“Sound-fields and masses that flow together; suspended nets that tear or become knotted; damp, viscous, spongy, fibrous, dry, brittle, granulous and compact materials; threads, short flourishes, splinters and traces of all kinds; imaginary edifices, labyrinths, inscriptions, texts, dialogues, insects, states, occurrences, coalescence, transformation, catastrophe, decay, disappearance; all of these are elements of this non-puristic music.”

György Ligeti (1923–2006)
© Co Broerse

That was how György Ligeti described his own musical world. This year marks the centenary of one of the most various and voracious composers of the 20th century. Always hungry for new ideas and techniques, Ligeti’s output demonstrates a remarkable wellspring of creativity and open-mindedness. Putting together a cross-section of his work is difficult – but in this case, each entry represents not only an individual work but an entire avenue of exploration.

1String Quartet no. 1: Métamorphoses nocturnes

Ligeti was born in Dicsőszentmárton, in the Hungarian-speaking region of Transylvania, which after the First World War became part of Romania. His early life was extremely eventful and disrupted by tragedy and upheaval, deeply impacting his musical development. Arguably the pinnacle of Ligeti’s early music is his first string quartet, composed 1953–54.

From the early 1950s, owing to the friendship and influence of surrealist poet Sándor Weöres, Ligeti began to return to musical first principles, to composition’s basic musical components: rhythms, pitches and intervals. In the multi-movement piano work Musica ricercata (1951–53) each movement gradually adds a new pitch, until all 12 chromatic pitches are present for the conclusion. But the string quartet Métamorphoses nocturnes takes this kind of process to a new level of sophistication.

Ligeti progresses through a series of kaleidoscopic variations each dwelling on a different interval: major seconds in the coiling thematic introduction, minor seconds in a violent vivace, then minor thirds in a tragic mesto, then major thirds (combined with minor seconds) in a vigorous Scherzo, then a prestissimo cascade of fourths, then a tranquil section of perfect fifths, and so on.

Because of conservative arts policies in Hungary, Ligeti’s more dissonant music, such as this string quartet, was written only for the “desk drawer”, and laid unperformed. At times reminiscent of Bartók – whose still-banned third and fourth quartets Ligeti studied during its composition – it is also clear in this piece that Ligeti’s world is fully-formed and distinct. In contrast to Bartók’s realism, Ligeti’s world is fantastical. It is full of violence and drama, absurdity and humour, wild contrast and chance encounters.


In 1956, with de-Stalinisation, the previously repressive atmosphere in Hungary seemed to be lifting. Art and music from elsewhere suddenly became available – and in the process it became clear to Hungarians just the extent of their repression. The result was the failed uprising in the autumn of 1956. After it was brutally put down by the Soviet army, it was obvious to Ligeti and many other Hungarians the situation would only deteriorate. Ligeti and his wife Vera escaped to the West, eventually settling in Vienna.

Not only had his personal life been completely uprooted, but his existing musical anchoring had been jettisoned. In the late 1950s and 1960s, he began to journey along a totally new compositional path, exploring masses and expanses of sound. No longer would individual lines be identifiable or individually discernible. Instead, music would concern itself with the interaction of textures. The influence of experiments with tape and synthesisers in the Cologne electronic studio, and a friendship with Stockhausen and other luminaries of 1950s modernism led to this overhaul of musical material.

Orchestral works of this period, such Apparitions (1958–59) and Atmosphères (1961), and several works for tape (including Artikulation, 1958) demonstrate this journey of exploration. This approach came to a head with the composition of the Requiem (1963–65). Written for a huge chorus and orchestra, the piece treats the voices as great masses, in waves and sheets of chromaticism. Remarkable for its depiction of darkness and light, it also has its own absurdism, which can be heard in the strange, declamatory third movement De die judicii sequentia. Shortly after its premiere, the Requiem became one of Ligeti’s most widely heard pieces, when its powerful Kyrie was included in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968.


Ligeti’s compositions of this period could be vast and overpowering, but they could also be gentle. Lontano is a case in point. Completed in 1967, the piece is for a huge orchestra, but expands gradually from a single pitch, to form modal and chromatic clusters. As with another composition of around the same time, Lux aeterna for vocal ensemble, this is music which captures clear, penetrating light. It is also testament to the force of Ligeti’s imagination, that even marshalling vast orchestral resources and great sheets of sound, he could create something of emotional directness and simplicity.

4San Francisco Polyphony

By the 1970s, Ligeti’s music was becoming increasingly multiplicitous. The 1971 work Melodien signals a departure from the more “static” compositions of the 1960s: lines might begin to be individually identifiable, yet still tangled in thickets and labyrinths. San Francisco Polyphony (1974) perhaps represents the apogee of this development. Material is entangled with itself constantly – it’s almost like we are witnessing the kaleidoscopic chance encounters of Métamorphoses nocturnes again, except this time rendered on a much larger scale, in multidimensional form.

5Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano

As with many other composers, Ligeti experienced a creative crisis in the 1970s. The established habits and tropes of 1960s modernism were decaying and fraying at the edges, the world was altering, politics and technology changing. Ligeti’s opera, Le Grand Macabre, received its much-delayed first performance in 1978 in Stockholm. It is a piece full of wildness and devilry, both scatological and violent and even tender at times, full of quotations and references, always restless – the very opposite of his “static” works like Atmosphères and Lontano. Yet it also represented a kind of cul-de-sac, a point from which Ligeti could go no further.

Ligeti’s output slowed from the late 1970s as he struggled to find a new way of working. The eventual result of this struggle was the Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano, completed in 1982. Written in homage to Brahms, the piece was immediately controversial – how could this arch-modernist have regressed so concertedly into neo-romanticism?

Yet the piece is far from regressive, and it sets out a series of musical concerns which Ligeti was to return to for the last decades of his life. Suddenly arriving in this piece is the “lamento” motif, a chromatically descending line derived from the bocet, the traditional Romanian mourner’s lament. It would become hugely important to Ligeti’s late music. Also arriving fully-formed in this piece is Ligeti’s characteristic modal-chromatic harmony, piquant with sixths and open triads. Also used are the natural harmonics of the horn, as well as ostinato and additive rhythms, all of which would be explored in great depth in compositions to come. Ligeti had changed his style radically, yet had done so with a confidence and single-mindedness that concerns established in one work would continue to be explored decades later.


In the 1980s, Ligeti also returned to composition for the piano, having largely neglected the instrument in his output through the 1960s and 70s. The piano is Ligeti’s instrument, which he began to learn at the relatively late age of 14. The Études (1985–2001) in a certain sense follow the thinking of Musica ricercata – that of a return to first principles of musical construction. But their resulting textures are highly elaborate, full of thorny and often furiously difficult passages.

Ligeti was always attracted to science and mathematics, and wanted to be a scientist before he turned to music. The Études take a “scientific” approach, with each exploring a single compositional technique or principle: overlapping additive rhythms, the same material at multiple speeds, “infinitely rising” textures, ostinatos, canons and modes. In this he followed the radical Mexican-American composer Conlon Nancarrow, of whom Ligeti was a great advocate. Nancarrow’s many Studies for Player Piano each individually explore a particular approach to rhythm and composition – in both cases, the idea of the “study” applies as much to the composer as to the performer.

Ligeti’s Études should be considered together with his Piano Concerto, completed in 1988, which adopts many of the same approaches, fortifying and expanding them in an ensemble context. The concerto’s fourth movement even explores Ligeti’s burgeoning interest in fractal geometry.

7Violin Concerto

Ligeti wrote three arresting concertos in the last decades of his life – for Piano, Violin and Horn. My personal favourite is the Violin Concerto, completed in 1993. An extremely inventive and imaginative piece, it flits from glassy harmonics to lopsided aksak dances in its first movement. In the second movement, a tender folk melody is put through a series of otherworldly variations, hopping between ocarinas and medieval hoketus. The theme, a Romanian folk song, had already been used by Ligeti in the early 1950s in Musica ricercata, and again in refracted form in the Horn Trio. (Weirdly enough, it even shows up in Enescu’s Fifth Symphony – not a piece Ligeti ever heard.)

The violin part is one of the most spectacular and difficult in the entire concerto repertory. After an extraordinary diverse third movement, built upon many layers of descending chromatic scales, the fourth movement progresses through an achingly slow rising chromatic scale, starting at middle C and ending with a screaming xylophone right at the top of its range. The bocet “lamento” motif is used in the final movement, which culminates in an extended violin cadenza, cut off by the orchestra in a moment of pure unceremonious bathos. It is a concerto that could have been composed by no one else.

György Ligeti
© Co Broerse

8With pipes, drums and fiddles

Throughout Ligeti’s output, the trace of the characteristically strange-yet-familiar nonsense world of Sándor Weöres is ever-present. From the early choral settings of Weöres’ poems in the 1940 and 50s, to Ligeti’s own experiments with invented languages in Aventures and Artikulation, to the diabolical nonsense of Le Grand Macabre, Ligeti was always fascinated by nonsense. He also set Lewis Carroll in his Nonsense Madrigals in the 1980s, and wished to make an opera out of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – a task eventually completed by his student, Unsuk Chin. Despite the fact that Ligeti’s music went through so many seemingly wild changes in style, he consistently held to a childlike curiosity and imaginative attitude to the world, a commonality he shared with Weöres.

His last completed work is appropriately a setting of Weöres’ poems, titled With pipes, drums and fiddles (Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedűvel). As with others of Ligeti’s pieces, its seven songs explore different individual approaches, each capturing the strangeness and gentleness of Weöres’ writing in a way few else could. Its sixth movement Keserédes utilises a tender Hungarian folk song, and we think Ligeti might be leaving us on a note of unbearable poignancy. But the seventh movement Szajkó suddenly undercuts this gentle atmosphere with a clattering patter of absurdity and a final slap of the whip. Ligeti departs with a wry smile.

See listings of forthcoming performances of music by György Ligeti.