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György Ligeti

György Sándor Ligeti (May 28, 1923 – June 12, 2006) was a composer, born in a Hungarian Jewish family in Transylvania, Romaniamarker. He briefly lived in Hungarymarker before later becoming an Austrianmarker citizen. Many of his works are well known in classical music circles, but to the general public, he is best known for the various pieces featured in the Stanley Kubrick films 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut.


Ligeti was born in Târnava-Sânmărtin (in Hungarian - Dicsőszentmárton , renamed Târnăvenimarker in 1945), in the Transylvania region of Romaniamarker to a Hungarian Jewish family. Ligeti recalls that his first exposure to languages other than Hungarian came one day while listening to a conversation among the Romanian-speaking town police. Before that he hadn't known that other languages existed. He moved to Clujmarker (Kolozsvár) with his family when he was 6 and he was not to return to the town of his birth until the 1990s.

Ligeti received his initial musical training in the conservatory at Kolozsvár Clujmarker. In 1943, after the takeover of Northern Transylvania by Hungary following the Second Vienna Award, his education was interrupted when, as a Jew, he was sent to a forced labor brigade by the Horthy regime. His brother, at the age of sixteen, was deported to the Mauthausenmarker concentration camp; his parents were both sent to Auschwitzmarker. His mother was the only other survivor of the immediate family.

Following the war, Ligeti returned to his studies in Budapestmarker, Hungary, graduating in 1949. He studied under Pál Kadosa, Ferenc Farkas, Zoltán Kodály and Sándor Veress. He went on to do ethnomusicological work on Romanianmarker folk music, but after a year returned to his old school in Budapest, this time as a teacher of harmony, counterpoint and musical analysis. However, communications between Hungary and the West by then had been undergoing difficulties due to the communist government, and Ligeti and other artists were effectively cut off from the recent developments outside the Soviet bloc. In December 1956, two months after the Hungarian revolution was put down by the Soviet Army, he fled first to Viennamarker and eventually took Austrian citizenship.

In Cologne he was able to meet several key avant-garde figures and to learn the more contemporary musical styles and methods. These included the composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gottfried Michael Koenig, both then working on groundbreaking electronic music. Ligeti worked in the same Cologne studio, and was inspired by the sounds he heard there. However, he produced little electronic music of his own, instead concentrating on instrumental works which often contain electronic-sounding textures.

From this time, Ligeti's work became better known and respected, and his best known work might be said to span the period from Apparitions (1958-9) to Lontano (1967), although his later opera, Le Grand Macabre (1978) is also fairly well-known. In more recent years, his three books of Études for piano have become better known thanks to recordings made by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Fredrik Ullén, and others.

Ligeti took a teaching post at the Hamburg Hochschule für Musik und Theatermarker in 1973, retiring in 1989. In the early 1980s, he tried to find a new stylistic position (closer to "tonality"), leading to an absence from the musical scene for several years until he reappeared with the Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano (1982). From then on, his output was plentiful through the 1980s and 1990s. However, health problems became severe after the turn of the millennium, and no further vocal pieces appeared after the song cycle Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel ("With Pipes, Drums, Fiddles", 2000). Ligeti's last original work to be completed is the eighteenth piano etude of 2001, "Canon." This title and the form of the etude recall the musical language of Ligeti's central European homeland.

Ligeti died in Vienna on June 12, 2006. Although it was known that Ligeti had been ill for several years and had used a wheelchair the last three years of his life, his family declined to release the cause of his death. Ligeti's funeral was held at the Vienna Crematorium at the Zentralfriedhofmarker, the Republic of Austria and the Republic of Hungary represented by their respective cultural affairs ministers. The ashes were finally buried at the Zentralfriedhofmarker in a grave dedicated to him by the City of Vienna.

Aside from his musical interests, Ligeti was interested in literature, for example in Lewis Carroll, and the arts, in architecture, in science and mathematics, especially in the fractal geometry of Benoît Mandelbrot, and in Douglas Hofstadter.

Ligeti was the grand-nephew of the great violinist Leopold Auer. Ligeti's son, Lukas Ligeti, is a composer and percussionist based in New York City.


Ligeti's earliest works are an extension of the musical language of Béla Bartók. The piano pieces, Musica ricercata (1951–53), for example, are often compared to Bartók's set of piano works, Mikrokosmos. Ligeti's set comprises eleven pieces in all. The first uses almost exclusively just one pitch A, heard in multiple octaves. Only at the very end of the piece is a second note, D, heard. The second piece then uses three notes (E#, F#, and G), the third piece uses four, and so on, so that in the eleventh piece all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are present. (The second ricercata is used extensively in Stanley Kubrick's film Eyes Wide Shut.)

