György Ligeti was born May 28, 1923, in Dicsőszentmárton, Transylvania, Hungary (now Târnăveni, Romania), and died June 12, 2006, in Vienna, Austria. He composed his Concert Românesc in 1951, completing it that June; he revised it in the mid-1990s and published its new version in 1996. The piece was first played 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. These are the first San Francisco Symphony performances. The score calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns (the third seated at a distance from the others and fulfilling an echo function), two trumpets, suspended cymbal, crash cymbals, small snare drum (tuned high), bass drum, and strings. Performance time: about twelve minutes.
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 exodus that followed the failed Hungarian Revolution against the Soviets in 1956. He 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. In 1960, his dramatic Apparitions for Orchestra was premiered in Vienna, and it boosted him to a prominent position among experimental composers. Its dense, cloud-like textures, the result of great clusters of orchestral sounds, wove vaguely through the slowly evolving piece, sometimes in “micropolyphony” (his word) in which canons at the unison unrolled in what sounds like random fashion.
In the course of the 1960s he grew increasingly fascinated with the possibility of music displaying a harmonic center (an inherently retrograde idea that was accordingly unorthodox at the time). This interest led him in the direction of the now-classic Lontano, composed in 1967.
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—Atmosphères, Aventures, Lux aeterna, and Requiem—into the soundtrack of the MGM film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1980, Kubrick would make further (now authorized) use of Ligeti’s music, this time of Lontano (among other pieces) to help create the creepy background in The Shining, along with excerpts of works by Bartók, Penderecki, and Berlioz.
Ligeti’s scores usually project a sensual appeal to which audiences overwhelmingly respond, even though its vocabulary is not that of most other music. Writing in Music, Society and Imagination in Contemporary France (Routledge, 1994), François-Bernard Mache proposed a metaphor that may help listeners interested in how such music is built: “Musical technique is like the technique of plaiting and consists of bringing ordered networks into being, in composing various types of intersections. In a way, that is comparable to the techniques used in the textile industry, musical skill works on a fibrous material to which it gives glowing color, profusion, mobility.”
We may sense this 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.
Later in life, Ligeti reminisced about the musical attitudes and activities of the period in which he produced his Concert Românesc:
In 1949, when I was twenty-six, I learned how to transcribe folk songs from wax cylinders at the Folklore Institute in Bucharest. Many of these melodies stuck in my memory and led in 1951 to the composition of my Romanian Concerto [Concert Românesc]. However, not everything in it is genuinely Romanian as I also invented elements in the spirit of the village bands. I was later able to hear the piece at an orchestral rehearsal in Budapest—a public performance had been forbidden. Under Stalin’s dictatorship, even folk music was allowed only in a “politically correct” form, in other words, if forced into a straitjacket of the norms of socialist realism. . . . The peculiar way in which village bands harmonized their music, often full of dissonances and “against the grain,” was regarded as incorrect. In the fourth movement of my Romanian Concerto there is a passage in which an F-sharp is heard in the context of F major. This was reason enough for the apparatchiks responsiblefor the arts to ban the entire piece.
Public performance of the Concert Românesc was indeed forbidden by the government. Ligeti had written it expressly for an army orchestra, but before the music was provided to that group it had to be vetted. A read-through was therefore arranged with the Hungarian Radio Orchestra, and following that session the censors put the kibosh on it. The score was misplaced. In the 1960s, a Hungarian music publisher (Editio Musica Budapest) re-created the score from the orchestral parts, but its edition was riddled with errors. By that time, the German publishing firm Schott was handling Ligeti’s music, and that company managed to “buy away” the Hungarian edition and issue a correct version.
Probably there would have been no problem if the work had consisted of only its first two movements, which are strikingly different in character from the last two. The first two are in fact 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. This rhythmic behavior, combined with harmonic modality, places this stately movement squarely in the tradition of folk settings by Kodály and Bartók. It may also strike some listeners as neo-Renaissance—doubtless not Ligeti’s specific intent, although “pieces in ancient style” were officially sanctioned at that time. 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. Again, the movement ends but does not end, as the clarinets hold a note through the orchestra’s final cadence.
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. The score advises that the players should intone these bucolic horn-calls while keeping their right hands out of their instruments’ bells and without adjusting certain harmonics as they normally would. Effectively, the French horns behave as “natural horns,” and Ligeti’s intent here is to evoke the sound of the alphorn (or “alpenhorn,” as he called it). He recalled: “The alpenhorn (called a bucium in Romanian) sounded completely different from ‘normal’ music. Today I know that this stems from the fact that the alpenhorn produces only the notes of its natural harmonic series and that the fifth and seventh harmonies (i.e., the major third and minor seventh) seem ‘out of tune’ because they sound lower than on the piano, for example. But it is this sense of ‘wrongness’ that is in fact what is ‘right’ about the instrument, as it represents the specific ‘charm’ of the horn timbre.” The English horn takes over from the first French horn, and then shimmering strings suggest the tones of a cimbalom, with violas playing airy arpeggios against violin tremolos. The full orchestra enters in a dramatic sweep of sound, and, after a cadenza-like passage for the clarinet, the orchestra concludes with rising melodic motifs that suggest evaporating wisps of steam. This, too, points ahead to the later Ligeti, to the evocative interweaving of instruments in his breakthrough orchestral works of the ’60s.
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. (Ligeti’s biographer Richard Steinitz describes this delicious Ligeti flavor as “a sort of Keystone Kops meets Beijing Opera on the plains of Transylvania.”) The piece seems to conclude, but the solo violin is unwilling to cooperate; it continues to spin about, very high and pianissimo, even as the rest of the orchestra hammers out emphatic chords fortissississimo. One might imagine a dance between a mosquito and a fly-swatter. 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
More About the Music
Recordings: Jonathan Nott conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Teldec) | Lawrence Foster conducting the Gulbenkian Foundation Symphony Orchestra Lisbon (Pentatone)
Reading: György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination, by Richard Steinitz (Northeastern University Press) | György Ligeti, by Richard Topp (Phaidon) | Ligeti, Kurtág, and Hungarian Music during the Cold War, by Rachel Beckles Willson (Cambridge University Press)