50 years ago revolution was in the air. French students were demonstrating against a government they perceived as autocratic, German students against the Vietnam war and the overwhelming power of the United States in world affairs. Young people stood up against discrimination of all sorts, an antiquated sexual morality, they wanted to be seen on the “right” side of history. In Germany the growing awareness of the complicity of many ordinary Germans in the Nazi atrocities and the fact that many Nazi officials had remained on their post after 1945 added to the cultural clash between young and old.
50 years ago, revolution in arts had already happened. With Arnold Schönberg, new ways of musical expression had been sketched, even before World War I. With Pablo Picasso a new way to see, deconstruct and represent the world came about in the 1920s. In the field of architecture, the German Bauhaus school set a new standard, emphasizing functionalism and design.
It is not far-fetched to say that arts assumed an early warning function. Artists, more than anyone else, were aware of the pending changes in society after the turn of the century. But those changes gained full track only after World War II, when the economies had sufficiently recovered and not only the cultural elite but also ordinary citizens could focus on personal development and new intellectual landmarks.
50 years ago, between February and August 1968, the composer György Ligeti wrote his String Quartet No. 2 that I see as the narrative of brutal changes in society, of new ways to see the world – through the lens of social conflicts. Ligeti had fled his home country Hungary and the oppression by the Communist regime. He had become an Austrian citizen and quickly joined a new artistic avant-garde, developing new compositional techniques, first by experimenting with electronic music, later by joining many lines of dense canons moving at different tempi* or rhythms, thus resulting in tone clusters. Ligeti called this micropolyphony and the string quartet illustrates this.
At the time Ligeti wrote this work, he confessed a desire to create a music in which “there is no longer any motivic writing, no contours, only sound textures, which are sometimes frayed and almost fluid and at other times grainy and machine-like”. This would mean form without content, or rather form becoming content. Form however, made by a human being i.e. the composer, is subjective, influenced by many factors, namely emotions which are beyond rational control and often intuitive. Ligeti’s quartet – and that is my personal interpretation of his words – does allow for thematic content, namely conscious or unconscious emotions, even if this content is created inadvertently by the composer and recreated differently at each performance.
The part and the whole
String Quartet No. 2 has five movements. If formal aspects give a hint to its potential thematic material, it is important to note that the movements differ widely from each other on the one hand and are held together by the said micropolyphony as the governing principle of the work on the other hand. In the first movement – allegro nervoso – the larger structure is broken up in subelements, disjoint and dissonant when isolated, but forming a coherent structure when put together. The second movement is marked by a deceleration of the music to slow-motion figures building an overall lyrical sound wave – the bizarre term of “hesitating music” comes to my mind.
The pizzicato* in the third movement reflects Ligeti’s machine-like studies, hard and mechanical like a ticking clock. Rhythm and pitch change but they remain within a tonal plan. Ligeti aptly called it “Come un meccanismo di precisione”. The mood of the fourth movement is fast and threatening, a clash of instruments, with moments of almost silence – an eery silence – while the finale, in strong contrast, starts with an oscillating melody. “Allegro con delicatezza” Ligeti noted as instruction for the musicians and the emphasis lies on delicacy. This is perhaps the most interesting part as it seems to recapitulate the previous movements.
Modernism, social change, fractions and breaking points, that’s what I hear when I listen to Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 2. A message of relevance in 1968, a message of relevance in 2018. Ligeti dedicated the quartet to the LaSalle Quartet and I strongly recommend their recording on the album “Clear or Cloudy”.
© Charles Thibo