Translated by Kenneth Chalmers
“Folklore in Serious Music is a Lie” – Ligeti’s Relationship with Béla Bartók
György Ligeti complained bitterly on many occasions about the cultural policies of the post-1945 communist regime in Hungary. He would relate, not without indignation, that most of the major works of Béla Bartók as well as of many other leading composers (not only Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, but Debussy and Ravel too) were considered “new” and “decadent” and were not to be performed. Exceptions were the Concerto for Orchestra, Third Piano Concerto, the First and Sixth string quartets and the folk-song arrangements. The enforcement of “socialist realism” led all non-conformist musicians into internal exile. Much of what Ligeti composed during his time in Budapest was intended only for his desk drawer. “Composing for your drawer was like a badge of honour”.1
At the beginning of the 1990s Ligeti told me that during this time he had a quite ambivalent relationship with Bartók. On one hand he felt a deep devotion to the leading representative of modern Hungarian music. On the other, he was trying to free himself from his influence, having felt that he recognised Bartók’s affinity with Beethoven and that the occasional strong element of pathos in his music was essentially alien to him. On closer examination, the impression emerges that the nature of Ligeti’s relationship to Bartók did not remain constant. It seems to have undergone considerable fluctuations, and there were times when it was close and others when it was so distant that Ligeti was completely alienated from...
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