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  • Author or Editor: Márton Kerékfy x
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The beginning of the 1950s marks a turning-point in György Ligeti’s early career. By that time Ligeti had become disappointed regarding his rather marginal position in Hungarian musical life, and he might well have felt some dissatisfaction with his own artistic output, as well. He recognized that he should leave his former style and build up his own expressive means and musical language from elementary material. For this purpose, he set himself certain compositional tasks, and imposed restrictions on pitch content, intervals, and rhythms ‘as if to build up a “new music” from nothing’. Accordingly, Musica ricercata , which is the first fruit of his experimental project, marks a renewal of Ligeti’s musical thinking primarily on terms of the compositional technique. The present study examines the main problems of compositional technique raised in Musica ricercata (primarily that of chromaticism and dense polyphony) and points out significant influences shown in the work (such as those of Bartók, Stravinsky, and Romanian folklore).

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Most analyses of Bartók’s Contrasts focus on abstract compositional ideas such as musical language, form, and motivic unity. Manuscript sources, however, show that practical considerations played an equally important role in the compositional process. Bartók adventurously exploited the potentials of the instruments (clarinet, violin and piano) as well as that of the musicians (Benny Goodman and Joseph Szigeti) for whom he composed the piece, but, within certain boundaries, he was also ready to make concessions to them. Since Bartók was commissioned to write Contrasts, the composition had to fill a number of essentially practical requirements. When he began composing, he had to regard as given some of the basic characteristics of the work such as the instrumentation, the need to include virtuoso cadenzas for both soloists, number, tempi, and approximate duration of movements, as well as some stylistic features. Even so, the composer did not adhere strictly to all of the requirements. The compositional process of Contrasts, therefore, can be interpreted as a simultaneous realization of both practical and abstract ideas.

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György Ligeti and his wife fled Hungary in December 1956, travelling through the night of the 11 and 12, and finally reaching Vienna the following day. The existing materials dating from Ligeti’s early emigration demonstrate particularly dynamic correspondence with three Hungarian expatriates: composers Sándor Veress and Mátyás Seiber, as well as the critic John S. Weissmann. 33 letters and postcards and a further 11 replies, held in the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, comprise a body of Ligeti’s correspondence with these colleagues dating between the final month of 1956 and the end of 1958. Although evidently incomplete, this unique collection offers novel perspectives surrounding the beginnings of Ligeti’s Western career. Reflecting expectations and future aspirations, these documents trace the excitements as well as challenges of “wiping the slate clean.” Encapsulating Ligeti’s evolving compositional interests and recounting the processes through which he forged new professional relationships, this correspondence reveals insights relating to the composer’s newly- emerging public image. Emigration brought many trials, yet upheaval simultaneously presented an opportunity to radically break with the past. Ligeti could redefine his professional identity as a composer. Although Ligeti felt uneasy in Cologne, it quickly became apparent that engaging in an official capacity with the Electronic Music Studio of the West German Radio (WDR) provided an extraordinary opportunity to establish himself in avant-garde musical circles. Initially shocked by these musical experiments, it was clear to Ligeti that his own creative path lay separate from the avant-garde scene with which he became acquainted in Cologne. Ligeti’s correspondence dating from these encounters indicates that he left Hungary with preconceived musical concepts and aspirations. His experiences with contemporary music rather provided the technical tools through which he could construct and articulate his own concepts, in a manner appearing current in the context of the Cologne-Darmstadt avant-garde.

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Regarding György Ligeti’s relation to ethnic music, his oeuvre can be divided into three periods. Until 1956 he used East European folk music in the manner of Hungarian composition of the 1940s and 1950s, but upon leaving Hungary he apparently rejected folkloristic inspiration. In his late period from 1978 on, however, ethnic musics became again central to his creative work, albeit in a basically different way than in his youth. This article provides an overview of Ligeti’s early folkloristic pieces and a brief characterization of his use of elements of Eastern European folklore in Le Grand Macabre, Hungarian Rock, Passacaglia ungherese and the Horn Trio. Finally, it traces back Ligeti’s “lamento melody,” that appears for the first time in the last movement of the Horn Trio, to certain types of the Hungarian folk lament. Ligeti’s references to folklore do not mean an idealization of his past, but are rather signs of an ambivalent attitude toward his own roots, in which nostalgic longing, ironic distancing, and desperate mourning are equally present.

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