One day, I asked György Ligeti a question that had been troubling me for a long time: Did his constant need to break artistic barriers, either instrumental or musical-linguistic, stem from the traumas he had endured in his youth, creating an existential need for transgression? His response was a resounding “yes.”
The unbearable ordeals that he’d lived through during the Second World War—among them the disappearance of his father and the murder of his brother, which would leave him with a lifelong, irreparable sense of guilt—branded him with a tragic dimension that was evident in his creative work. But more than anything else, it was the grip of totalitarian power that haunted him. His thirst for news on world events was matched only, in my opinion, by his despair at each barbarous display of tyranny. Politics was a recurring theme in his conversations.
He was demanding out of a deep respect for the art. Demanding, first of all, of himself, frequently throwing his own works in the trash anytime his unyielding judgment deemed them “not up to scratch.”
But also, consequently, demanding of his performers, of which, depending on the case, he either praised their committed effort, or refused to tolerate their nonchalance or, worse yet, arrogance.
Inexhaustible in his ability to surprise, his provocative spirit could sometimes make him surly. This was, I believe, his way of asserting the primacy he gave to fierce independence and to his visceral need for destabilization—beliefs of someone who had been battered by the history of their century, and of a radical avant-gardist.
A free and rebellious spirit, he never let himself be influenced by the trappings of fame. Even when receiving the most prestigious award given to musicians, he took pride in not preparing a thank-you speech, instead publicly expressing his regret that he didn’t receive the prize money during the years when he would have really needed it, rather than at the age when this type of award is generally given. So, he could be insolent as well as a little embarrassing!
The latest from VAN, delivered straight to your inbox
It wasn’t so much his knowledge itself that was impressive, but the fundamental originality of that knowledge—refusing anything remotely academic, any cliché, any desire to please. The epitome of a polyglot and a free spirit, he stood for curiosity without limits or set rules.
His whimsical nature was apparent throughout his life, especially in his conversations. His overflowing imagination was irresistible. His charm and open-mindedness made him a delightful being, audaciously amusing, curious about everything and everyone, exceptionally warm-hearted. As a friend, he was inspiring, zany, and generous.
The chance to be an interpreter of his works was a singular privilege and dizzyingly intense. The first working sessions after the creation of a new piece were thrilling. The infinite richness of his metaphors, his tireless search for the right sound world and perfect nuances, the unexpected associations between his ideas and artistic processes: these all demonstrated the astonishing synthesis between his bountiful intellect and extraordinary frame of reference.
At the end of a recital comprising his complete “Études,” he came out on stage to bow. And to request an encore. I asked him if the tempo of the “Zauberlehrling” étude, which he had previously told me to play faster, was finally correct. He answered in the affirmative.
“But,” he added, “now play it again, even faster!” At every opportunity, he fed off the risks his performers took on stage. In fact, risk is inherent in many of his compositions, sometimes in an extreme, even destabilizing way.
A master of madness, he was daring and at ease with a methodical eccentricity. He was fascinated by math, astronomy, ethnomusicology, fractal geometry… that he became a friend of the great pioneers of his time was the direct consequence of his voracity for knowledge. This shaped and changed his worldview, which embraced the apocalypse, schizophrenia, vertigo, the nonsensical and many other cardinal virtues of his time.
Nevertheless, erudition never kept this strong communicator from inventing music that was irresistible in its visual poetry and the power of its gestural, formal, rhythmic, and tonal influence.
If ever there was a bodily incarnation of artistry, he was its purest form. ¶
Subscribers keep VAN running!
VAN is proud to be an independent classical music magazine thanks to our subscribers. For just over 10 cents a day, you can enjoy unlimited access to over 650 articles in our archives—and get new ones delivered straight to your inbox each week.
Not ready to commit to a full year?
You can test-drive VAN for one month for the price of a coffee.