György Ligeti

Beyond Avant-garde and Postmodernism. Translated by Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch

by Constantin Floros (Author)
©2014 Monographs VI, 252 Pages


This monograph is an authoritative study of the œuvre of one of the most important composers of our time. For the first time, Ligeti’s key works are presented in the context of their drafts and sketches. His personal and artistic development is set forth and illuminated, and his principal compositions are analyzed and reinterpreted, based on detailed studies of the scores and drafts, as well as on personal conversations with the composer. In addition, numerous questions concerning today’s composing are raised and discussed. Music does not have to be puristic: Ligeti’s spheres of interest are close to universal, embracing history, natural science, and visual arts, as well as music of diverse eras and ethnicities. This expanded world of the musical comprises not just tones and sounds, speech and music, the vocal and the instrumental: Ligeti conceives music as a cosmos of acoustic form.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • 1 Part One: Personality and Fundamental Aspects of the Work
  • 1.1 Biographical Sketch
  • 1.2 Questions of Identity
  • 1.3 Towards an Intellectual Physiognomy
  • 1.4 A “Non-Puristic” Music
  • 1.5 Metaphors, Allusions and Synaesthesias
  • 1.6 Innovativeness: Aspects of Compositional Technique
  • 1.7 Motion Types, Tonal Gestures and Expressive Characters
  • 1.8 Time and Space. Imaginary Space
  • 1.9 New Sound Images – New Semantemes. “Cystoscopy”, Vacuum and Music of the Spheres
  • 1.10 A “Double-Bottomed” Relation to Tradition
  • 1.11 Diversity of Inspirational Sources. A Universalist Concept of Art and Music
  • 1.12 New Ways of Transcending the Tempered System
  • 1.13 Backgrounds of Ligeti’s Popularity
  • 2 Part Two: Works
  • 2.1 Composing in the Homeland
  • 2.2 Going beyond Serialism
  • 2.3 Apparitions and the Dream of the Web
  • 2.4 Atmosphères – a Secret Requiem?
  • 2.5 Micropolyphony
  • 2.6 Language and Music in the Requiem
  • 2.7 Lux aeterna
  • 2.8 Continuum
  • 2.9 New Conceptions of the Concertante: Notes on the Cello Concerto
  • 2.10 On the Three Pieces for Two Pianos
  • 2.11 Mad World Theater: Le Grand Macabre
  • 2.12 The Turning Point ca. 1980
  • 2.13 Épater l’Avant-garde: Retrospective and Forward-Looking Elements in the Horn Trio
  • 2.14 Notes on the Hölderlin Fantasies
  • 2.15 Construction and Imagination: Principles of the Piano Etudes
  • 2.16 “Quasi-Equidistance” and Polyrhythm: Coordinates of the Piano Concerto
  • 2.17 The Violin Concerto
  • 2.18 The Horn Concerto
  • Afterword: Beyond Avantgarde and Postmodernism
  • 3 Part Three: Appendix
  • 3.1 Abbreviations
  • 3.2 Notes
  • 3.3 Register of Works
  • 3.4 Selected Bibliography
  • 3.5 Index of names


From September 30 to October 4, 1962, the Society of Musical Research held its International Musicological Convention in Kassel. I vividly recall the concluding session, on “Problems of Structure in Contemporary Music”, in which György Ligeti, in a captivating paper on electronic music, pleaded for a conception of music capable of accommodating also the interstitial/intermediate areas of the musical. His path-breaking presentation made such a powerful impression on me that I decided forthwith to concern myself at closer range with the works of the then 39-years-old, still relatively little-known composer.

After Ligeti’s appointment to the Hamburg Musikhochschule in 1973, I had repeated opportunities to be in contact with him and over the years got to know him as an altogether unconventional, intensely curious individual of profound wit and comprehensive knowledge and a warm-hearted friend. I began to scrutinize his works, whose musical idiom had always fascinated me, and to publish essays about them. It gave me particular pleasure to introduce some of his compositions, at times even before their first performance, in articles that appeared in the Swedish journal Nutida Musik. In 1975, Ligeti was awarded the noted Bach Prize in Hamburg, and I was chosen to present the eulogy. From 1987 on, I gave lectures about his music not only in Hamburg but in Vienna, in Graz, in Hitzacker, in Gütersloh and in the Rhine region.

In the spring of 1989, I told him of my intention to write a book about him. On July 24, he wrote me:

I read your eulogy with great pleasure and thank you most cordially for it. I think it is much too laudatory (but I can bear it …). I am also delighted that you will be giving a seminar about my music at the Musicological Institute next semester, and am equally delighted that you are writing a book about my music. If you need me, I am of course at your disposal. I will spend the summer in Vienna, but if you want to talk with me, Ms. Duchesneau will always know where to find me.

