The Communists didn’t like funky sound experiments

Ligeti's "Musica Ricercata" is about contrasts. © Charles Thibo
Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata” is about contrasts. © Charles Thibo

The Communist Party did not welcome revolutions that it had not initiated itself. György Ligeti was not welcome, nor was his music. Not in Hungary, when it was ruled by the Communist Party. But the Communist world broke apart and Ligeti’s music stays on. He is certainly one of the greatest composers of classical music of the 20th century. Et pour cause, as they say in France.

Dancing with Ligeti

Between 1951 and 1953 Ligeti wrote a piano cycle in ten parts called “Musica Ricercata”*, a brilliant piece. Part I starts with a slow beat, which gets quicker and quicker, the pace is so fast it sound like electro funk. Actually, you could dance on it, and then bam! one last high pitch and we move to part II. Long, distinct notes in a high pitch, followed by the same notes in a lower pitch. Sound experiments, no doubt, perfectly balanced, highly interesting.

Part III is really fun, a basic melody, but played fast – I pity the pianist. Though I suspect that the pianist – as difficult as the piece may be – has as much fun playing it as I have when I listen to it. Part IV is a waltz. But a modern one. It’s not like Strauss or Tchaikovsky. Brilliant. Whenever I listen to it, I cannot but smile! It’s fun. Part V is a slow piece, but interesting nevertheless. The composer indicates it should be played “rubato – lamentoso”: The pianist has a free hand to shorten or extend the notes, but… it has to keep its painful expression.

Part VI chases away the dark thoughts of the previous movement and sounds a little like a lullaby – but played at this speed, no baby will ever fall asleep. Part VII is hard to describe: a lovely melody played by the right hand, while the left hand plays a fast, low-pitched recurrent accord. Again electronic music comes to my mind. And this is not exactly a surprise: Ligeti was one of the first classical composers who experimented with electronic music. After his emigration to the West, he worked for the Westdeutscher Rundfunk, a major German radio station in Cologne, where he met other composers, pioneers in the field of electronic music like Karlheinz Stockhausen. Part VIII – vivace – confirms this.

Part IX is dark, dark, reminiscent of a funeral march, if it weren’t for high-pitched interruptions. Part X is lively, but so fast paced that it creates an awkward feeling. It reminds me of situations in movies when you know something bad is going to happen, the tension rises and you are desperately waiting for a way out. Part XI is a very slow peace, but the tension, that characterizes some of the other parts, is still there. Thrilling!

In the footsteps of Bartok

The whole cycle is about contrasts: high and low pitches, fast and slow beats. Very modern. But also very classical, since it is not played on the synthesizer, but on the piano. The “Musica Ricercata” is part of Ligeti’s early works and are considered as a the next logic step after Bela Bartok’s music, another Hungarian composer. Ligeti dedicated this piano cycle to Bartok.

Ligeti was born in 1923. Since his family was of Jewish origin, they were arrested when the Germans invaded Hungary in 1944 to counter the Soviet offensive and to save the regime in Budapest. Only Ligeti’s mother survived. Ligeti himself had been called to the arms by the Hungarian government in 1944 and had soon been made a prisoner by the Red Army. He was able to escape though. Since the new Communist government quickly started to limit the communication between Hungary and the West, Ligeti’s and many other Hungarian artists practiced an “inner emigration” while their appetite for new ideas did rather grow than diminish. In 1956 he fled to Austria and started his prestigious career as a composer and one of the great representatives of the Neue Musik.

Initial misgivings

After initial misgivings about Ligeti’s music, I am gradually becoming more and more fascinated by the daring nature of his compositions. And you will discover over time other pieces on this blog like “Lontano”, “Atmosphères” or Ligeti’s very special Violin Concerto. A post on these pieces is scheduled for next month. Rejoice!

I can recommend two excellent recordings of Ligeti’s “Musica Ricercata”: One by the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard and one by the Luxembourg pianist Cathy Krier.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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