’s right hand play only white notes, and the left hand only black notes. An idea which begins as the 'stuff of music-hall farce, however, yields a set of compositional parameters which immediately define a characteristic harmony (one can have Bb; for instance, but only in root position).
But the first movement is only a prelude to the positively gothic constructions which follow.
The fourth movement again uses two
loops, obtained by taking the simple palindromic proportions 2:3:3:3:2 and translating them into bath 4uple sad triple time. Here, however, Ligeti composes a musical machine which is cnn-stantty malfunctiening as every .second lime the loops occur thoy lose their first value, producing a tiny rhythmic hicxup.
This dnu-ble loop is then suppessed; the opening of the movement present= ing a series of disjoiated flashes of activity punctuated by long silences. Only as the movement unfolds are the invisible structural foundations 'giaduaBy revealed with iaesistibly comic effect as the initially haphazard and stuttering unerances slowly freewheel into chaos – a sort of theatre of entmpy. phiz sense of accumulating chaos is not simply a poetic analogy. Mathematic,al models of chaos theory, and their graphic representation as multi-coloured, three-dimensional computer visuals, known as 'fraetals’, fascinate Ligeti, who compares this foots movement, with its sense of see-ing an object in progressively greater and greater detail, with such kalei4escopic and infinitely deep fraetal geometries.)
Yet another line of rhythmic investigation (the roots of which may bi traced as far back as Continaam of 1968, despite the radi-cally different effect of the earlier piece) runs tleeugh the third movement ef Piano Concha sad he rr,markable sixth piano etude, *Autumn in Warsaw'.
Here a constant. rapid seraiquaver pulse acts as a rhythmic ‘grid’, a kind of musical graph paper, in the piano etude as a basic grid of four semiquavers is . ly disrupted by
the introduction of groups of threes and fives.
In essence it’s a childishly simple idea, but with it Ligeti produces an astonishing rhythmic complexity and richness – and all, it should be noted, with one player, in one tempo, with one time signature and without a single irrational value.
Simplicity of means, richness of effect; and hardly the stuff of contemporary Augenmusik.
Ligeti’s next major work was another concerto, this time for vio-lin. Like the Piano Concerto, this work initially appeared as a three-movement work which has subsequently been expanded, a revision which also included the composition of an entirely new first movement (the final version is stiB under revision, and has yet to be performed in Britain, as has the complete second book of piano etudes and a new work for solo viola entitled, appmpriately enough, Loop). Compared to the precise, mechanical fantasies of the Piano Concerto, this is an altogether more rhapsodic and expan-sive work, Each concerto aptly reflects the inherent character of its solo instrument: in the Piano Concerto the sense of incipient chaos is the result of gears slipping and missing cogs; the Violin Concerto’s, by contrast, is more of a stylistic chaos in which the music may include, alternately or evea simultuuxesly, passages of folkloristic immediacy and types of extreme sonorities from Ligeti’s own work of the 60s and 70s.
The work is permeated with memories of the violin's roots in ethnic fiddling, but the music, far from emphasising such nostalgia or attempting a comfortable syn-thesis, frames such half-remembered traditions in a context which is at once chaotic, comic and menacing, and which is entirely
Memories of Ligeti’s own previous styles are also strong; the conclusioa of the third movement, in particular, sounds almost like a paraphrase of the conclusion of the Chamber Coaeerto. Most surprising in the second movement, whose beauti-ful Lydian melody seduces the listener into a sense of idyllic secu-rity before the whole theme is rudely reprised on three oaeinas (a hollow, round South American wind instrument whose piping outer-space quality is also pmminent in the second movement of the Piano Concerto),
Does one regard the expressive territory of works such as the Hom Trio or Violin Concerto as a nostalgic return to Bart6k (or Brahms, or Beethoven) or as evidence of a wholly contemporary sensibility which is able once more after the austere and hermetic experiments of tbe 50s and 60s to refer to the complete encyclo-pedia of musical history? Perhaps the final answer is that the inventive brilliance of such works places them beyond the canons of style. Anyone can write a C major triad, but to reirnagine that chord and reinvent its context whilst retaining one’s own highly idiosyncratic personality is a rare and special achievement. Moreover, the C major triad itself is, in the con-text of Ligeti’s music, every bit as extreme as the drifting micropolyphonies of Annospheres or the wordless theatricals of Aventures (and Ligeti believes that only by being extreme can one hope to be original). Whatever the final destination of this maverick genius raay be, the only certainty is that it will proba-bly be the exact opposite to what everyone had expected.
Published by Schott
Sonata for violonaello solo (190/53)
Musica Riceruta for piano (1951/53)
Six Bagatelles krr wind quintet (1953)
Idegen soldan for female chorus a cappella
Magkny for mixed charus a cappella (1946)
Ballad and Dance for school (1949-50)
Pkpaini far mixed chorus a cappella (1953)
Shing Quartet Na1 (1953-54)
Mktraszent'muei Dalok for female orddldren's v-chorus a cappella (1955l
Ejszaka and Rigel for mixed chorus a capp4a
Volumina far organ (1961-&D
Poeme Symphonique far 1CO mebanoms (1962>
Lontano for large ordestra (196TI
Two Studies for argan (1967/69)
Cantinuum for harpsidnd (1968>
String Quartet Na2 (1968)
Ten Fieees for wind quhtet (1968)
Ramifications for string orchestra or 12 solo strings (1968169)
Chamber Concerto <1969/70)
Mehdien for ardmtra (1971)
Double Concerto ka flute, oboe and orchestra (1975
@I Oocks and Clouds for female chceus and ordestra (1972/73)San Frmcism Polyphony for <1973/74)Le Grand Macabre Opera in 2 ads (1974/77lManwnent - Sdbstportrait - Beweguagfor 2 pianos (1976>Passacaglia unghaese and Hungaaan Rock for harpsichord (1978>Saenes and Interludes horn the operaLe Grand Macabre for four sohias, chorus and cndesba (1978)Ham Tdo (1982)Drd H5kledin Phantasien for mixed chorusa cappdla <1982)Magyar Biidonk lar mixed chorus a cappella (1983>Piano Concha (1985/88)Etudes pour piano (since 1985)Mysteries of the Macabre for mloratua soprmo or sdo trumpet and ensemble or tnunpet and piano <1990)Macabre Colbge for ordxara (1991)Violin Cowmto <1990/93)
SCHO'IT Recaede5by overgo
Article First published in The Musical Times, 1993.