This week's edition of Music Matters offers a tribute to the Hungarian-born composer Gyorgy Ligeti, one of the great musical figures of the last 50 years, who died this week aged 83. The programme features extensive archive interviews with Ligeti, as well as reminiscences from some of those who worked closely with him, including his assistant Louise Duchesneau, conductors Pierre Boulez and Jonathan Nott, pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and soprano Jane Manning.
In This Programme
Hungarian composer György Ligeti died on Monday at the age of 83, and this week the whole programme is devoted to the man and his music. Ligeti himself tells us about his life in a conversation with John Tusa, originally broadcast in 2001, and in another interview Tom Service recorded with him three years ago on his 80 th birthday, the last interview he made for the BBC. We'll also be hearing from his closest friends and collaborators, about their feelings for his music and his legacy.
When the history of 20 th- and 21 st- century music comes to be written, one might just find that Ligeti is the most performed and influential composer of the whole avant-garde: a composer who created his own unique imaginative world, without ever compromising his integrity, but who also found a new way to communicate with his audiences. Thanks to the use of his music by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ligeti's terrifying soundscapes achieved a greater popular exposure than that of any other avant-garde composer. And no other contemporary composer is as loved by his performers today - conductors like Pierre Boulez and Jonathan Nott, and pianists like Pierre-Laurent Aimard, all of whom are heard in the programme - or as widely played in concert halls around the world
Born in 1923, Ligeti and his family experienced two brutal dictatorships: the horrors of the Nazis during the Second World War - only his mother survived Auschwitz, his brother and father were murdered by the Germans - and the deprivations of Communist rule. In 1956, during the uprising in Budapest, Ligeti secretly escaped with his wife to Vienna, hiding under post-bags on a train to the West. It was the beginning of Ligeti's life as a crucial member of the avant-garde. He worked with Stockhausen in Cologne in the late 50s and then caused a sensation in 1960 with his orchestral piece, Apparitions . The music was so shocking because it was a soundworld of shifting, continuously changing textures that had little to do with the dogmas of the avant-garde of Pierre Boulez or Karlheinz Stockhausen. Just as, in the rest of his life, Ligeti rejected any form of totalitarianism, so too his music resisted ideology or systems. Instead, his innate curiosity about the world around him led him to create an opera of surreal scatology, Le Grand Macabre , to create a piano concerto inspired by fractal mathematics, and later on in his career, to write a series of piano Etudes whose original catalyst was the rhythmic intricacy of the music of African pygmies.
The great mystery of Ligeti's music is that it transcends the tragedy of his life to become one of the most uplifting oeuvres of any contemporary composer. Listening to pieces like any of the 18 piano Etudes, one feels that the essential stuff of music - simple rhythms, melodies and harmonies - are being re-made in new and wondrous ways. It's a musical world that makes one want to return to its luminous fantasy again and again.