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György Ligeti, 1923 – 2006
György Ligeti was born on May 28, 1923, in Dicsöszentmárton (today named Tîrnaveni) in Romania. His parents belonged to the Hungarian-Jewish minority in Transylvania, and they soon moved with him to Cluj (Klausenburg), where he began to receive instruction in composition with Ferenc Parkas in 1941. The Nazi regime tore his family apart – his brother and father died in concentration camps, György Ligeti himself was set to forced labour, his mother survived Auschwitz.
After the war ended, Ligeti continued his studies in composing with Ferenc Farkas and Sándor Veress at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music in Budapest. In addition to his focus on folk music, during this period he also began to develop the concept of a micropolyphonic compositional style. Although his folksong arrangements and his compositions based on Romanian and Hungarian folk melodies were published in Hungary, his new musical ideas could first come to full fruition upon his move to Vienna. This move had become necessary for him for political as well as artistic reasons after the Hungarian revolution of 1956.
In Cologne, he became acquainted with representatives of the avant-garde such as Gottfried Michael Koenig and Herbert Eimert, who invited him to the studio for electronic music at the West German Radio (WDR). He worked there from 1957 to 1958. He was now able to study intensely the music of Mauricio Kagel, Pierre Boulez, and Karlheinz Stockhausen; he himself, however, with compositions such as Artikulation, continued to follow his own compositional path, one which had little to do with serial, structural thinking. His orchestral piece Apparitions, premiered at the festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Cologne, helped him to reach a wider audience. His 1961 orchestral work Atmosphères, a seemingly static structure of single voices in constant flux through minute rhythmic, intervallic, and dynamic adjustments, secured his position on the international scene. As this piece, along with his Requiem (1963-65) and the choral piece Lux aeterna (1966), was chosen by Stanley Kubrick to be included in the soundtrack for his film 2001 – A Space Odyssey, Ligeti’s music was introduced to a broader public.
Micropolyphony remained an important point in his works, and was enriched in the coming years through various other components: in his short musical dramas Aventures (1962) and Nouvelles Aventures (1962-65), György Ligeti used an invented language made up of phonetically notated words. He explored the use of micro-intervals in Ramifications (1968-69). In the seventies, he often took an ironic approach to historical models of composition. One main work of this period is the opera Le Grand Macabre, based on a theatrical work by Michel de Ghelderode. It was premiered in Stockholm in 1978. Complex polyrhythms influence the works of the 80s and 90s, including his Piano Concerto (1985) and Violin Concerto (1990-92).
György Ligeti, who lived starting in the mid-1950s partially in Germany and partially in Austria, and in 1967 became an Austrian citizen, was also active as an educator. From 1961 to 1971, he was guest professor for composition in Stockholm, in 1972 he was composer-in-residence at Stanford University, and from 1973 until 1989 he taught at the Hochschule für Musik in Hamburg.
The prizes Ligeti has won for his compositional achievements are so numerous that only some of them can be named here. In 1991 he won the Praemium Imperiale, and in 1993 the Ernst-von-Siemens-Musikpreis. In 2004 he was honoured with the Polar Music Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Music.
György Ligeti died in Vienna on 12 June 2006 at the age of 83.
György Ligeti: Mysteries of the Macabre
Barbara Hannigan; Berliner Philharmoniker; Sir Simon Rattle
György Ligeti: Six Bagatelles for wind quintet
György Ligeti: Musica Ricercata No. 7
Explore the Score
You can download a complete discography of all recordings of György Ligeti's works here.