Already at this early stage in his career, Ligeti was affected by the communist regime in Hungary at that time. The tenth piece of Musica ricercata was banned by the authorities on account of it being "decadent." Given the far more radical direction that Ligeti was looking to take his music in, it is hardly surprising that he felt the need to leave Hungary.

Upon arriving in Cologne, he began to write electronic music alongside Karlheinz Stockhausen. He completed only two works in this medium, however, including Glissandi (1957) and Artikulation (1958), before returning to instrumental music. A third work, originally entitled Atmosphères but later known as Pièce électronique no.3, was planned; however, the technical limitations of the time prevented Ligeti from realizing it completely. It was finally realized in 1996 by the Dutch composers Kees Tazelaar, Johan van Kreij and Paul Berg. Ligeti's music appears to have been subsequently influenced by his electronic experiments, and many of the sounds he created resembled electronic textures. Apparitions (1958-59) was the first work that brought him to critical attention, but it is his next work, Atmosphères, that is better known today. It was used, along with excerpts from Lux Aeterna and Requiem, in the soundtrack to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey but without Ligeti's permission.

Atmosphères (1961) is written for large orchestra and is not musically related to the earlier electronic piece of the same name, although some of its aesthetic intentions are similar. It is seen as a key piece in Ligeti's output, laying out many of the concerns he would explore through the 1960s. Out of the four elements of music — melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre — the piece almost completely abandons the first three, concentrating on the texture of the sound, a technique known as sound mass. It opens with what must be one of the largest cluster chords ever written — every note in the chromatic scale over a range of five octaves is played at once. Out of the fifty-six string players ushering in the first chord, no two play the same note. The piece seems to grow out of this initial massive, but very quiet, chord, with the textures always changing. For this compositional technique not only used in the aforementioned work, Atmosphères, but also in Apparitions and his other works of the time, Ligeti coined the term "micropolyphony".

The Requiem for soprano, mezzo-soprano, five-voice chorus, and orchestra is a four-movement work in the same totally-chromatic style as Atmosphères. The Kyrie of this work received wide currency in the enigmatic monolith scenes in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a massive (twenty-part choral) quasi-fugue where the counterpoint is re-thought in terms of the material, consisting of melismatic masses interpenetrating and alternating with complex skipping parts. In the last instance quoted in the movie (at Jupiter: Beyond the Infinite, (interrupted by a loud radio-tone screech from the monolith) segues to the opening of Atmosphères. The penultimate movement, "de Die Judicii Sequentia" (Day of Judgement Sequence) is a montage of contrasts: fff loud versus ppp soft, masses of sound versus soloists, etc. In the final movement, "Lacrimosa" (weeping), the chorus is muted, and only a reduced orchestra accompanies the plangent singing of the soloists.

Lux Aeterna is a 16-voice a cappella piece whose text is also associated with the Latin Requiem, which also was partially used in Kubrick’s movie (for the moon-bus scene en route to the TMA-1 monolith in the crater Tycho). The piece is strongly modeled after the masterful mensuration canons of Johannes Ockeghem and accomplishes much the same effect, but with secundal, rather than tertian harmony, in a paradoxically thick-but-transparent 16-voice texture.

The third Kubrick use of Ligeti’s music was from his mimodrama Aventures (in the even more cryptic final scenes), distorted by an echo chamber.

From the 1970s, Ligeti turned away from total chromaticism and began to concentrate on rhythm. Pieces such as Continuum (1970) and Clocks and Clouds (1972–73) were written before he heard the music of Steve Reich and Terry Riley in 1972, yet the second of his Three Pieces for Two Pianos, "Self-portrait with Reich and Riley (and Chopin in the background)," commemorates this affirmation and influence. He also became interested in the rhythmic aspects of African music, specifically that of the Pygmies. In the mid-seventies he wrote his first opera, Le Grand Macabre, a work of absurd theatre with many eschatological references.

His music of the 1980s and 1990s continued to emphasize complex mechanical rhythms, often in a less densely chromatic idiom (tending to favor displaced major and minor triad and polymodal structures). Particularly significant is the Piano Concerto (1985–88), which Ligeti described as a statement of his "aesthetic credo". Also important are his Études pour piano (Book I, 1985; Book II, 1988-94; Book III, 1995–2001), which draw from such diverse sources as gamelan, African polyrhythms, Bartók, Conlon Nancarrow, and Bill Evans; Book I was notably written as preparation for the Piano Concerto, which contains a number of similar motivic and melodic elements. Other notable works in this vein include the Horn Trio (1982), the Violin Concerto (1992), and the a cappella Nonsense Madrigals (1993), one of which sets the text of the alphabet.

