Ligeti: Lux aeterna

Lux aeterna

György Sándor Ligeti was born on May 28, 1923, in Dicsöszentmárton (now Tîrnăveni), a small town in the Transylvania region of Romania, and died on June 12, 2006, in Vienna, Austria. He composed Lux aeterna in 1966 on a commission from the Schola Cantorum Stuttgart, who sang the premiere under their artistic director, Clytus Gottwald, on November 2, 1966, in Stuttgart, Germany. Ligeti dedicated the score to the Schola and Gottwald. Louis Magor conducted the first performance by the San Francisco Symphony Chorus in May 1977; Ragnar Bohlin led the SFS Chorus in the first and only subscription performances, in June 2012. The piece was most recently performed by Bohlin and the Chorus at a special event honoring former SFS President John Goldman, in June 2013. Lux aeterna is scored for sixteen-part mixed chorus (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) a cappella. Performance time: about nine minutes.

The music of György Ligeti became part of the soundtrack of the 1960s when director Stanley Kubrick decided (without the composer’s permission) to use it in his epochal science-fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick in fact assigned a key role to Ligeti’s music, choosing four of his compositions to accompany the film’s mesmerizing imagery: the orchestral Atmosphères (1961), Aventures (a vocal-chamber piece from 1962), the Requiem (1965), and Lux aeterna, a portion of which is heard as a team of investigators heads off on their “moonbus” to examine a mysterious, recently discovered lunar monolith. Despite the unauthorized use of his work, Ligeti was impressed by 2001 and allowed Kubrick to incorporate other pieces in two later films (The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, the director’s swan song). 

Ligeti’s sudden exposure to a mass international audience when 2001 was released in 1968 came not without a certain irony. While the adventurous sound world conveyed by these pieces seemed to represent the epitome of “modern music” to the world at large, the composer had been forging a path uniquely his, stubbornly veering away from the dominant trends of the postwar European avant-garde. This bravely independent attitude had been reinforced by Ligeti’s formative experiences. As a Hungarian Jew born in Romania, he survived the Holocaust by a twist of fate. (While Ligeti was conscripted into forced labor, his father and older brother perished in the death camps.) And the end of the war brought yet another form of oppression as the young Ligeti, now settled in Budapest, was forced to abide by the strictures of socialist realism. The failed revolution of 1956 catalyzed his resolve to escape from Communist Hungary to the West, where he quickly became submerged in the latest avant-garde developments in the epicenters of Cologne and Darmstadt.

But experience had already equipped Ligeti with what he memorably termed “an immunity to all ideologies,” and he balked at the new restrictions some of his more doctrinaire peers seemed bent on establishing for anyone who wanted to be taken seriously as a composer. For Ligeti, the guarantee of authenticity was to retain his open-eared curiosity, and this, combined with a peculiar wit and sense of whimsy, as well as a healthy skepticism, lies at the heart of his invaluable contribution to contemporary music. Ligeti followed where this curiosity led him—from Dada-like excursions into the theater of the absurd to a deep study of the complex rhythmic structures engineered by Franco-Flemish Renaissance masters. “After each completed composition I revise my position,” he once said, in what might be taken as an aesthetic credo. “I avoid stylistic clichés, and know no ‘single right way.’ I keep myself open to new influences, as I am excessively intellectually curious. All cultures, indeed the whole wide world is the material of Art.”

Still, some recurrent preoccupations—of specific technique and overall philosophical outlook alike—provide fascinating links among a number of Ligeti’s works. Lux aeterna in particular has developed a reputation as a “signature” piece that distills but also refines the composer’s bold experiments with dense clouds of sound in several compositions dating from the first half of the 1960s. Here Ligeti creates these clouds with unaccompanied voices, whose music acquires an additional layer of meaning from the context of the words he has chosen to set.

The Latin text of the Lux aeterna comes from the Communion of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass. Ligeti had in fact pointedly ended his own recent setting of the Requiem with the apocalyptic Dies irae sequence, concluding with the Lacrimosa—which is to say only about halfway through the traditional liturgy. Thus the Lux aeterna, which Ligeti composed the following year, seems to “complete” the Requiem. (Incidentally, when his Requiem received its world premiere in Stockholm, it shared the bill with Beethoven’s Ninth.)

Yet the words themselves are buried, essentially indecipherable through the vocal textures of superdense polyphony (“micropolyphony,” as Ligeti labeled this technique). Rather than Romantic (or Baroque) “word painting,” the composer offers only fleetingly lucid glimpses of the prayer’s “eternal light” within the acoustical phenomenon he has organized with patient exactitude. These glimpses flicker across an otherwise opaque soundscape of lines tightly woven in a canonic imitation scheme (one modeled loosely after fifteenth-century Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa prolationem, according to biographer Richard Toop). For example, the opening distributes the same stepwise sequence of pitches among four soprano and four alto parts; yet these are articulated at varying temporal intervals so that each part enters (and overlaps with the others) in unpredictable patterns. Technically, this poses an extreme challenge for the singers: Not only must they maintain crystal-clear intonation amid the claustrophobic webs of sound, but they also cannot stray from the complex rhythmic subdivisions of the beat. The result is that all sense of divisible bar lines melts away into a slowly unfolding sonic fog. “Sostenuto, molto calmo, as if from afar,” writes the composer at the head of the score. Eternity, in a sense, becomes a trick of time.

Lux aeterna is thus anything but an amorphous “texture piece.” Along with the asymmetrical, staggered effect of the canon imitations, particular events punctuate this cloud of voices: the piercing entrance of the tenors, for example, on a high A, echoed in unison by the sopranos, and later the soft falsetto entrée of the basses. This leads to a section for the eight male parts, which then fans out to all sixteen parts in the middle. In the final section, extremes of register can be heard in the women’s parts. The altos sing at the bottom of their range in the final passage, which dies out and is followed by seven written-out bars of silence. (The word “section” is used with caution, since the piece unfolds as a continuously expanding and contracting fabric.)

Ligeti’s anti-dogmatic attitude to art naturally extended to religion as well, and he was hardly the first non-believer to set texts of sacred music. Toop contrasts the composer’s worldview in the Requiem (and, by extension, the Lux aeterna) with that of such religious peers as Krzysztof Penderecki who were drawn to expressions of faith during the turbulent years of the 1960s. For Ligeti, writes Toop, the “obsession with the terror and magic of ‘last things’” may have sprung from “an attempt to exorcise personal fears.” As the composer himself once remarked: “One dimension of my music bears the imprint of a long time spent in the shadow of death both as an individual and as a member of a group.”

Thomas May

Thomas May is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony’s program book.

More About the Music
Recordings: The London Sinfonietta Voices led by Terry Edwards, Volume 2 of The Ligeti Edition (Sony)  |  Cappella Amsterdam led by Daniel Reuss (Harmonia Mundi) 

Reading: György Ligeti, by Richard Toop (Phaidon)  |  György Ligeti: Contemporary Composer, by Paul Griffiths (Robson)  |  György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination, by Richard Steinitz (Northeastern University Press)  |  György Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sound, edited by Louise Duchesneau and Wolfgang Marx (Boydell Press)