György Ligeti

The great Austrian-Hungarian composer György Ligeti was born at Dicsoszentmárton (now Tirnaveni in Romania) on 28 May 1923 to Hungarian parents. He studied at the Music Academy in Cluj-Napoca (Klausenburg Conservatory) with Ferenc Farkas, and then later at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest with Farkas, Sándor Veress, Pál Járdányi and Lajos Bárdos. As a Jew he was arrested in 1943 and sentenced to forced labour until the end of the war, when he returned to his studies in Hungary and began to teach at the Franz Liszt Academy.

An adventurer in form and expression and a great visionary, his richly varied music is uncompromisingly original, sensual and accessible. He tended to avoid aesthetic trends, methods and dogmatism, and became widely admired and influential in the music profession. As the mentor of a whole generation of composers, he wanted to 'fuse the fear of death with laughter'.

Atmosphères, the orchestral work he created in 1961 (and which, along with the complex choral work Lux Aeterna, was used in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey), made Ligeti instantly well-known. In this piece, he worked almost completely without traditional melodic, harmonic and rhythmic parameters and concentrated on sounds with constantly changing textures. 'Micropolyphony', he once described, 'means such a dense tissue that the individual parts become inaudible and only the resulting intermingling harmonies are effective as a form'. These techniques were never an end in themselves, though, and he always continued to look for new paths.

Deeply affected by the loss of his father and brother in concentration camps, Ligeti developed a strong dislike of dictatorships, and of any kind of intellectual restriction: 'I am an enemy of ideologies in the arts. Totalitarian regimes do not like dissonances.' He initially intended to study physics, and later found inspiration in the natural world and in biochemistry, chaos research and fractal geometry for new compositional principles. Over many years as an internationally respected teacher, he encouraged independence, originality and self-criticism in his students: 'There is only one tradition. Our music either stands up to it or not.'

Following intensive work at the Studio für elektronische Musik of the WDR in Cologne in the 1950s and the development of micropolyphony in the 1960s, his personal style became more simple and transparent in the 1970s, and he began to use tonal sounds again. 'I no longer listen to rules on what is to be regarded as modern and what as old-fashioned.'

In the 1980s and 90s he expanded his musical horizons yet again, incorporating structural principles of African drumming into his works, developing new complex polyrhythmic techniques. These form the basis of the three collections of Etudes pour piano, considered to be among the most important piano works from the end of the twentieth century.

His achievements were honoured with a number of prizes and awards, including appointment as Commandeur dans l'Ordre National des Arts et Lettres (Paris, 1988), the Ernst-von-Siemens Music Award in 1993, honorary membership of the Romanian Academy (1997), the Sibelius Prize of the Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation in Helsinki (2000), the Kyoto-Prize for Arts and Science (2001), the Polar Music Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music (2004) and the Echo Klassik 2004. Ligeti died in Vienna on 12 June 2006, aged eighty-three, following a serious illness.


A selection of articles about György Ligeti

Echoes of Oblivion by Robert McCarney - Coming soon, maybe ...

Ensemble. Unexpected Pleasures - Ron Bierman was at the opening of La Jolla Music Society's Summerfest season

Echoes of Oblivion by Robert McCarney - Sound Sense and Nonsense

Echoes of Oblivion by Robert McCarney - Introduction

CD Spotlight. Chinese Contemporary Music - Giuseppe Pennisi listens to Xiaoyong Chen. 'The mixture of colours is very interesting.'

Ensemble. Relaxed and Exuberant - Mike Wheeler listens to Cavendish Winds playing Mozart, Danzi, Debussy, Arnold, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bozza, Ligeti and Gershwin

Ensemble. A Timeless Composition - Giuseppe Pennisi listens to interweaved movements from Beethoven and Ligeti, played by Herbert Schuch

CD Spotlight. Extending the Repertoire - Anett Fodor listens to Hungarian viola player Vidor Nagy. 'The mellifluous sound, the doleful melody, as well as Vidor Nagy's sensitive performance convince the listener that both the artist and instrument are worthy of recognition.'

CD Spotlight. Much to be Gained - Jenny Q Chai explores sound and colour, impressing Geoff Pearce. 'The pianist is assured, exciting to listen to and totally compelling.'

Ensemble. A Study in Dislocation - Mike Wheeler listens to Chopin, Debussy, Ligeti, Liszt, Grigory Ginzburg and Scarlatti, played by Isata Kanneh-Mason

Ensemble. Haydn the subversive? - The Zelkova String Quartet, heard by Mike Wheeler

Ensemble. Vigour and Freshness - Clarinettist Julian Bliss joins Andrew Gourlay and Sinfonia Viva, enjoyed by Mike Wheeler

Ensemble. Depth and Elegance - Giuseppe Pennisi visits the Printemps des Arts in Monte Carlo

Ensemble. Household Rituals - Contemporary and modern music at Aix-en-Provence, heard by Giuseppe Pennisi

An Invaluable Book - Gergely Hubai's 'Torn Music: Rejected film scores, a selected history', recommended by Patric Standford

Especially Brilliant - An evening of piano music from Giuseppe Andaloro, heard by Giuseppe Pennisi

Innovative Content - A piano journey on the Danube, with Giuseppe Pennisi

DVD Spotlight. Seen and Heard - Modern music from the Kreutzer Quartet, reviewed by Howard Smith. '... whimsical, fickle and modernistic ...'

Ideally Matched - Malcolm Troup hears 'the art of the piano reborn' in Syrian pianist Riyad Nicolas

Timings - Universal Edition's preparations for the Mahler Centenary years (2010-2011), by Jennifer Paull

Thoughtfulness of Approach - A recital by Australian pianist Jayson Gillham, reviewed by Bill Newman

Ensemble. Settling in - Kelly Ferjutz prepares for a week of reports from the West Cork Chamber Music Festival

Excited by music - Flautist Kathryn Thomas in conversation with Keith Bramich