Ligeti's last works were the Hamburg Concerto for horn and chamber orchestra (1998-99, revised 2003), the song cycle Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel ("With Pipes, Drums, Fiddles", 2000), and the last and eighteenth piano etude "Canon," 2001.




  • Concert românesc (1951)
  • Apparitions (1958-59)
  • Atmosphères (1961)
  • Lontano (1967)
  • Ramifications, for string orchestra or 12 solo strings (1968-69)
  • Chamber Concerto, for 13 instrumentalists (1969-70)
  • Melodien (1971)
  • San Francisco Polyphony (1973-74)


  • Cello Concerto (1966), for Siegfried Palm
  • Double Concerto for Flute, Oboe and Orchestra (1972)
  • Piano Concerto (1985-88)
  • Violin Concerto (1992)
  • Hamburg Concerto, for Horn and Chamber Orchestra with 4 Obligato Natural Horns (1998-99, revised 2003)


  • Idegen földön, Betlehemi királyok, Bujdosó, Húsvét, Magány, Magos kősziklának, (1946)
  • Three Weöres Songs, voice and piano (1946-7)
  • Lakodalmas (1950)
  • Hortobágy (1951)
  • Haj, ifjuság (1952)
  • Five Arany Songs, voice and piano (1952)
  • Inaktelki nóták, Pápainé (1953)
  • Mátraszentimrei dalok, Éjszaka (Night), Reggel (Morning), for choir a capella (1955)
  • Aventures (1962)
  • Nouvelles Aventures (1962-65)
  • Requiem, for soprano and mezzo-soprano solo, mixed chorus and orchestra (1963–65)
  • Lux Aeterna, for 16 solo voices (1966)
  • Clocks and Clouds, for 12 female voices (1973)
  • Three Fantasies After Friedrich Hölderlin, for 16 voices (1982)
  • Nonsense madrigals, for 6 male voices (1988–1993)
  • Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedűvel (With Pipes, Drums, Fiddles) (2000)


  • Sonate, for solo cello (1948/1953)
  • Andante and Allegretto, for string quartet (1950)
  • Baladă şi joc (Ballad and Dance), for two violins (1950)
  • Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet (1953)
  • String Quartet No. 1 Métamorphoses nocturnes (1953-54)
  • String Quartet No. 2 (1968)
  • Ten Pieces for Wind Quintet (1968)
  • Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano (1982)
  • Hommage à Hilding Rosenberg, for violin and cello (1982)
  • Sonata for Solo Viola (1991-94)



See also, List of solo piano compositions by György Ligeti
  • Induló (March), four-hands (1942)
  • Polifón etüd (Polyphonic Étude), four-hands (1943)
  • Allegro, four-hands (1943)
  • Capriccio nº 1 & nº 2 (1947)
  • Invention (1948)
  • Három lakodalmi tánc (Three Wedding Dances), four-hands (1950)
    • (I. A kapuban a szeker, II. Hopp ide tisztan, III. Csango forgos)
  • Sonatina, four-hands (1950)
  • Musica ricercata (1951–1953)
  • Chromatische Phantasie (1956)
  • Trois Bagatelles (1961)
  • Three Pieces for Two Pianos (1976)
    • (I. Monument, II. Selbstportrait mit Reich und Riley (und Chopin ist auch dabei), III. In zart fliessender Bewegung)
  • Études pour piano, Book 1, six etudes (1985)
  • Études pour piano, Book 2, eight etudes (1988-94)
  • Études pour piano, Book 3, four etudes (1995–2001)


  • Ricercare - Omaggio a Girolamo Frescobaldi (1951)
  • Volumina (1961-62, revised 1966)
  • Two Studies for Organ (Coulée, Harmonies, 1967, 1969)


  • Continuum (1968)
  • Passacaglia ungherese (1978)
  • Hungarian Rock (Chaconne) (1978)


  • Glissandi, electronic music (1957)
  • Artikulation, electronic music (1958)



Ligeti's music shows the influence of many composers, musicians, artists, writers from different centuries, countries and cultures, including the 15th century composer Johannes Ockeghem and the American 20th century composers Harry Partch and Conlon Nancarrow.


Notable students

See also


External links

Obituaries and remembrances

Other links

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