DÉSORDRE (Etudes pour Piano; Trio for violin, horn & piano)
Eric Huebner (piano); Yuki Numata Resnick (violin); Adam Unsworth (horn)
New focus Recordings, fcr 269, 2020
Kodály & Ligeti: Cello Works
Hellen Weiß (Violin); Gabriel Schwabe (Violoncello)
Naxos, NX 4202, 2020
Joonas Ahonen (piano); Christian Poltéra (violoncello); BIT20 Ensemble; Baldur Brönnimann (conductor)
BIS-2209 SACD, 2016
Les Siècles ; François-Xavier Roth (conductor)
Musicales Actes Sud, 2016
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano); Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; George Benjamin, (conductor)
NEOS, 11422, 2016
Shai Wosner (Piano); Danish National Symphony Orchestra; Nicolas Collon (Conductor)
Onyx Classics, ONYX4174, 2016
Hidéki Nagano (piano); Pierre Strauch (violoncello); Jeanne-Marie Conquer (violin); Ensemble intercontemporain; Matthias Pintscher (conductor)
Alpha, 217, 2015
(Négy Lakodalmi Tánc; Nonsense Madrigals; Lux æterna)
Noël Akchoté (electric guitar)
Noël Akchoté Downloads, GLC-2, 2015
Cathy Krier (piano)
Avi-Music – 8553308, 2014
Jecklin, Jec 0723-2, 2014
(Passacaglia ungherese; Continuum; Hungarian Rock (Chaconne)
Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)
Wigmore Hall Live, WHLIVE0066, 2014
Marco Blaauw (trumpet); Nicolas Altstaedt (violoncello); Alberto Rosado (piano); PluralEnsemble; Fabián Panisello (conductor)
NEOS BBVA, 11013, 2014
(String Quartets Nos. 1 + 2; Sonata for Cello
æon, AECD 1332, 2013
(String Quartet No. 1)
Avi-Music, 8553298, 2013
Benjamin Schmid (violin); Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Hannu Lintu (conductor)
Ondine, ODE 1213-2, 2013
Kit Armstrong (piano)
Sony Classical, 88883747752, 2013
(Premier, deuxième + troisième livres)
Thomas Hell (piano)
Wergo, WER-6763 2, 2012
Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin); Ensemble Modern; Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra; Peter Eötvös (conductor)
NAÏVE, 822186052853, 2012
(Invention; Six Bagatelles; Volumina; Lux aeterna; Zehn Stücke; Sonata for Solo Viola; from Études pour piano [Premier + troisième livres])
Nobuko Imai (viola); Fredrik Ullén (piano); Hans-Ola Ericsson (organ); Schola Heidelberg; Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet; Walter Nußbaum (conductor)
BIS Records, Bis 1503, 2012
(Sonata for Viola Solo)
Kim Kashkashian (viola)
ECM New Series, 2240, 2012
(Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano "Hommage à Brahms")
Farao Classics, B 108037, 2012
(Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano "Hommage à Brahms")
Antje Weithaas (violin); Marie-Luise Neunecker (horn); Silke Avenhaus (piano)
BIS SACD 1859, 2012
Mei Yi Foo (piano)
Odradek Records, ODRCD302, 2012
(Six Bagatelles from "Musica Ricercata")
Mobilis Saxophone Quartet
Gramola Vienna, 98937, 2011
Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester; David Afkham (conductor)
From the first delicate notes of Ligeti’s atmospheric and densely structured piece “Lontano”, the hall was held in a state of suspense. Petrenko masterfully succeeded in letting the flowing, finely balanced sound swell up and subside again. The music unfolds as if approaching from afar, and at the end disappears into nothingness.
Musik Heute, Corina Kolbe, 15/09/2016
György Ligeti’s Ramifications, an indelible masterpiece of the gauziest microtonal weave (…). (…) Here, the tuning of one string group is a quarter-tone lower than the other, creating a quivering web of 24 pitches, moving through extremes of dynamic, pulsing with interference.
Theartsdesk.com, Helen Wallace, 21/08/2016
In its introverted way, György Ligeti’s horn trio is one of the most subversive masterpieces of the last half century. It was the work that in 1982 signalled a radical change of direction in Ligeti’s music, taking him away from the European avant garde and towards a style that not only drew on the music of the past but also incorporated elements from other musical cultures. Ligeti went on to refine many of the ideas and techniques he first explored in the trio, but it remains an extraordinary work (…).
The Guardian, Andrew Clements, 22/06/2016
Ligeti’s great, troublesome [violin] concerto, completed in 1992, reminded us how gripping an unbridled exploration of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic deviation can be.
Financial Times, Martin Bernheimer, 07/06/2016
With each passing year, Ligeti’s 18 études for solo piano (1985-2001) seem less like “new music” and more like classics. These pieces’ connection to their ancestors — Debussy’s own set of études, their movement perpetual, whether fast or slow; the grandiose drama of Liszt; the complex rhythmic games of Conlon Nancarrow — are ever more obvious.
The New York Times, Zachary Woolfe, 17/05/2016
More information on György Ligeti's works is available at www.schott-music.com, www.universaledition.com and www.edition-peters.com.
The Paul Sacher Foundation houses manuscripts and recordings of György Ligeti's music, as well as the composer's collected writings edited by Monika Lichtenfeld.
Discover György Ligeti's piano works through the interactive website Explore the Score, which has been developed by the Ruhr Piano Festival Foundation under the artistic aegis of Pierre-Laurent Aimard.
The semi-staged production of György Ligeti’s absurdist opera Le Grand Macabre was performed this year to great acclaim from critics and audiences alike in London and Berlin. Directed by Peter Sellars, boasting a luxury cast of singers and performed by two of world’s best orchestras – the London Symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic respectively – both runs were conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Here is a collection of the most important press quotes as well as a trailer of the production and a short film of the conductor and director talking about their work....
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