Gyorgy Ligeti

Innovative composer of genius
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The Independent Online

György Sándor Ligeti, composer: born Dicsöszentmárton, Romania 28 May 1923; Professor for Composition, Hamburg Academy of Music 1973-89; married 1957 Vera Spitz (one son); died Vienna 12 June 2006.

György Ligeti wrote his way through the styles of 20th-century music with unfailing warmth, musicality and wit, and a personal touch that amounted to sheer genius. The "Ligeti sound" was relatively early established - this is a shifting ethereal web of "micropolyphonic" strands, and its capacity for dramatic effect and evocative suggestion was widely noted when some of Ligeti's compositions (Atmosphères, Lux Aeterna, Requiem) were used as part of the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. Kubrick was to use his work again in The Shining (1980) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

Rarely in modern music has a sophisticated technical procedure like this one - whose rationale is primarily the solution of problems in post-romantic, atonal harmony - created an almost populist appeal for itself. Yet Ligeti (briefly a populist when a young radical socialist composer in pre-Stalinist Hungary) was never content to stick to this or any successful manner in piece after piece.

Without losing a jot of his creative distinctiveness, he had encounters with many and divergent styles. Before Atmosphères (for large orchestra, 1961) he had, for example, been known as an electronic-music composer, based in the studios of Cologne Radio (Glissandi for one-track tape was produced in 1957, Artikulation for four-track tape the next year); later he became an exponent of a kind of music-theatre originated by Maurizio Kagel (Aventures and Nouvelles aventures, 1962-65); and, after broadening the scope of his musical language in entirely integral ways in compact masterpieces like the Ten Pieces for wind quintet of 1968 or the Chamber Concerto of 1969-70, he also interestingly brushed with American minimalism (Monument-Selbstportrait-Bewegung for two pianos, 1976 - though works of his own, such as the harpsichord solo Continuum of 1968 had already anticipated this manner) and the complex polymetrics of Conlon Nancarrow and Elliott Carter (Trio for violin, horn and piano, 1982, intended as a homage to Brahms).

He involved himself with the idiom of grand opera in a two-act work written for Swedish Royal Opera between 1974 and 1977: Le Grand macabre, his magnum opus, and an extraordinary, exhilarating recreation of the Surrealist spirit of Alfred Jarry and "Pataphysics".

A composition for female choir and orchestra of 1972-73 is called Clocks and Clouds, and the title neatly expresses the double aspect of Ligeti's work considered as a whole: on the one hand, musical machines, ticking and clicking, and seeming to measure time exactly; on the other, devices that create the impression of timeless drifting - clusters or galaxies of sound that alter their shapes imperceptibly, but have intelligible identity.

Individual works of Ligeti's variously incorporate clock or cloud characteristics and sometimes set them in dramatic juxtaposition. It was an index of his incredibly fastidious ear that he was equally at home compositionally with either stratagem - for deliberate imprecision and self-consciously simulated precision equally require the finest judgement of aural possibilities while Ligeti's possession of such judgement, his exquisite sense of musical timing whether for dramatic, humorous or purely grammatical purposes, was what in large part made it possible for him to remain himself in all his borrowed guises.

György Ligeti was born in 1923, a Hungarian Jew, in Transylvania, newly part of Romania. The violinist Leopold Auer was a great-uncle, but Ligeti was intended by his father for a scientific career. The first music he heard was folk-song, he told John Tusa in a BBC interview:

I'm not aware that I was especially interested in music in childhood. I always imagine music, but I thought every child is doing the same. In the small town [Dicsöszentmárton, now Târnaveni], everybody spoke Hungarian and we were part of Romania, but the population were Hungarian-speaking, mainly. And I heard a lot of Hungarian folk-songs, where peasant ladies who came in the small town to work in the kitchens and, in this kind of housework, they just sang folk tunes. And then I heard a lot of also Romanian folk tunes, there were some Romanian villages nearby. And then in this small town, were a lot of gypsies, so they played gypsy music . . .

He found his musical voice relatively early, but of course he was well into his thirties before producing work which drew attention in the West. Hitherto he had been constrained by appalling political events in Hungary to pose as a mere arranger of folk-songs if he wanted to remain active as a composer at all. He only avoided the worst excesses of the Nazi period thanks to a bureaucratic providence. Most of his family were sent to Auschwitz (only his mother survived); he was assigned to forced labour. "Somehow I am still living today, by a mistake, by chance," he recalled in an interview for his 80th birthday.

When, following the Second World War, he went to Hungary to study composition with Sándor Veress and Ferenc Farkas at the Budapest Music Academy, he was to find, after three years of freedom, that he had only exchanged one tyrannical regime for another. "Although the Communist dictatorship was different in style to the Nazis," said Ligeti, "it was also terrible. In a dictatorship you don't live your life." In 1956 he fled Hungary for Austria.

But Ligeti made up for lost time, when his openness to new influences - from the more daring (and therefore, in the Eastern bloc, proscribed) Bartók to Schoenberg, from Boulez to Stockhausen to Kagen - went with his toughly schooled artistic self-certainty to result in a series of major works.

His innovations in all the departments of musical technique - counterpoint, harmony, deployment of melodies and metrics - were influential, if dangerous to imitate. His human fortitude was an example - having survived appalling political hazards in his twenties and early thirties, he was doomed to live with chronic illness from his early fifties.

The great example he sets, though, is purely compositional: he showed that it was possible to use the new resources of 20th-century music in ways that were profoundly original yet comprehensible to anyone with an intelligent ear. His music combines searching intensity with diaphonous and witty texture. Exemplifying what is thought of as quintessentially avant-garde, it is nevertheless irresistible.

Paul Driver