Of primary importance were the conversations I had with Ligeti in his Hamburg apartment. This book is initially based on these conversations and on an intensive study of his numerous writings and the many interviews he has given. The first (introductory) part centers on questions of biography, art and music theory, the psychology of creation and general aesthetics and concerns basic traits of Ligeti’s personality and work, his intellectual physiognomy and the phenomenology of his music. The more extensive second part comprises ← 1 | 2 → discussions of his most representative works, with special emphasis on the processes of creation. For the first time, Ligeti’s drafts will be an object of scholarly investigation in this book. I was particularly concerned to elucidate the genesis of his works, to outline the technical problems of composition that occupied him, to explore the relation between imagination and construction, and likewise to elucidate the extra-musical associations accompanying the compositional process.

A focal point of this study is the discernment that it is Ligeti’s synaesthetic endowment that opens up a deeper understanding of his music, a music that requires an analogous synaesthetic perception on the part of the listener. Synaesthetic aspects will therefore be continually considered in the analysis and interpretation of the works.

It goes without saying that this study, too, would not have come off without the support of dear friends and numerous amiable colleagues. My principal thanks are owed posthumously to György Ligeti for his patience in answering my questions and his permission to inspect the drafts and particelli of his works. Dr. Louise Duchesneau stood tirelessly by me throughout the writing of the original version. She got hold of books, scores, and recordings for me and advised me on numerous questions. My colleagues Prof. Peter Petersen and professor Albrecht Schneider kindly put recordings of radio interviews at my disposal. Mr. Péter Hálasz and Ms. Edit Spielmann helped me in rendering the Hungarian texts in Ligeti’s drafts. From conversations with the composers Wolfgang von Schweinitz, Professor Manfred Stahnke and Professor Altug Ünlü I derived valuable information about Ligeti as a teacher. The Universal Edition of Vienna, B. Schott’s Sons in Mainz and the Henry Litolff / C.F. Peters Publishing House in Frankfurt let me have important music material. My gratitude goes to all of them.

The present English translation of the book differs from the original German version by some substantial additions. Dr. Vera Ligeti kindly put some hitherto unknown portraits of her husband at my disposal. My friend Professor Dr. Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch of Indiana University once again provided a translation of uttermost scrupulosity and raised numerous questions, which we were able to clarify in our correspondence. My most cordial thanks go to him. I am also much obliged to Professor Dr. Altug Ünlü for the formatting of the volume, and to Michael Rücker and Andrea Kolb of the Peter Lang Publishing House for their generous editorial advice.

Hamburg, May 2014

Constantin Floros ← 2 | 3 →



Contacts over many years: letters of Ligeti to the author (top)
and to the editor of the Österreichische Musikzeitschrift (bottom)
← 3 | 4 →


image ← 4 | 5 →

1Part One:
Personality and Fundamental Aspects of the Work

← 5 | 6 →


image ← 6 | 7 →


image ← 7 | 8 →


image ← 8 | 9 →

1.1Biographical Sketch

“C’est la musique qui est ma seule passion.”1

“Work and workaday life somehow flow together for me.”2

“The affairs of daily life are regulated in such a way that there remains sufficient time for work.”3

“I want to be able to work more and faster. Hence the necessary changeover to ‘telegram style’ in all matters of life, so that enough time remains for composing.”4

From 1973 to 1988, György Ligeti served as professor of composition at the Music Academy in Hamburg. When he was asked whether his retirement signified a turning-point in his life, he firmly denied it, saying that his appointment in Hamburg had not seemed a caesura to him either, since he had previously taught also in Sweden and in the United States (at Stanford University). He was thus alluding to a continuity in his life, which had always centered on composing and teaching. Even so, it would be an exaggeration to say that there had been no incisive events in his life. One such event, for example, was his flight from Hungary to the West in December of 1956.

The first thing one wants to learn from the biography of a creative person is how he came to be what he is. To answer this question, one has to look into an entire complex of matters such as his/her socialization, training and development, the influences to which s/he was exposed, the historical circumstances under which s/he worked and so on. In Ligeti’s case that means that one has to search for explanations of his talent, his originality, his ability to implement the musically imagined, his openness to all things of the intellect, his strong scholarly and musico-ethnological interests, etc. These aspects will therefore be at the center of the following chapters.

György Ligeti was born on May 28, 1923 as the son of Jewish Hungarians, in Dicsöszentmárton, a small Transylvanian town that was part of Romania but whose inhabitants spoke Hungarian. His parents, the bank clerk Alexander Ligeti and the ophthalmologist Ilona Somogy, were from Budapest; both were music lovers. In a conversation with Reinhard Oehlschlägel, Ligeti told that even as a small, three- or four-year old child he got in the habit of imagining music5 – a habit he retained all his life. One begins to get a sense of what these imaginings were like once one has taken a look at the master’s sketches. They synaesthetically relate a rich musical vocabulary to literary impressions, visual sensations and psychic states. ← 9 | 10 →

In 1929, shortly before the boy turned six, the family moved to Cluj, the second-largest Romanian city of between 120,000 and 150,000 inhabitants and a center of culture. Here Ligeti attended elementary school and then the Gymnasium (secondary or prep school), and here he saw his first operas, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Verdi’s La Traviata, a work that put him in a regular trance. At the age of eight, he had his first concert experiences and began to listen intensively to music on the radio – a habit he was to retain for many years. He took particular delight in comparing the transmissions from Budapest with those from Bucharest.

