The great Austrian-Hungarian composer György Ligeti was born at Dicsoszentmárton (now Tirnaveni in Romania) on 28 May 1923 to Hungarian parents. He studied at the Music Academy in Cluj-Napoca (Klausenburg Conservatory) with Ferenc Farkas, and then later at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest with Farkas, Sándor Veress, Pál Járdányi and Lajos Bárdos. As a Jew he was arrested in 1943 and sentenced to forced labour until the end of the war, when he returned to his studies in Hungary and began to teach at the Franz Liszt Academy.
An adventurer in form and expression and a great visionary, his richly varied music is uncompromisingly original, sensual and accessible. He tended to avoid aesthetic trends, methods and dogmatism, and became widely admired and influential in the music profession. As the mentor of a whole generation of composers, he wanted to 'fuse the fear of death with laughter'.
Atmosphères, the orchestral work he created in 1961 (and which, along with the complex choral work Lux Aeterna, was used in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey), made Ligeti instantly well-known. In this piece, he worked almost completely without traditional melodic, harmonic and rhythmic parameters and concentrated on sounds with constantly changing textures. 'Micropolyphony', he once described, 'means such a dense tissue that the individual parts become inaudible and only the resulting intermingling harmonies are effective as a form'. These techniques were never an end in themselves, though, and he always continued to look for new paths.
Deeply affected by the loss of his father and brother in concentration camps, Ligeti developed a strong dislike of dictatorships, and of any kind of intellectual restriction: 'I am an enemy of ideologies in the arts. Totalitarian regimes do not like dissonances.' He initially intended to study physics, and later found inspiration in the natural world and in biochemistry, chaos research and fractal geometry for new compositional principles. Over many years as an internationally respected teacher, he encouraged independence, originality and self-criticism in his students: 'There is only one tradition. Our music either stands up to it or not.'
Following intensive work at the Studio für elektronische Musik of the WDR in Cologne in the 1950s and the development of micropolyphony in the 1960s, his personal style became more simple and transparent in the 1970s, and he began to use tonal sounds again. 'I no longer listen to rules on what is to be regarded as modern and what as old-fashioned.' In the 1980s and 90s he expanded his musical horizons yet again, incorporating structural principles of African drumming into his works, developing new complex polyrhythmic techniques. These form the basis of the three collections of Etudes pour piano, considered to be among the most important piano works from the end of the 20th century.
His achievements were honoured with a number of prizes and awards, including appointment as Commandeur dans l'Ordre National des Arts et Lettres (Paris, 1988), the Ernst-von-Siemens Music Award in 1993, honorary membership of the Romanian Academy (1997), the Sibelius Prize of the Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation in Helsinki (2000), the Kyoto-Prize for Arts and Science (2001), the Polar Music Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music (2004) and the Echo Klassik 2004. Ligeti died in Vienna on 12 June 2006, aged 83, following a serious illness.
A selection of M&V articles about György Ligeti
Ensemble. Haydn the subversive? - The Zelkova String Quartet, heard by Mike Wheeler
Ensemble. Vigour and Freshness - Clarinettist Julian Bliss joins Andrew Gourlay and Sinfonia Viva, enjoyed by Mike Wheeler
Ensemble. Depth and Elegance - Giuseppe Pennisi visits the Printemps des Arts in Monte Carlo
Ensemble. Household Rituals - Contemporary and modern music at Aix-en-Provence, heard by Giuseppe Pennisi
An Invaluable Book - Gergely Hubai's 'Torn Music: Rejected film scores, a selected history', recommended by Patric Standford
Especially Brilliant - An evening of piano music from Giuseppe Andaloro, heard by Giuseppe Pennisi
Innovative Content - A piano journey on the Danube, with Giuseppe Pennisi
DVD Spotlight. Seen and Heard - Modern music from the Kreutzer Quartet, reviewed by Howard Smith. '... whimsical, fickle and modernistic ...'
Ensemble. The Quality of Mercy - Giuseppe Pennisi visits the 2011 Aix-en-Provence Festival and reports on four of the six operas
Ensemble. Artistic Freedom - Giuseppe Pennisi visits the sophisticated music festival in a Tuscan mountain convent and stays for the full three days
DVD Spotlight. Ho hum! - Vidor Nagy plays Bach and Paganini, reviewed by Howard Smith. '... moments of splendour.'
Ideally Matched - Malcolm Troup hears 'the art of the piano reborn' in Syrian pianist Riyad Nicolas
Ensemble. Under the Tuscan Sun - Giuseppe Pennisi attends the beginning of the Tiroler Festspiele 2010
CD Spotlight. A Tactile Rhetoric - 'Last Cicada Singing' by Christopher Roberts, contemplated by Malcolm Tattersall. '... gesture becomes music ...'
Timings - Universal Edition's preparations for the Mahler Centenary years (2010-2011), by Jennifer Paull
Thoughtfulness of Approach - A recital by Australian pianist Jayson Gillham, reviewed by Bill Newman
Ensemble. Splendidly Varied - Thomas Trotter at the organ of Derby Cathedral, heard by Mike Wheeler
Ensemble. Lively Playing - A concert by Zephyr, appreciated by Mike Wheeler
Ensemble. Primal Energy - Barenboim and the Vienna Philharmonic play Bartók, Kodály, Enescu and Ligeti
Ensemble. Settling in - Kelly Ferjutz prepares for a week of reports from the West Cork Chamber Music Festival
CD Spotlight. Remarkable ingenuity - Lukas Ligeti's 'Mystery System', reviewed by Malcolm Tattersall. '... the playing, by the Amadinda Percussion Group, is dazzling.'
Ensemble. Hour of Magic - Malcolm Miller is enthralled by seldom-heard East European music
Excited by music - Flautist Kathryn Thomas in conversation with Keith Bramich