This is about as far away from the traditional string quartet as you can possibly conceive: One continuous movement of 17 sections. Each has a different tempo, a different mood and yes, each has a different drama to tell. Each has its specific charm, and you need to lose yourself in this strange, but fascinating world of sound. Let go of everything, any prejudices or preconceived ideas. At the beginning there was a blank – and the music will fill this blank with reflections of your soul.
You will have to search inside yourself to enjoy-understand this piece. I recommend the truly fantastic recording of the Ensemble InterContemporain. What do the different sections trigger in your mind? In your heart? Are you shocked, amused, angered, full of bliss, sad or exhilarated? Does the music leave you totally indifferent or does it stir you up? Does it do to you all of the above just as it did to me? This string concert left me puzzled and enthusiastic and when the last bars had vanished I had to listen to the recording all over again. I knew I had missed so much, though I did not precisely know what I had missed.
One concept constantly reshaped
Métarmorphoses nocturnes – nocturnal metamorphoses. That’s what György Ligeti called his String Quartet No. 1. The Hungarian composer wrote it in 1953-54, shortly before he fled Hungary. The piece saw its premiere in 1958 in Vienna. Bela Bartok’s string quartets seem to have inspired Ligeti, but let’s hear what the composer himself has to say: “It is a kind of variation form, only there is no specific ‘theme’ that is then varied. It is, rather, that one and the same musical concept appears in constantly new forms – that is why ‘metamorphoses’ is more appropriate than ‘variations’. […] The basic concept, which is always present in the intervals but which is in a state of constant transformation, consists of two major seconds that succeed each other transposed by a semitone.”
Caught between fascism and socialism
Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1 marks a provisional end of the composer’s development. He had pushed the envelope in terms of harmonic studies as far as he could in a society that aspired officially to “Socialist Realism”, a cultural doctrine developed in the Soviet Union that emphasized the heroic efforts and ultimately the victory of the working class as its central subject. Music should depict this struggle and at the same time foster it.
Ligeti could not possibly be compliant. He saw what happened around him in Hungary: Upon the ruins of Hungarian fascism rose a new police state, another totalitarian concept of society, another regime spreading fear and misery. Ligeti’s music depicts how he experienced life, and there was little room for heroism, glory, pride.
Once he had fled to the West, he studied the twelve-tone-system that Arnold Schönberg had developed and moved on to experiment with electronic music just like the German avant-garde around Karl Stockhausen. In the West, the society after the war was no less fractured, but at least artists had the liberty to express what they saw and felt. The audience screamed and protests as the apparatchiks in Budapest might have done. But arts were not to be repressed. And if I ever get around to write a post about Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 2, finished in 1968, a year that would forever be associated with the younger generation’s revolt against traditional, bourgeois ideas about society, politics and sexuality, we will explore the differences between the two quartets.
© Charles Thibo