Order. Disorder. Order within disorder. Structure versus randomness. Progress and aesthetics. Where are we heading to? Tenderness, a sad tenderness tiptoeing through the room. Gathering speed, growing stronger – dynamics! Then, silence. A nervous pulse, an attempt to get it right. Dark persuasion, balanced by a single voice, clear and forceful. The listener is clueless. Another hint: the name. Fanfares. By whom? For whom? But isn’t the king naked? A faltering message. A summer day after a thunderstorm, puddles on the road, a black sky in the east, a rainbow. Can you paint a rainbow with sound? Definitely. A trip. Darkness, anxiety. Is the traveler doomed? Why Warsaw?
A most challenging piano work
György Ligeti’s first book of “Etudes” is at first bewildering, irritating. The Hungarian composer published a first set in 1985; the tradition of pianist-composers writing “Etudes” (studies in the sense of training material) had been lost since the middle of the 20th century. Ligeti wanted to resurrect this tradition and give it a definitely modern touch. He draw his material from East European, African and Asian sources and wrote some of the most challenging solo piano works ever. This music is polyphonic and polyrhythmic. Johann Sebastian Bach would have been delighted. And if you listen to a world-class pianist performing these pieces you will hear – a masterwork. Try the recording of the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, you will not be disappointed.
Before and after Boulez
Ligeti had been born into a Jewish family in 1923 in Hungary and fled his home country in 1956 after the uprising against the Communist regime had failed. In the West, he familiarized himself with the thinking of German and French contemporary compositions. He studied Pierre Boulez’ total serialism and worked on sound clusters as we have seen in a previous post on his piece “Atmospheres”. Oxford Music Online recalls that “[b]y the late 1970s the avant garde to which he had been attached, however skeptically, was no longer functioning as such: the time of shared ideals was over, and instead of being a challenge to established musical culture, the postwar generation had become the new establishment.”
A pianist-composer partnership
Pierre-Laurent Aimard closely worked with Ligeti while he was part of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, an ensemble formed by Boulez and devoted to the performance of contemporary classical music. Aimard became something of an ambassador for Ligeti’s late piano works. He performed many of Ligeti’s pieces for the first time ever and the composer’s feed-back was very important for Aimard as he describes it in a video from 2015. Today Aimard regularly gives masterclasses to students wishing to perform Ligeti’s music.
If I agree with you that contemporary classical music in general and Ligeti’s “Etudes” more specifically are a challenge for the audience, I am also of the opinion that it would be a mistake to stick exclusively to the music composed in the 17th, 18th or 19th century. Today’s composers have a message. Let’s pay tribute to their efforts and listen to them. The more we train our ears, the better we will understand what they have to say.
© Charles Thibo
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