Program Notes

Concert Românesc (Romanian Concerto)

BORN: May 28, 1923, in Dicsőszentmárton, Transylvania, Hungary (now Târnăveni, Romania)
DIED: June 12, 2006, in Vienna

COMPOSED: 1951; he revised it in the mid-1990s and published its new version in 1996

WORLD PREMIERE: In a private orchestral rehearsal in Budapest in the 1950s, but it was not officially premiered until August 21, 1971, at the Peninsula Music Festival in the Gibraltar Auditorium, Fish Creek, Wisconsin, with Thor Johnson conducting The Festival Orchestra

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns (the 3rd seated at a distance from the others and fulfilling an echo function), 2 trumpets, suspended cymbal, crash cymbals, small snare drum (tuned high), bass drum, and strings

DURATION: About 12 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Growing up in a Jewish family in a Hungary that was in turns dominated by Hitler and Stalin, György Ligeti did not experience life as a bed of roses. Unlike his father and his brother, he at least managed to survive internment in a labor camp. Despite his perilous condition, he was able to cobble together a firm musical education, and he spent the years immediately following World War II studying at the Academy of Music in Budapest. He produced the stream of folk-based choral music that was de rigueur in Hungary at the time, but he also worked at blatantly experimental pieces, building on the models of Bartók and the few other avant-garde composers of whose music he was aware. He prudently kept these scores to himself.

Ligeti became part of the great Hugnarian exodus of 1956 and settled in Germany, where he avidly soaked up the thriving culture of contemporary music. Within a couple of years he became associated with the avant-garde center of Darmstadt and started producing captivating works of daring complexity, often within very free rhythmic frameworks.

The new-music community was watching Ligeti closely well before he was thrust to a sort of popular fame in 1968. That’s when, without the composer’s knowledge or permission, Stanley Kubrick incorporated four of his compositions into the soundtrack of the MGM film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1980, Kubrick would make further (now authorized) use of Ligeti’s music to help create the creepy background in The Shining.

Ligeti’s scores usually project a sensual appeal to which audiences overwhelmingly respond, even though its vocabulary is not that of most other music. We may sense an impulse towards “weaving” a musical composition even in such an early Ligeti score as the Concert Românesc (1951). Its four movements—played without separation and totaling only twelve minutes—may be taken as a sort of autobiographical snapshot by the composer. “I grew up in a Hungarian-speaking environment in Transylvania,” he wrote. “While the official language was Romanian, it was only in secondary school that I learned to speak the language that had seemed so mysterious to me as a child. I was three when I first encountered Romanian folk music, an alpenhorn player in the Carpathian Mountains. . . .” Ligeti here continues the tradition of such works as Enescu’s Rumanian Rhapsodies and Bartók’s Rumanian Folk Dances, infusing the “symphonic-folk” tradition with sounds that are both modernist and listener-friendly.

THE MUSIC  The first two movements are adapted from a slightly earlier Ligeti piece, the Ballad and Dance for two violins, which he had written in 1950. The Ballad became an Andantino, in which a steady beat maintains throughout as individual measures shift constantly among several meters. The second movement follows without a break: a quick dance that swirls with infectious vigor, in which the flavorful voices of piccolo, solo violin, and percussion instruments provide particular delight. This leads into the slow third movement, which is a considerably more complex and subtle composition. Two horns play the opening material, one (positioned distantly) as an echo to the other evoking the sound of the alphorn. The finale is in a still more modern idiom, with expanses being given over to a string section that buzzes in tones that may seem hard to discern even though their general contours are clear. A solo violin emerges to lead the high-kicking dance, which grows riotous. The alphorn effect returns at the very end, the last gasp of this stubborn “false ending” that is finally snuffed out by a resounding chord from the full orchestra.

James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback.

(May 2018)

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