György Ligeti

From Unearthing The Music

György Ligeti. Photo by: Marcel Antonisse / Anefo - Nationaal Archief

György Ligeti (1923–2006) was a Hungarian composer. He was born at Dicsőszentmárton (Transylvania) to a Hungarian Jewish family. He moved to Kolozsvár with his family when he was six. In 1941 Ligeti finished his studies at the conservatory of Kolozsvár, and he learned music at the local Academy of Music. In 1944 Ligeti was sent to a forced labour brigade, but before the deportation of the Jewish people, he transferred to Nagyvárad, where he captured by the Russian troops. His family members were sent to concentration camps, and his mother his only family member to survive the Holocaust. After the war, Ligeti returned to his studies in Budapest, graduated in 1949 from the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music, where he studied under Pál Kadosa, Ferenc Farkas, Zoltán Kodály and Sándor Veress. In 1949–1950 he studied at the Folklore Institute of Bucharest thanks to a scholarship, and he collected folk music in Transylvania. Between 1950 and 1956, he became the teacher of composition and counterpoint at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music. After the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, he moved to Vienna. Between 1961 and 1971 he was a guest professor at the Academy of Music in Stockholm, and between 1973 and 1989 a professor at the Academy of Music in Hamburg.

Restricted in his innovative works by the Communist authorities of Hungary, only when he reached Vienna in 1956 could Ligeti entirely turn for modern music and develop new compositional techniques. After experimenting with electronic music in Cologne under Karlheinz Stockhausen, he created ’Atmosphères’ (1961) for which he used a technique he later dubbed micropolyphony. However, Ligeti soon became disillusioned with electronic music, and turned back to orchestral music. The most common attribute in his music is a neo-dadaist sensibility for humour and absurd (’Poème symphonique’ – 1962). The other typical characteristic of his work is the moving form ’meccanico’ which meant a machine-like music with mechanical and precise sound (’String Quartet No. 2’ – 1968). After writing his only opera ’Le Grand Macabre’ (1977), Ligeti shifted away from chromaticism and towards polyrhythm for his later works (’Piano Concerto’ – 1980–1988). Ligeti's music is best known to the general public for its use in three films of Stanley Kubrick's (’2001: A Space Odyssey’ – 1968; ’The Shining’ – 1980; ’Eyes Wide Shut’ – 1999).