The story of how he came to be a musician is a curious one.6 His father, who was unhappy in his profession and would have liked to be a free-lance writer (he authored several books), envisioned an academic career for his son, preferably as a natural scientist. Since he regarded him as overly playful, he for some time ignored the boy’s wish to learn to play an instrument (the violin). Then a lucky coincidence came to Ligeti’s aid. A violin teacher discovered that György’s younger brother, Gabor, had perfect pitch and prevailed upon Alexander Ligeti to let the boy take violin lessons; whereupon the fourteen-year-old György was able to insist on receiving piano lessons. Since there was no piano in the house, he had to practice at his piano teacher’s.

He made rapid progress on the instrument and within weeks began to compose. His first attempt was a waltz in A minor in the manner of Edvard Grieg. At fifteen, he wrote a string quartet, and when he was sixteen, he embarked on the composition of a symphony – one complete with a cannon shot and gunpowder explosion! Around this time he also immersed himself in the study of classical masterpieces and began to learn to play the timpani. For two years he performed in an amateur orchestra as a percussionist.

Meanwhile the political situation in central Europe had deteriorated markedly. From 1933 on, a Nazi movement began to grow in Romania. Jewish students were discriminated against in the schools and often beaten up. Ligeti, too, suffered the effects of such discrimination. Having brilliantly passed his abitur in May of 1941, he wanted the study mathematics and physics at Cluj University but learned that university study was denied to Jews. In the vain hope that the situation would soon change, he registered for courses in mathematics and physics at a kind of ersatz university of necessity improvised for Jews. At the same time he studied harmony and counterpoint with Ferenc Farkas at the Cluj Conservatory in order to acquire the needed technical expertise, and learned to play the cello and the organ. In the summers of 1942 and 1943, he took private lessons in composition with Pal Kádosa in Budapest. An event of decisive force was his encountering the music of Béla Bartók in the winter ← 10 | 11 → of 1941/42, an experience that very likely hastened his resolution to give up the study of mathematics, hopeless in any case, and to become a musician.

After the end of the war, still in 1945, Ligeti settled in Budapest. Here he studied at the Music Academy, initially counterpoint and fugue with Sandor Veress, who was regarded as the most important Hungarian composer after Bartók and Kodály, and then instrumentation and free composition again with Ferenc Farkas, who had meanwhile transferred to the renowned Budapest academy. He also completed studies in strict composition (strenger Satz, Palestrina-style), to which many years later he ascribed particular relevance also for his own compositional work. What, incidentally, he thought of his teachers we learn from an essay he published in 1949. He regarded Sandor Veress’s often barely accessible music as terrific, “full of hidden beauties,” which the listener had to seek out. Pál Kadosa he lauded as the boldest harmonist, as a composer whose works offered “a whole range of interesting formal problems, exciting metric and technical bravuras.” And Ferenc Farkas he praised as a master of vocal music, as the creator of the eminent lyrical cantata “Sankt-Johannes-Brunnen” (St. John’s Well) and as a composer of innovative lieder.7

Having passed his final examination at the Music Academy in 1949, Ligeti went on an extended trip through Romania, in order, following the example of Bartók and Kódaly, to research folk music. He collected and evaluated several hundred Transylvanian (Hungarian) folk songs during this journey. He also composed an exhaustive treatise on the improvised polyphony of Romanian folk music and its harmonic principles. This preoccupation bore abundant fruit. Ligeti began to adapt Hungarian and Romanian folk songs to all manner of instrumentations: piano, voice and piano, as well as chamber orchestra and chorus; he even wrote an orchestra piece entitled “Romanian Concerto.” By 1951 at the latest, however, the realization matured in him that he should distance himself from folklorism and differentiate himself from the Bartók succession. He began to search for new ways as a composer.


VI, 252
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (November)
Serialismus Mikropolyphonie Hoquetus Oper Anti-Oper Anti-Serialismus
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. VI, 252 pp., 18 coloured fig., 29 b/w fig. 45 graphs

Biographical notes

Constantin Floros (Author)

Constantin Floros is professor emeritus of Musicology at the University of Hamburg. Among his works are volumes on the origin of Gregorian neumes, about Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, Johannes Brahms, Ludwig van Beethoven and Alban Berg. Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch is professor emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at Indiana University. He has translated several books by Constantin Floros.


Title: György Ligeti
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