György Ligeti

In 1968, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was released; a dark story of humanity and mortality accompanied by immaculately selected orchestral music. One scene shows a 'Moonbus' flying through space to investigate the discovery of the monolith that introduced primeval apes to the concepts of envy, hatred and murder. As the spacecraft makes its lonely journey, we hear the agonisingly haunting Lux Aeterna by composer György Ligeti. When one understands the history of the composer and his experiences, Kubrick's use of his music at this point in the film becomes painfully fitting. Ligeti's music reflects the life and experiences of the man himself: a man who never settled into a single society and who struggled with his religion, nationality and identity. How fitting that his music be selected to accompany a scene of such inescapable and unimaginable loneliness and isolation.

The Young Ligeti

In the 1920s, Romania and Hungary were both trying to claim Transylvania as their own. European Jews were experiencing an increasing amount of animosity and Judaism was, more than ever before, being viewed as a race rather than a religion. This meant that Jews were expected to identify either by their nationality or their religion, not both. It was into this existence that György Ligeti was born in 1923 to a Hungarian-Jewish family, in Discoszenmárton, Romanian Transylvania. When György was six years old, he and his family moved to Cluj in northwest Romania. He developed a strong interest in music aged seven, after being taken to see performances of Mussorgsky's opera, Boris Godunov, and Verdi's La Traviata. Ligeti's father initially refused to let him learn a musical instrument, so it wasn't until he was fourteen that he started to have piano lessons. He produced his first composition very soon after: a waltz in A minor, strongly influenced by the piano works of Grieg. Ligeti's other early compositions include several other works for piano, string quartet and voice, and an unfinished symphony. The acquisition of a radio in the Ligeti house meant that György had regular access to the music of composers such as Wagner, Richard Strauss and Stravinsky, all of whom would go on to influence some of Ligeti's compositional styles and inspirations.

In 1941, Ligeti sat examinations to study physics and mathematics at the University of Cluj. Although he passed the exams, Nazi laws severely restricted Jewish university applicants, so Ligeti was rejected. As a result, his father grudgingly allowed him to pursue his interest in music. Thus it was that he was accepted into Cluj Conservatory as a student composer, despite having had no previous education in music theory or formal compositional practices. Here, he was taught by Ferenc Farkas, who had been taught by Ottorino Respighi. During the summers, Ligeti travelled to Budapest, receiving private lessons in composition from Pál Kadosa, an expert in the compositional style of Kodály.

In January 1944, Ligeti's studies were brought to an abrupt halt when he and many other Hungarian Jews were taken into forced labour for the remainder of the war. The rest of his family members were not so lucky: his parents, brother, uncle and aunt were deported to Auschwitz. Only his mother survived.

After the Second World War, Ligeti fled Hungary amid anti-communist uprisings and travelled to several European cities before finally settling in Vienna.

How fitting that the later music of this man - the Hungarian Jew, born in a country that ceased to exist, growing up in a country that did not speak his language, rejected from his first-choice career, a victim of the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe, and ultimately stripped even of his name in a labour camp – should become synonymous with Stanley Kubrick's iconic scene of deafening silence and total isolation. In his own words:

I was born in 1923 in Transylvania as a Rumanian citizen. As a child, though, I didn't speak Rumanian, nor were my parents Transylvanians... My mother tongue is Hungarian, but I'm not really a true Hungarian, as I'm a Jew. Yet I'm not a member of a Jewish congregation, therefore I'm an assimilated Jew. I'm not completely assimilated, however, because I'm not baptized. Today, as an adult, I live in Austria and Germany and have been an Austrian citizen for a long time. But I'm not a real Austrian either, only an immigrant, and my German will always have a Hungarian accent.

Death as Disaster

Ligeti made three attempts to compose a requiem, finally completing it in 1965, some twenty years after the torturous experiences of World War II. His first attempt came shortly after the war, whilst still living in Hungary in the late 1940s. His second attempt came in the early 1950s while teaching in Budapest, and he revisited the project once again in 1956 on his arrival in Austria after fleeing Hungary when an uprising against the post-war Soviet regime was quelled.

Ligeti admitted a life-long fascination with the text of the requiem mass, specifically the Dies Irae sequence, which he said would be his primary reason for setting the entire mass to music. Ligeti's Requiem is both touching and haunting, requiring the listener to access and appreciate a completely new sound world. Ligeti moves away from any form of tonality. In fact, he admits to 'over-writing' the score, demanding complex rhythms and clusters of chromatic dissonance that are almost impossible to sing accurately. Ligeti was creating what he described as a 'kind of microtonality'. His intention was to create musical effects that could not be achieved through the tempered scale and were not reliant on precision or rhythm and pitch; Ligeti was composing 'mistuned music.' There is barely any centre of pulse of tonality to be heard, audibly illustrating confusion and despair. By dispensing with tonal and metric confinements, Ligeti focused instead on making the music raw and honest in its representation, brutally and candidly conveying the horror and sorrow of  displacement, death and inhumanity.

