Gyorgy Ligeti, 83; a Mercurial Composer Who Despised Dogmas

Times Staff Writer

Gyorgy Ligeti, a musical giant respected for his ability to simultaneously honor and modernize musical traditions and a cult pop figure whose work was used in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” to evoke the mystery of outer space, died Monday in Vienna. He was 83.

The composer, who began an opera with a honking “Car Horn Prelude,” had been in poor health for much of his life and suffered from a combination of diseases. The cause of his death was not given.

Born in Romanian Transylvania of Hungarian Jewish descent, Ligeti studied in Budapest and his musical roots were Hungarian. He survived the Holocaust as well as a harrowing escape from Communist-controlled Budapest in 1956 to Germany, but he loathed all forms of sentimentality and he reflected his tragic relationship with Hungary mostly though his surreal sensibility and ear for bizarre and unforgettable sonorities and textures.


In concertos, string quartets, orchestra and chamber pieces, piano etudes or opera, he demonstrated a compelling sense of form and an instinct for propulsive, unpredictable rhythm. But he was impossible to pin down. He absorbed rules, whether those of neoclassicism, the 12-tone system, Minimalism, African polyrhythms or microtonality; but he jealously guarded his artistic freedom and subscribed to no dogmas.

A student of theories of time and space, of chance and determinacy, he explored those concepts in a 1962 work for 100 metronomes, “Poeme Symphonique.” He also had a caustic wit, a taste for sarcasm and a well-developed feel for irony, all of which are evident in his surreal opera, “Le Grand Macabre,” in which he subsumes his anger at human suffering in an illicit parody that can so thrill and terrify that an audience hardly knows whether to laugh or cry.

“I don’t like the idea of lists,” Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s music director, who conducted Ligeti’s “Requiem” at Walt Disney Concert Hall last month, said when reached in Finland for comment. “But yesterday I would have said that Ligeti qualified as one of the very, very few best living composers.”

Noting how his work can “go through the full scale of incredible complexity and amazing simplicity and everything in between,” Salonen credited Ligeti with being an important influence on him as a conductor as well as a composer. “We spoke a lot about music,” Salonen said. “He was very interested in the idea of continuity and he hated disruptions of the flow. That influenced my thinking even about other people’s music, such as Brahms.”

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the French pianist for whom Ligeti wrote 18 etudes of enormous technical difficulty, said Monday that by integrating so many different layers into his piano music, including jazz and Pygmy music, the composer reinvented the way of playing the instrument and how it sounds. “You still move your fingers over the keyboard,” Aimard said by telephone from Lyon, France, “but everything else is different.”

Gyorgy Sandor Ligeti was born May 28, 1923, in Dicsoszentmarton, a small Hungarian town in what was then Romania, and grew up in another small Romanian town, Cluj. In 1941, he was accepted to the Kolozsvar Conservatory, despite its restrictions against Jews. Two years later the young composer was forced into a Jewish labor battalion. Ligeti survived the war by escaping during the confusion of battle and illegally entering Budapest. His father and younger brother died in Auschwitz.


After the war, Ligeti entered the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, where he studied composition from 1945 to 1949. He became a professor there in 1950. In his early years in Budapest, he explored the folk style of Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly and exalted in Hungary’s newly won artistic freedom. But by the end of the 1940s, the Communist regime banned all modern music.

From 1950 until his escape to Germany six years later, Ligeti was forced to lead a double life in Budapest. He wrote inoffensive Soviet-style music for public consumption but followed his own experimental inclinations in private.

In 1949, he married Brigette Low, but they divorced three years later. In 1952 he married Veronika (Vera) Spitz, a psychologist who was about to be deported to do forced labor because her family was deemed to be bourgeois. The couple divorced in 1954 but remained friends, escaped from Hungary together by hiding under mailbags on a train in 1956 and remarried the next year in Vienna.

In Western Europe, Ligeti immediately joined with the most avant-garde composers of his generation, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. He first piece from the West was an abstract electronic work, “Artikulation.”

