A Tribute to György Ligeti

Written by: David Wordsworth

Playful, satirical, touching, witty, bizarre, amusing – hardly words that one might attach to the heady world of contemporary music.

There were however two great composers of the late twentieth century for whom they seemed perfectly applicable. One was Luciano Berio, and the other was György Ligeti – who died on 12 June.

In later years with his wildly unkempt white hair, expressive hands, exuberant range of facial expressions and thick East European accent (I wonder how many other Transylvanian composers there are?), Ligeti came pretty close to everyone’s idea of a mad professor. A festival of his music in London in the 1990s resulted in pictures plastered all over London that made him look like a clown – he wasn’t happy about that either!

It is perhaps more correct, though not very helpful to those who didn’t know either him or his music, to paraphrase that same festival’s title and say that Ligeti was just, well, Ligeti! An increasingly rare event – a totally unique composer and personality, someone who although constantly stealing from much other music always came up with something that was just totally Ligeti.

Meeting Ligeti could be somewhat unnerving experience – he didn’t suffer fools gladly and could be quite ruthless with performers that did not come up to his high expectations. There were over the years some rather spectacular high-level spats with some starry members of the musical profession.

Ligeti’s high standards were also for himself. His output was not particularly large. His health for much of the last twenty years was pretty bad and he worked sometimes for years on a particular piece, adding and withdrawing movements as he went along. Pieces such as the Violin Concerto and Piano Concerto and the opera “Le Grande Macabre” took several years to reach their final form.

The rag-bag of influences that fascinated Ligeti – folk-music, World Music, collages, atonality, electronics, the blurring of any borders that might have existed between harmony and rhythm – and a lesser mind would have produced meaningless chaos, but for a composer who was constantly re-inventing himself, and indeed it seemed re-inventing music itself, this was all part of his scheme of things.

Working for Ligeti’s publisher for a number of years in the late 1990s, I could see at first hand the problems that this working practise caused – but one didn’t argue with Ligeti! Being the great man’s editor must have been quite a roller-coaster ride, too. The manuscripts have to be seen to be believed – at first sight chaotic, manic and spidery, but also an astonishing work of art in their own right, they must have been a nightmare to decipher.

My own dealings with Ligeti seemed at first to take on a fittingly surreal air. Within a few months of taking my position at Schott it wasn’t exactly clear that I would ever have contact with the somewhat reclusive genius. The ice broke with a series of bizarre phone calls “This is Ligeti!” – from which I was dispatched to track down various friends and colleagues. Having heard that Ligeti ate performers for breakfast, I was able to do this with some nervousness but evidently successfully, because when we eventually met Ligeti was generosity and kindness itself.

He plied me with coffee until I could pronounce his first name to his satisfaction – but I managed to get my own back with my last name, which I was led to believe was very difficult to say in Hungarian. Ligeti knew all about my famous name-sake and wrote a wonderful letter to me after I sent him a ‘Wordsworth anthology’.

It is terribly sad that Ligeti is gone – but he suffered terribly in his last years and hopefully this true ‘one-off’ is now at peace in the land of riddles and polyrhythms.

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