I Andantino II Allegro vivace III Adagio ma non troppo IV Molto vivace
György Ligeti: The Ligeti Project © 2016 Warner Classics 0825646028580
I grew up in a Hungarian-speaking environment in Transylvania. While the official language was Romanian, it was only in secondary school that I learned to speak the language that had seemed so mysterious to me as a child. I was three when I first encountered Romanian folk music, an alpenhorn player in the Carpathian Mountains, and later an encounter with some masked Romanian “magicians”. The alpenhorn (called a bucium in Romanian) sounded completely different from “normal” music. Today I know that this stems from the fact that the alpenhorn produces only the notes of its natural harmonic series and that the fifth and seventh harmonics (i.e. the major third and minor seventh) seem “out of tune” because they sound lower than on the piano, for example. But it is this sense of “wrongness” that is in fact what is “right” about the instrument, as it represents the specific “charm” of the horn timbre.
Once, around New Year’s, some wild musicians playing violin and bagpipe (cimpoi) forced their way into our courtyard. One of them wore a mask with horns, which instead of a mouth had a kind of beak and, cloaked in a goatskin cape, he looked like a diabolical goat. The tradition of shamanistic magic was still very much alive among Romanian shepherds and, in Transylvania, woodland spirits were portrayed in exactly the same way as, for instance, in West Africa. The “goat” romped around for a while, pinching the women, tormenting the terrified children and then, shoving back its mask, demanded money.
In 1949, when I was twenty-six, I learned how to transcribe folksongs from wax cylinders at the Folklore Institute in Bucharest. Many of these melodies stuck in my memory and led in 1951 to the composition of my Romanian Concerto. However, not everything in it is genuinely Romanian as I also invented elements in the spirit of the village bands. I was later able to hear the piece at an orchestral rehearsal in Budapest — a public performance had been forbidden. Under Stalin’s dictatorship, even folk music was allowed only in a “politically correct” form, in other words, if forced into the straitjacket of the norms of socialist realism: major–minor harmonisations à la Dunayevsky were welcome and even modal orientalisms in the style of Khachaturian were still permitted, but Stravinsky was excommunicated. The peculiar way in which village bands harmonised their music, often full of dissonances and “against the grain”, was regarded as incorrect. In the fourth movement of my Romanian Concerto there is a passage in which an F sharp is heard in the context of F major. This was reason enough for the apparatchiks responsible for the arts to ban the entire piece.
My reaction to this political pressure was to write music that was radically dissonant and chromatic. In 1955/56, while I was still in Budapest, I thought up “black music” in contrast to “beautiful”, modal, consonant “red music” and dissonant but diatonic “green music”. (These colours reflected my own synaesthetic connotations and had nothing to do with the usual political symbolism.) “Black music” was based above all on beats, in other words, on interference patterns that, on a technical level, result from the closely chromatic superimposition of several different voices. Although it was illegal, Vera, my wife, managed to obtain some banned books from the West. They included Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus and Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music and had an enormously liberating influence on me. Otherwise, there was no contact with the West, any exchange of information was forbidden, and only a few privileged persons were issued with passports. Radio broadcasts from the West were systematically jammed.
Some of my “banned” orchestral works were never completed. These include Sötét és világos (Dark and Light), also two pieces for chorus and orchestra, a Requiem and the oratorio Istar pokoljárása (Ishtar’s Journey to Hell), which is based on a poem by Sándor Weöres. I conceived a kind of synaesthetic music, with visual associations of colour and light, and tactile associations of matter, density, volume and space replacing motifs, melodies, harmonies and rhythm. Only in Istar were there rhythmic structures comparable to a kind of gigantic clockwork mechanism, as if independent layers were moving at different speeds in augmentation and diminution. All these pieces were static in their formal development, that is to say, there was no development, only the juxtaposition and superimposition of elements. On the other hand, I completed Víziók, a totally chromatic orchestral piece. This was the first version of Apparitions, which I wrote in the “West” over the course of the years that followed. Unfortunately Víziók is now lost: it went missing either in Budapest or perhaps at a later date in the Moldenhauer Archives in the United States.
All these works were written for the bottom drawer: in Communist Hungary it was impossible even so much as to dream of having them performed. People living in the West cannot begin to imagine what it was like in the Soviet empire, where art and culture were strictly regulated as a matter of course — they had to conform to abstract concepts that were almost identical to the regulations of the National Socialists. Art had to be “healthy” and “edifying” and to come “from the people”: in short, it had to reflect Party directives.
Later, in the West, journalists often asked me the question: “For whom do you write your music?” My experiences in the “East” prevented me from making any real sense of this question. A banned artist does not ask questions of this kind, because the products of his art never reach an audience. And so I did not write “for” anyone, but simply for the sake of the music itself, from an inner need. A real performance — this struck me as an unattainable luxury in Hungary.
On 23 October 1956 revolution broke out in Budapest — a spontaneous and extremely bloody revolution. And it was crushed by the Red Army in a no less bloody manner. On 10 December, together with my wife, I took the train in the direction of the Austrian border, which we then crossed illegally on foot at night.
© 2001–2003 Teldec Classics & 2004 Warner Classics, Warner Music UK Ltd | Translation: Louise Duchesneau