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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.


BORN: May 28, 1923. Dicsöszentmárton, Transylvania (now Târnăveni, Romania)

DIED: June 12, 2006. Vienna, Austria

COMPOSED: The first three movements were written in 1985-86. Ligeti expanded the piece with two further movements from 1987 through mid-January 1988, yielding the complete work performed here

WORLD PREMIERE: In its three-movement form, October 23, 1986, in Graz, Austria, by pianist Anthony di Bonaventura, with Mario di Bonaventura (the work’s dedicatee) conducting members of the Vienna Philharmonic. In its final five-movement form, it was first performed on February 29, 1988, in Vienna, again with the brothers di Bonaventura, but with the Austrian Radio Symphony

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1992. Pierre-Laurent Aimard was soloist, with George Benjamin conducting, as part of the Wet Ink Festival. MOST RECENT—May 1999. Aimard and Benjamin reprised their roles

INSTRUMENTATION: Flute (doubling piccolo), oboe, clarinet, alto ocarina, bassoon, horn, trumpet, tenor trombone, triangle, pairs of crotales, 2 suspended cymbals (small, medium), 4 woodblocks, 5 temple blocks, tambourine, snare drum, 3 bongos, bass drum, guiro, castanets, whip, siren whistle, signal whistle, slide whistle, flexatone, Chromonica (chromatic harmonica), glockenspiel, xylophone, and strings

DURATION: About 24 mins

THE BACKSTORY Growing up in a Jewish family in a Hungary dominated first by Hitler and then by Stalin, György Ligeti endured a perilous upbringing. Nonetheless, he cobbled together a firm musical education and 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 more experimental pieces, building on the models of Bartók and the few other avant-garde composers of whose music he was aware. He became part of the great Hungarian exodus of 1956 and settled in Germany, where he avidly soaked up the thriving culture of contemporary music. In 1960 his Apparitions for Orchestra boosted him to prominence among experimentalists. Its dense, cloud-like textures wove vaguely through the slowly evolving piece, sometimes in “micropolyphony” (his word) in which canons unrolled in what sounds like random fashion.

From 1974 through 1977 he was occupied with his operatic masterpiece Le Grand Macabre. Even before it was premiered the following year he resolved that his next projects would be a work for horn and a piano concerto. But the opera had been such an immense achievement that, given his horror of repeating himself, Ligeti floundered for quite a while trying to find the pathway to the works he vaguely envisioned. During this apparently fallow period, he was swept up in Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a playful, mind-expanding romp through the realms of science and art, exploring the processes of knowledge, thought, and cognition. He felt that the new compositions he had in mind would be inspired by ideas in this book, but the path proved elusive. Eighteen months of work on the Piano Concerto led to nothing that satisfied him.

In a burst of energy in 1982 he achieved his Trio for Horn, Violin, and Piano, but the Piano Concerto continued to bedevil him. His sketches include twenty-one preserved attempts to draft its first page. Dating as early as 1980, they were all discarded until the twenty-first one, penned in 1985-86, which finally set down the work’s definitive opening. Ligeti then moved ahead steadily, and in October 1986 the concerto received two performances as a three-movement piece. After hearing it he said, “I came to the conclusion that the third movement is not an adequate finale; my feeling of form demanded continuation, a supplement.” He forged on, completing the fourth and fifth movements by early 1988. In an extended essay, Ligeti declared:

I present my artistic credo in the Piano Concerto: I demonstrate my independence from criteria of the traditional avant-garde, as well as the fashionable post-modernism. Musical illusions which I consider to be also so important are not a goal in itself for me, but a foundation for my aesthetical attitude. I prefer musical forms which have a more object-like than processual character. Music as “frozen” time, as an object in imaginary space evoked by music in our imagination, as a creation which really develops in time, but in imagination it exists simultaneously in all its moments. The spell of time, enduring its passing by, closing it in a moment of the present is my main intention as a composer.

THE MUSIC The Piano Concerto is a complex piece in which, he asserted, “I realized new concepts of harmony and rhythm.” Multiple meters unroll at the same time, and contradictory rhythms within them. It would be wrong to say that those levels of rhythmic counterpoint are unrelated, but a listener is more likely to apprehend the result of their combination than the underlying principles that generated them. Ligeti also adopts an intricate approach to harmony, which extends to microtonal writing (though rarely) and to superimposing music based on different divisions of a scale. The piano behaves less as an entity contrasting with the orchestra, as is common in concertos, than as primus inter pares within the ensemble.

Such a description may alarm some listeners, but it should not distract from aspects of the piece that are absolutely approachable and that, even at first hearing, can afford fascination and even hedonistic pleasure. The orchestra is on the small side (though with a large array of percussion) but Ligeti uses it to dazzling effect, at no point failing to entrance the ear. Although the Piano Concerto is obviously a deeply determined piece it is not solemn, and listeners should not feel guilty about embracing occasional passages that veer toward humor or even slapstick.

The opening movement is based on metrical disjunction, with some instruments playing in 4/4 and others in 12/8 time. The flavor suggests something of Caribbean music, which Ligeti found inspiring. “In our perception,” he wrote, “we quickly resign from following particular rhythmical successions and that what is going on in time appears for us as something static, resting.” This leads directly to the slow second movement, which cultivates mournful expressiveness through descending “sighing figures” in the winds and sometimes the piano, often exhaled against long-held harmonies in the strings. “In this movement,” said Ligeti, “I used isolated sounds and extreme registers (piccolo in a very low register, bassoon in a very high register, canons played by the swanee whistle [slide whistle], the alto ocarina and brass with a ‘harmon-mute’ damper, ‘cutting’ sound combinations of the piccolo, clarinet and oboe in an extremely high register, also alternating of a whistle-siren and xylophone.” The scherzo-like third movement plays with musical legerdemain, building on a technique associated with some African musics. Accents superimposed over an underlying rhythmic pulsation give rise to what the composer calls inherent musical patterns. “If this movement is played with the adequate speed and with very clear accentuation, illusory rhythmic-melodical figures appear. These figures are not played directly; they do not appear in the score, but exist only in our perception as a result of cooperation of different voices.”

Now the concerto continues to the sections Ligeti added to make the work complete. The fourth movement, he said, was “meant to be the central movement of the Concerto.” Its melodic-rhythmic elements are like “pebbles in the kaleidoscope—which continuously return in augmentations and diminutions.” It builds up to quite an uproar. This is the expanse in which Ligeti sidles up most closely to mathematics, particularly drawing on illustrations of fractals. “This does not mean, however, that composing the fourth movement I used mathematical methods or iterative calculus; indeed, I did use constructions which, however, are not based on mathematical thinking, but are rather ‘craftman’s’ constructions (in this respect, my attitude towards mathematics is similar to that of the graphic artist Maurits Escher). I am concerned rather with intuitional, poetic, synesthetic correspondence, not on the scientific, but on the poetic level of thinking.” He continues directly into the brief fifth movement, where various procedures presenting in preceding sections now coincide in an exaltation of complexity. “Polyrhythms and harmonic mixtures reach their greatest density, and at the same time this movement is strikingly light, enlightened with very bright colors: at first it seems chaotic, but after listening to it for a few times it is easy to grasp its content: many autonomous but self-similar figures which [are] crossing themselves.”—James M. Keller

LISTEN AGAIN: Pierre-Laurent Aimard, with Reinbert de Leeuw conducting the Asko Ensemble (Warner Classics)

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

(May 2019)