A guide to Ligeti's style
One of the most distinctive and original voices of Modernism, György Ligeti's music was complex, clever and challenging, yet surprisingly down to earth. Here's a guide to his style...
Ligeti explores textural landscapes, often punctuated by extreme outbursts, or ‘super-cooled expressionism’ as he called it. In Atmosphères, his famous textural piece from the 1960s, the music appears to be in constant flux. Ligeti explored high-density textures – also found in the work of Xenakis (above) and Penderecki – until the mid-1970s, using them for the last time in San Francisco Polyphony.
Micropolyphony was the word Ligeti used to describe his way of building up textures – huge static sound masses, often chromatic and dissonant – from different melodic fragments. This idea of movement in the inner voices creating an outer wall of sound is explored (in his own ‘meccanico style’) in his Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes.
Ligeti made a study of the medieval and Renaissance polyphonists, declaring that the melodic lines of both Atmosphères and Lontano were ‘governed by rules as strict as Palestrina’s or those of the Flemish school’. Like Ockeghem in the 15th century, he layers vocal entries to create a sense of continuity.
Bartók’s influence can be heard in the folk-driven themes of Ligeti’s early Concert Românesc, but later in life, Ligeti explored ethnic music around the world, experimenting with non-Western tuning, and the complex rhythms of South American and African music.
The Ligeti Project
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano); Schoenberg Ensemble; Berlin Phil/Jonathan Nott etc
Teldec Classics 2564-69673-5(5 discs)
Overseen by Ligeti, this set represents a summation of his work in playing of an exceptional standard.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Sony Classical SK62308
The brilliant Aimard makes light and lucid work of Ligeti’s great and complex work for solo piano.
Le grand macabre
ORF Symphony Orchestra/Elgar Howarth
Award-winning recording of Ligeti’s operatic comedy about the end of the world, with Dieter Weller in the role of Nekrotzar (Dracula).
String Quartets Nos 1 & 2
Virgin 336 9342
From the Bartók-inspired First to the modernist Second, Ligeti’s quartets are heard here in exemplary performances.
Original text by Nick Shave / Photo: Marcel Antonisse / Anefo [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl]
Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.