A survivor from Transylvania: the life of György Ligeti

The centenary of György Ligeti’s birth is an occasion to reflect on the life of one of the 20th century’s most remarkable musicians. It was a life that did much to reflect the extreme conditions that artists had to face in the middle years of the century, especially those in Eastern Europe.

Ligeti is also unusual, among composers of his generation, in having supervised and authorised a biography. Published towards the end of his life, this was not something that was pursued by Ligeti’s contemporaries. (For instance, Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio and Nono all lack authorised biographies composed while they were alive.)

Thus Ligeti’s biographer, Richard Steinitz, is unusual in being able to account for Ligeti’s complex and traumatic early life in authoritative detail. “We went through every page of the manuscript, Ligeti commenting, suggesting changes, adding to things I had written,” Steinitz tells me, when we speak by phone. “I spent eight hours a day, for three days, going through it with him. That was a rare commitment ... It was a biography but it was almost an autobiography.”

Steinitz is a long-standing musicologist (and now Professor Emeritus) at the University of Huddersfield and is the founder of Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, which since 1978 has grown to become the largest contemporary music festival in Europe. In that capacity he came to know many of the most significant figures in postwar composition.

Steinitz’s relationship with Ligeti was the closest – he was able to review Ligeti’s unpublished manuscripts and sketches, before they were deposited in libraries and archives. “When I was writing the book, in 2000, at that stage Ligeti had still got all his manuscripts and composition attempts – piles and piles of different versions of works. They were all under his piano. I thought, yes, it’d be interesting to look at those!” Steinitz’s 2003 biography, György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination, contains excerpts of unfinished pieces from the 1940s, never seen before. He later wrote about Ligeti’s long struggle to reinvent his compositional style in the late 1970s, for a book edited by Louise Duchesneau, the composer’s assistant of many years. “One felt a bit like a detective!”

In later years, Ligeti “had a very rewarding life,” Steinitz tells me. “He worked with so many different musicians and was admired and valued by so many, because of his personality, because of the originality of the music, because of his liking for working closely with people. The act of creation was something he shared with people for whom he wrote. But his life had its great sadnesses too.”

Without Ligeti’s direct assistance, much of his early life would have remained obscure. A great amount had to be left behind when he and his wife Vera escaped in 1956. Moreover, in 1944–5, almost the entirety of Ligeti’s family was murdered by the Nazis. In the year-long German occupation of Hungary, the Germans ordered the transportation and extermination of 550,000 Jews, with assistance from the Hungarian government. Of Ligeti’s family, only his mother survived – she escaped being murdered at Auschwitz because of her training as a doctor.

The young György was especially close to his elder brother Gábor, who began to learn the violin in 1936. György protested to be allowed to learn an instrument too, and so shortly after took up the piano. The Ligetis, while not wealthy, were an artisanal-professional clan. György’s grandfather Antal had been a well-known painter of landscapes and murals; his great-uncle was the famed violinist Leopold Auer (the German Aue and Hungarian liget are roughly equivalent, meaning “meadow”). Auer’s many students included Jascha Heifetz, and a number of Russian composers, including Tchaikovsky, wrote works for him.

As a child, György was deeply imaginative. The small town in which he grew up, Dicsőszentmárton, was surrounded by factories – one of which was run by another uncle, a typesetter, to whom he grew close. The experience of the clattering typesetting machines, the nearby glassworks and paper mills and brick factories, would lead to a lifelong fascination with all things mechanical. He wanted to be a scientist, and kept a small chemical lab in a drawer at home. He also created an elaborate fictional country, “Kylwiria”, drawing large maps and filling notebooks with accounts of its every detail. “I wrote descriptions of the geological constitution of the mountains, deserts and rivers,” Ligeti later said, “studies about the social system, and invented a thoroughly ‘logical’ language, even working out the grammar.”

In 1941, Ligeti took entrance examinations for physics and mathematics at the University of Kolozsvár (Cluj). But by this time, the Hungarian government had passed legal restrictions for Jewish Hungarians: only a single Jewish student could be admitted to the university in the natural sciences, and Ligeti could not be admitted. It was this restriction that forced Ligeti to the Kolozsvár music conservatory – its director, Viktor Vaszy, chose not to disbar Jewish students from entry.