Ligeti's interest in the requiem is most remarkable because he was Jewish. Initially, it seems peculiar that somebody of Jewish descent should choose to take compositional inspiration from a Catholic mass. However, there are two points here that must be considered. Firstly, the requiem mass had made a noticeable progression from church to concert hall. The early requiem masses, composed by the likes of Ockaghem and Dufay, were composed purely to accompany church services. Later, through a line of composers including Mozart, Verdi and Berlioz, the requiem became a symphonic spectacle, not for Christian worship but for the concert hall. Secondly, Ligeti's intention in composing the requiem was what he described as 'a funeral mass for the whole of humanity'. Thus, it made sense for him to use a text that would strike a chord with the greatest possible number of people: that of the requiem mass, which Ligeti treated not with respectful beauty but with a harsh, sometimes aggressive, realism, to create an Antonin Artaud-esque 'theatre of cruelty', whereby audience and performers alike should not necessarily take enjoyment from a performance but should instead be personally and morally challenged, in the rawest, most honest and most brutal ways.

Death as Comedy

In 1977 Ligeti completed his only opera, Le Grand Macabre (The Great Macabre). Alongside politics, sex and debauchery, the underlying theme of the opera is death. The opera begins with Death announcing the impending end of the world, before exploring how humanity would spend its final hours, including copious consumption of alcohol and love-making. The opera ends with the triumph of humankind over death, and the death of Death himself. The music itself borders on the surreal. The orchestration alone is remarkable, requiring such percussion as chromatic car horns and an alarm clock, while the vocal writing calls for self-parody of the singers; the characters are intentionally melodramatic, directly mocking Western stereotypes of operatic singers, epitomised by a scene where two lovers are required to perform a notated and fully orchestrated orgasm.

What is particularly notable is the satirical approach that Ligeti takes towards the subject of death, particularly in comparison to his dark and painful Requiem some twenty years previously. Ligeti's writing of both music and libretto creates an awkward and out-of-place ‘gallows humour’. A year after writing Le Grande Macabre he is reported to have said: 'As a child, I was very frequently afraid, but in my imagination I created a world in which I found relief from the terror.' It is clear that his imagination contributed not only to his creativity but also to his very survival. It is unclear why Ligeti shows such a drastic change in approach to the subject of death in this later work, but it is strangely fitting that a man with so much confusion surrounding his national and religious identity should display such varied and ever-changing ways of expressing thoughts on a subject that was so close to his heart.

Despite the flippancy with which Ligeti treats his subject, the opera has a significant moral,  manifested in the closing chorus:

            Fear not to die, good people all!
            No one knows when his hour will fall.
            And when it comes, then let it be...
            Farewell, till then, live merrily!

Displacement, Loss and Identity

It sometimes seems that Western music tradition is centred on nationality. Nearly every European country has a list of great composers whose music is seen to encapsulate their culture; the passion and power of Beethoven is regarded as quintessentially German, while the pomp and circumstance of Elgar's music is claimed to sum up what Britain stands for. Similarly, many composers are inspired by traditions of their own countries. Bartók's music draws very strongly from Hungarian folk song traditions, while much of Shostakovich's music was composed as a reaction to the political climate in Russia. So how does one interpret the work of a composer with no true nationality?

            Arguably, one can assume that a composer who has no particular national affiliation has more personal, expressive and artistic freedom. With no national expectations and traditions, a composer surely has fewer restrictions both in what is expected of their music and in how their music will be interpreted and regarded by their fellow countrymen. Ligeti's music is certainly 'free'; free from the restrictions of tonality and pulse. Without the displacement that Ligeti suffered, he would surely never have developed the compositional voice that he did. Had the Hungarians 'claimed him', he may have felt bound to write 'Hungarian' music. Had he not experienced the loss and pain of the holocaust, his Requiem would not have had such a deep story to tell. To quote Ligeti once again:

There is no doubt that... everything that happens around an artist, social and economic circumstances, wars, technical developments, cultural surroundings and his own general attitude to life leave their mark... One dimension of my music bears the imprint of a long time spent in the shadow of death.

It is through Ligeti's music that we see a man who saw himself merely as a man, with no cultural, national or religious restrictions; a man who has experienced friendship, love, joy and humour, but also pain, confusion and loss. He had experienced lucky escapes alongside unbearable loss; life alongside death. Who else could write a comedy about the death of Death and Requiem for humanity?

By Kevin Withell


Richard Steinitz, György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination, (London: Faber and Faber, 2003)

Paul Griffiths, György Ligeti, (London: Robson Books, 1983)

György Ligeti, Peter Varnai, Josef Hausler and Claude Samuel, György Ligeti in Conversation, (London: Eulenberg Books, 1983)

Wolfgang Marx, 'The Concept of Death in György Ligeti's Oeuvre,' in György Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds, ed. Louise Duchesneau and Wolfgang Marx, (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2011)

Rachel Beckles Willson, Ligeti, Kurtag and Hungarian Music during the Cold War, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Marina Labanova, György Ligeti: Style, Ideal, Poetics, (Berlin: Verlag Ernst Kuhn, 2002)

György Ligeti, Mein Judentem, ed. H.J.Schultz, (Berlin, Kreuz Verlag, 1978)

Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, (London: Chatto and Windus, 1993)

Florian Scheding, 'Where is the Holocaust in All of This? György Ligeti and the Dialects of Life and Work,' in Dislocated Memories, ed. Tina Frühauf and Lily Hirsch, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014)

Suggested listening:

György Ligeti – Lux Aeterna (1966)

György Ligeti – Requiem (1965)

György Ligeti – Le Grande Macabre - Death as Comedy (1977)

Elgar Howarth, after György Ligeti – Mysteries of the Macabre (1991)