But after his experiences with the Nazis and then the Communists, Ligeti bristled at all ideologies, no matter how avant-garde. In the early 1960s, Ligeti wrote “Atmospheres” and “Apparitions,” in which he explored thick, static clouds of texturally complex sounds. But his attention also turned to wacky vocalizing and imaginary opera in “Aventures” and “Nouvelles Aventures.” In 1965, he completed his “Requiem,” a Holocaust piece made of huge clusters of sounds that treats death as a horrible burlesque of terror.

In 1968, when Stanley Kubrick used Ligeti’s eerie choral work “Lux Aeterna” in “2001,” the composer inadvertently became a cult figure for fans of psychedelic music. The piece was inserted in the film without the composer’s permission or even knowledge, and his new fame proved a mixed blessing, since it typecast him as a composer of trippy music.

Yet the 1960s and ‘70s were decades of great stylistic restlessness for Ligeti. In 1971, he came to America for the first time and spent a term as visiting lecturer and composer in residence at Stanford University. Although he had already met Terry Riley and admired his historic minimalist piece “In C,” Ligeti now found himself deeply interested in the early West Coast Minimalism of Riley and Steve Reich.

He also met Harry Partch, who lived in the San Diego area at the time and whose systems of microtonal 43-note scale and extraordinary homemade instruments proved yet another revelation for Ligeti. And he took an interest in Conlon Nancarrow, an American composer who lived in Mexico City and wrote pieces for player piano.

After Stanford, Ligeti moved to Hamburg, Germany, where he taught for 16 years at the Hochschule fur Musik and began work on his opera, “Le Grand Macabre,” which premiered in Stockholm in 1978. In it, he employed many of the musical devices he had absorbed over the years to tell a ribald tale of sex and death in Breughelland, populated by a creepy figure of death and various weirdos.

But behind the farce, the opera proved on a deeper level to be a profound and powerful study of unfettered fantasy, and it was been widely hailed as one of the most important operas of the last half-century.

In Ligeti’s last period, he turned to more traditional forms, writing concertos for piano, violin and horn, as well as two string quartets and his piano etudes. All have entered the modern standard repertory. Still, little about Ligeti’s neoclassical style proved classical. He continued to respond to everything around him and took a particular interest in exploring African and Indonesian music.

In those pieces, Salonen hears in Ligeti a return to his Hungarian roots. “Despite the fact that he had such a horrible childhood in Hungary, he’s a Hungarian composer,” said Salonen, who led a Ligeti festival with the Philharmonic in 1998. “He was the most cosmopolitan of composers, but paradoxically, he remained very clearly defined in terms of his roots and language. His humor, especially, is very Hungarian.”

So, apparently, were Ligeti’s depressions. He had the reputation of being difficult to work with, demanding complete control and making unreasonable demands of performers. Angered by a Peter Sellars’ production of “Le Grand Macabre” at the Salzburg Festival in 1997, Ligeti had a falling-out with Salonen, who conducted the production and was in the midst of a project to record all of Ligeti’s music.

Aimard, who visited Ligeti last month, described him as having become “a very dark person” in his last years, especially once he was no longer healthy enough to compose.

“He was a very complex personality,” Aimard said, “who could be very restrictive but who could not tolerate complete personal freedom. I think he paid for that in terms of relationships, but I also think that it gave him something special in his music.”

Ligeti is survived by his wife, Vera; and his son Lukas, a percussionist and composer in New York.


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Selected discography

Some of Gyorgy Ligeti’s works on compact disc:

* “Le Grand Macabre.” Philharmonia Orchestra; Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor (Sony Classical).

* Piano Etudes. Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Sony Classical).

String Quartets. Arditti Quartet (Sony Classical).

* Piano Concerto. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano; Asko Ensemble, Reinbert de Leeuw, conductor (Teldec).

* “Atmospheres.” Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; Jonathan Nott, conductor (Teldec).

* Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano. Saschko Gawriloff, violin; Marie-Luise Neunecker, horn; Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano (Sony Classical).


Compiled by Times staff writer Mark Swed

Los Angeles Times