The Austrian composer György Ligeti (born 1923) was one of the most important figures in the avantgarde of music in Europe.
György Ligeti was born to Hungarian Jewish parents on May 28, 1923. After high school, he studied composition with Farkas at the Kolozvár conservatory (1941-1943) and also took private lessons with Paul Kadosa during the summers of 1942 and 1943. After graduating from the Budapest Academy of Music, he devoted himself to the study of Rumanian folk music. From 1950 to 1956, he taught harmony, counterpoint, and musical analysis at the Budapest Academy.
Following the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 by the Soviets, Ligeti left his country and moved to Vienna. He soon came into contact with the elite of the Western European musical avant-garde, including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Herbert Eimert, and Gottfried Koenig. In 1957 Ligeti was invited by Eimert to work at the West German radio electronic studios of Cologne; there, he wrote Artikulation (March 1958). He suddenly achieved fame after the performance of Apparitions for orchestra at a 1960 music festival in Cologne. He had already sketched this piece in Hungary, where he used a different title: Viziok (Visions). Starting in 1959, he gave lectures at the Darmstadt summer sessions, and from 1961 he regularly taught composition at the Stockholm Academy of Music as a visiting professor. He moved for a year to West Berlin, holding a scholarship, and then went to Stanford University in California in the spring of 1972 as composer in residence. In 1973 Ligeti was appointed professor of composition at the Hamburg Musikhochschule. Then a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music and of the West Berlin Academy of Arts, he was awarded a German decoration for merit and the Bach Prize of the city of Hamburg in 1975.
While living in Hungary most of his works were for piano; he also wrote songs and chamber music with piano, for example Idegen Foldon (In Foreign Land) for female chorus (1945-1946), Two Capriccios (1947) for piano, and Musica Riservata, 11 pieces for piano (1951-1953). For political reasons, most of his compositions could be neither printed nor performed (except for his folksong arrangements and a few other pieces). During the 1940s, Ligeti had begun to develop an individual style. His Piano Trio (1941-1942) was the first of his works to be performed. But the new political situation of 1948 compelled him to put a halt to most of his research. In order to retain his position of composer he had to write a lot of arrangements of popular songs.
After the death of Stalin in 1953, cultural restrictions were less rigid, and Ligeti was able to continue some of his research. The influence of his countryman Bela Bartók remained important in works such as the two choruses Ejszaka (Night) and Reggel (Morning) and the string quartet Métamorphoses Nocturnes (1953-1954). They all used a free tonal language far from his post-1956 works, although some structural elements indicated Ligeti's future musical evolution.
Moving to Vienna in December 1956, Ligeti quickly integrated with his music the styles of the Western avantgarde. A drastic change of orientation in Ligeti's music occurred while he was working on Pièce électronique (1957-1958) and Artikulation (1958) at the electronic studios of Cologne. Although Apparitions is fully notated in conventional terms, it had a strong impact on the European avant-garde throughout the 1960s. The composer introduced his "chromatic cluster technique." Density and volume of the texture became structural elements in place of the traditional pitches or rhythmic figures. In Atmosphères for orchestra (1961) and Voluminia for organ (1961-1962), Ligeti developed his sophisticated effects of texture to their ultimate consequence. Far from the strong European post-Webern movement and the rigidity of its ultra serial system, Ligeti's works in the 1960s led to the evolution of avantgarde music as it developed a more flexible language.
Trois Bagatelles for piano (1961) and Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes (1962) were parodies of John Cage's "happenings." In a lecture on the future of music (Die Zukunft der Musik, 1961) Ligeti attacked the idea of the "happenings" and demonstrated their futility.
More important were his two theatrical works Aventures (1962-1966) and Nouvelles Aventures (1962-1965), in which he used an invented language drawing on a large variety of speech sounds. In the Requiem (1963-1965) and the choral Lux Aeterna (1966), Ligeti developed the style of Atmosphères countrapuntally. He introduced microtonal intervals in his Second String Quartet (1968) as well as in Ramifications (1968-1969, for two strings ensembles tuned a quarter-tone apart) and also in the Double Concerto for flute, oboe, and orchestra in order to create a new texture with false harmonic and melodic relations. It was also during the 1960s that Ligeti wrote pieces which were used by director Stanley Kubrick for his film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Superimposing different meters to produce a perpetual change in rhythm and color, Ligeti invented a very personal world of sound easily recognizable in such pieces as Continuum for harpsichord (1968), Coulée for organ (1969), Chamber Concerto (1969-1970), Clocks and Clouds for female chorus and orchestra (1972-1973), or San Francisco Polyphonie for orchestra (1973-1974). Ligeti's opera Le Grand Macabre, whose premiere took place in Stockholm in 1978, was an enormous success and was performed in several opera houses, including La Scala in Milan and the Paris National Opera. In 1982 he wrote a new Trio for horn, violin, and piano, which was well received, and the next year wrote two vocals, the Drei Phantasieu for 16 Voices and the Magyar etudok (Hungarian Studies). Ligeti has been honored internationally for his abilities, having been made a member of the Swedish Academy of Music, the American Academy of and Institution of Arts and Letters, and the Akademie der Kdotnste in Berlin and becoming a Commandeur in the Ordre National des Arts et Lettres in Paris.
A biography, György Ligeti by Paul Griffiths, was published in 1983 (London, Robson Books). Additional information of Ligeti and his work can be found in O. Nordwall, Ligeti Dokument (Stockholm, 1968), which includes letters, sketches, scores, and lectures, in A. Jack, Ligeti, and in "György Ligeti: Distinguished and Unpredictable," by D. Soria in Musical America (September, 1987). An interview is featured in Music and Musicians (1974) and another one by Dermot Clinch in the New Statesman (December 13, 1996).