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2023: the year in which the centenary of the birth of Hungarian composer György Ligeti is celebrated.

28 May 2023 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of György Ligeti (Dicsőszentmárton, 1923-Vienna, 2006). After the year Xenakis in 2022, this year will pay tribute to the Hungarian composer, one of the most striking musical creators of the 20th century. Ligeti was born into a Jewish family in the Transylvanian town of Dicsőszentmárton, which until 1940 belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary and is now known as Târnăveni. His father and brother died in concentration camps. His mother survived, and so did he, thanks to being drafted into the Hungarian army. He himself explained the complexities of his nationality: “My passport? Austrian. I am a Hungarian Jew born in Transylvania. After having Romanian nationality, I got my Hungarian nationality in Budapest. I fled after the revolution of ’56 to Vienna. I have roots in both worlds. I belong everywhere. That’s how one should be considered: a citizen of the world.”

However, his human and artistic roots are in Transylvania, where he was surrounded, as a child, by strange and incomprehensible sounds. He heard the poignant songs of wailing women and marvelled at the magical sound of the alpine horn in the mountains, with its natural tones that deviated from canonical musical intonation. All this would later be reflected in his music at crucial moments. After World War II he settled in Budapest, where he worked as a teacher at the Hungarian capital’s Higher School of Music, but when the Soviet Union’s army invaded the country, he fled to Vienna and from there to Germany, where he worked at the Electronic Studio in Cologne from 1957 to 1959 and came into contact with the musicians of the Darmstadt School: Boulez, Stockhausen…, younger than him, but with a previous avant-garde background that Ligeti had lacked. However, from 1960 onwards, Ligeti himself began to teach at the International Summer Courses of New Music in Darmstadt, although he soon moved away from the iron stylistic discipline of the integral serialism that had been born there and created what he called “micro-polyphony”, in which “individual voices are not heard”, and which he defined with the example of the threads of different colours that make up the fabric of a jacket, which is perceived with its own colour, a mixture of all of them. While breaking with the precepts of avant-garde purity, he explored other models, which he chose above all for their potential for renewal. Ligeti managed to write in a complex but never hermetic way: his works sound virtuosic and communicative, they behave in a playful and humorous way and also repeatedly give room for a poetically conceived melancholy. Atmosphères, the orchestral piece he premiered in Donaueschingen in 1961, made him a famous composer before he was even in his thirties. The dazzling, brilliant pianissimo cluster pianissimo with which Atmosphères begins sounds so synthetic, so alien and all-encompassing, as if it really came from another galaxy. No wonder, then, that film director Stanley Kubrick sensed this and decided to use the piece (without asking the composer’s consent) in his cult film 2001: A Space Odyssey in the late 1960s. In fact, the film features as many as four different pieces by Ligeti: Requiem, Lux Aeterna, Aventures and the aforementioned Atmosphères, which is, of the four, the only piece heard in its entirety in the film.

Ligeti never went to court to claim authorship of the compositions. The composer received a letter in Vienna from a New York friend, in which he told him that he had seen Kubrick’s film and the use of Ligeti’s music in the film. In the circumstances, Ligeti attended the Vienna premiere of the film. “I was absolutely flabbergasted. I was very angry.” A lawyer told him that in the film world, it is customary that short excerpts can be used with the mere formal permission of the editors, but for longer passages, consultation with the composer is necessary. Ligeti went to see the film again with a stopwatch, and found that the soundtrack contained just over half an hour of his music, including excerpts from the Requiem. With this information, he returned to the lawyer, who contacted the film production company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, claiming that the use of Ligeti’s music was illegal. MGM responded that they had every right to complain, but that the lawsuit had to be brought in England. This was the beginning of a long correspondence which proved that Ligeti was right, but that a lengthy and costly court case would ensue, so Ligeti decided not to go to court and accepted a paltry $3,000 compensation.

Kubrick later repaid him by including other pieces of his in The Shining (his piece Lontano) and in Eyes Wide Shut (Musica ricercata No. 2: Mesto, rigido e cerimoniale). Without becoming a world star, the 2001… phenomenon did produce a remarkable increase in his popular recognition, further cemented by the premiere of his opera Le Grande Macabre (1978, revised 1997). Ligeti has received numerous awards, including the Austrian State Grand Prize for Music (1990), the Praemium Imperiale for Music of the Japanese Artistic Association (1991), the Ernst-von-Siemens Music Prize (1993), the Theodor W. Adorno Prize of the City of Frankfurt (2003) and the Swedish Polar Music Prize (2004), for his extraordinary musical achievements.

In Madrid and Berlin

In commemoration of the centenary of his birth, the Auditorio Nacional de Música, in Madrid, has been programming works by Ligeti since last September, always in shared programmes. The only concert made up entirely of pieces by Ligeti will take place on April 17th: concert number 16 of the cycle Satélites, which will be made up of Andante and Allegretto for string quartet, Six bagatelles for wind quintet, Chamber Concerto for 13 instruments and the Hamburg Concerto for horn and chamber orchestra, performed by the Harmonie Ensemble, conducted by Pascual Cabanes, with Salvador Navarro as horn soloist. Of similar extension in works, but more concentrated in time is the programme that the Berlin Philharmonic will offer on Ligeti, with the celebration of its famous Biennial, entitled this year Auf der Suche nach einer neuen Moderne [in search of a new modernism], centred on the music of the fifties and sixties of the last century and, more specifically, on György Ligeti, with an extensive programme between February 9th and 25th.

© Photograph by Otto Breicha Brandstaetter images, downloaded from the website of the Heidelberger Frühling International Music Festival.