During the war, Ligeti was remarkably lucky to survive. In 1943 he was called up to join a Jewish labour battalion in Szeged. In 1944, after the Germans occupied, most of the labourers were sent to copper mines in Serbia, where after months of work, they would be summarily shot by the SS. Ligeti himself only narrowly avoided this fate, being detached from the rest of the battalion in the ghetto of Nagyvárad, near Budapest. Later, during the Soviet summer offensive, Ligeti was taken prisoner by Soviet forces. Marched back to Soviet-occupied Nagyvárad, the column of prisoners was interrupted at right angles by a line of Soviet tanks. Ligeti was separated, and was miraculously able to escape. Without this chance occurrence, he almost certainly would have been sent to Siberia.

In the immediate postwar years, Ligeti met his contemporary, the composer György Kurtág. Together they were determined to rejuvenate Hungarian music. Both students at the Budapest conservatory, they eagerly awaited the return of Béla Bartók to his old professorship. The death of Bartók in 1945 sent shockwaves through the entire Hungarian cultural community, only just beginning to reemerge after years of war and repression. More repression was to follow: after 1948, almost all of Bartók’s works would be banned.

Ligeti and Kurtág’s hopes to continue the chromatic manner of Bartók were foreclosed by this imposition – music for public performance had to be optimistic and sunny, and dissonant chromatic music had to be hidden or smuggled westward. Ligeti spent much of this time writing text books on music theory and studying folk music in Romania. He also had opportunities to escape to the West while travelling through Berlin in the early 1950s, but elected not to – to do so would have meant abandoning his friend (and later wife) Vera, whose family were threatened with deportation unless she married Ligeti.

In 1956, much changed. Ligeti began correspondence with composers and musicians in the West, including Stockhausen, who informed Ligeti of a broadcast of Gesang de Junglinge. Ligeti listened to the broadcast from a small radio in the midst of the Hungarian uprising in Budapest in November. Shortly after, he and Vera, carrying a few possessions and a handful of Ligeti’s compositions, would be smuggled in a small car across the Austrian border.

What impact did this profound trauma have on Ligeti’s music? Ligeti wished to view music as separate from society, to exist for its own sake and according to its own principles. But the trauma of loss, and mourning, is something that frequently recurs in Ligeti’s music, in abstracted form. In particular, it shows itself through the repeated use of the chromatic lament, derived from the Romanian bocet. It is a song-form typically performed by professional mourners, and as such is a kind of stock musical gesture. In Ligeti’s music, it becomes a kind of pattern or habit, an idée fixe, applied in a myriad of textures and situations.

“My music bears the imprint of a long time spent in the shadow of death”, Ligeti later said, “both as an individual and as a member of a group. Not that it lends a tragic quality to my music, quite the opposite. Anyone who has been through horrific experiences is not likely to create terrifying works of art in all seriousness. He is more likely to alienate.” Even the Requiem, which one might think is a direct engagement with death, was constructed by Ligeti using an elaborate matrix of rules for its many layers of dense chromatic counterpoint.

The descending lament is something present in a few of Ligeti’s early works, notably in his song Mágany (Solitude), his first setting of a poem by Sándor Weöres. In some middle-period works it is also present too, such as Melodien, passages in the Three Pieces for Two Pianos, but it really resurfaces concertedly in the 1982 Horn Trio, where the entire last movement is framed around it.

From the 1980s on, all of his works would use the descending chromatic lament at some point. It is a repeated feature of the Études, notably No. 6 “Autumn in Warsaw”, and is highly prominent in the Piano Concerto (particularly the second and third movements). In a myriad of works, it is played on everything from strings and woodwinds to ocarinas, slide whistles and harmonicas.

If there is a movement which most directly responds to Ligeti’s life experience, it might be the fourth movement of the Violin Concerto. The entire work displays a marked return to interest in Romanian and Hungarian folk music (its original first movement was even more replete with folk-inspired materials, so much so that Ligeti thought it too much and threw it out after the 1990 premiere). In the concerto’s fourth movement there is a sudden change in mood: a slow passacaglia, which uses a repeating pattern of five rising chromatic pitches – an “inverted” lament. Against this, the solo violin begins by holding high-tensile lines at the top of its range, before a series of abrupt outbursts.

The movement culminates with as close to a direct scream of anguish as we ever hear in Ligeti’s music. The woodwinds head ever upwards towards the top of their ranges, pushed to the very extremes of their capabilities. The violin, when not interjecting powerful quadruple stops, dwells on folk-imbued modal melodies, shadowed by tremolo strings. The strange sense of quiet tension at the beginning is gradually and inexorably pushed towards catastrophe. I find it impossible, in this movement, not to think of Ligeti’s brother, Gábor, the violinist, murdered at the age of seventeen through an injection into his heart.

Richard Steinitz’s György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination is published by Faber & Faber.
See listings of forthcoming performances of music by György Ligeti.

Source: https://bachtrack.com/

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