Gyorgy Ligeti

Mysteries of the Macabre

MADRIGALS, MYSTERIES, ADVENTURES, SONGS: GYORGY LIGETI ON HIS VOCAL MUSIC

 

The following text constitutes the liner notes by György Ligeti to the album ‘György Ligeti Edition IV: Vocal Works’ (Sony Classical, 1996). Translation: Annelies McVoy & David Feurzeig.

The extreme stylistic heterogeneousness of the pieces on this recording reflects the radical transformations that have determined my life and my way of thinking. After a very provincial childhood in Transylvania, I went to Budapest at the end of the war, aged 22, to study composition. My musical ideal was a ‘Hungarian modernity’; my model was Bartόk. The Three Weöres Songs from my first year of studies (1946) mark the beginning of a compositional development which was to be abruptly broken off two years later by the establishment of the Communist dictatorship. Before the fateful year 1948 I was a typical young leftist intellectual: anti-Nazi, opposed to the conservative Hungarian right, a believer in the Socialist Utopia. Stalin’s ‘surreally existing Socialism’ was then so disappointing and humiliating to us that I soon developed an immunity to all ideologies. I was lucky, because I was careful enough—despite massive propaganda—not to join the ‘Party’. I was able to keep my distance from the imposed ‘Socialist Realism’ (it was more like Unrealism, the cheapest demagogy); nevertheless, I tried to compose non-chromatic and non-dissonant music. Of course, this meant conformity, but at first I didn’t see the futility of this compromise. There were ways to avoid the obligatory ‘progressive’ texts: one was turning to folklore; another was taking refuge in the poems of the classic Hungarian authors who had written their works before Lenin seized power.

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The Four Wedding Dances are typical of the first way out. (I wrote about 50 folksong arrangements like these.) Hungarian and also Romanian folklore were familiar to me from my childhood in Transylvania, and my love for folk music was so strong that I persuaded myself that I was writing it spontaneously and from conviction (at first). The Five Arany Songs are an example of the other way out: Janos Arany was a ‘classic’ author of the 19th century; he was well-respected and long since deceased. In 1952 there was an ‘internal,’ i. e. private, performance of these songs (for the members of the official music association). The radio also broadcast them once (that was the common practice in the Soviet Union). But the fourth song was too close to Debussy, the fifth even like Stravinsky, and these composers were strictly forbidden. Thus, my Arany songs were also forbidden. I saw then that there was no room for compromise; I should attend to my obligations as a teacher of harmony and counterpoint at the conservatory (the position itself was already a privilege) and compose for the drawer.

I was not alone: the significant living authors—like my friend Sándor Weöres—were not permitted to publish, and the abstract painters could not show their paintings anywhere. All true artistic life was eliminated. The intellectuals began to form a resistance—passive at first—to the regime. The uprising against the Soviet powers in October 1956 (a spontaneous and unforeseeable revolt) was the logical consequence of this process of ossification. (‘Logical consequence’ is, of course, a post factum conclusion, since history knows no logic. And the rebellion was borne by young workers—the writers provided the ferment.)

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After the brutal suppression by Soviet tanks of the October Rebellion—Budapest in 1956 looked exactly like Grozny in 1996—about 200,000 people fled to Austria. I crossed the border on foot with my wife, illegally. Now I was a free but destitute refugee. The axis of my life revolved 180 degrees.

Since Schoenberg, Berg and Webern were even ‘more forbidden’ than Stravinsky and Bartόk, twelve-tone music attracted me even more than the music of other modernists. We could barely receive Western radio stations because they were being jammed. Printed music, books, and records from the West were forbidden up until 1955. Nevertheless, my wife surreptitiously procured for me Adorno’s Philosophie der Neuen Musik and Leibowitz’s Introduction à la musique de douze sons. I didn’t know the music of the Western colleagues of my generation at all, though reports of ‘serial’ and ‘electronic’ music broke through sporadically.

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György Ligeti, The Ligeti Project II | Apparitions

In February 1957 I suddenly found myself in paradise: in the Studio for Electronic Music of West German Radio in Cologne. I soaked up all the unfamiliar music like a sponge. And right away I began to write my own music, strongly influenced by the Cologne-Darmstadt-Paris avant-garde, yet also in line with my own ideas which had been gradually ripening in Budapest. One of these ideas was to create music from human sounds—that is, ‘poems’ of pure phonetic material, without regard to meaning (or with only emotional content). This wasn’t all that new: I soon became acquainted with Schwitters, Joyce, Helms, the Lettrists, and abstract poetry. At the 1960 music festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Cologne (where my orchestral piece Apparitions was performed), I was impressed by Kagel’s Anagrama—a composition built primarily of (Latin) phonemes.

My second electronic piece, Artikulation, was performed as early as 1958 in Cologne. It was also a ‘speech piece,’ although the sounds were synthetic. My phonetic chamber works didn’t reach full maturity until the early 1960s, with Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures for three voices, flute, French horn, cello, bass, percussion, piano and harpsichord—radically meaningless texts ‘constructed’ (from secret recipes), and a music which, despite all its abstractness, suggested clearly distinct emotional modes.

György Ligeti, The Ligeti Project V | (Nouvelles) Aventures

Harry Partch, Quadrangularis Reversum (43-tone scale) | Photo: Seth Tisue

The axis of my life turned again in the course of the 1960s and early 1970s, though not so radically, perhaps only by 90 degrees. I gradually lost my faith in total chromaticism. Experiences in 1972 in California (such as the music of Harry Partch) opened up new horizons for me. I never really gave up my affinity for the Cologne-Darmstadt-Paris avant-garde, and kept my distance from the postmodern, neotonal trends, but my music changed anyway. After each completed composition I revise my position; I avoid stylistic clichés, and know no ‘single right way’. I keep myself open to new influences, as I am excessively intellectually curious. All cultures—indeed the whole wide world—is the material of Art.

From 1974 to 1977 I composed Le Grand Macabre. The Mysteries are arrangements of three coloratura arias (of the chief of the ‘Secret Political Police’), reduced (wonderfully) for chamber ensemble by Elgar Howarth.

Le Grand Macabre, György Ligeti, Liceu Barcelona | Photo. A. Bofill

Le Grand Macabre, György Ligeti | New York Philharmonic, Barbara Hannigan

My friend Howarth directed the 1978 world premiere of the opera in Stockholm, and several other productions thereafter. The half-nonsense text is an immediate continuation of the Aventures idea, albeit more concrete, and the music is no longer chromatic.

During the 1980s my compositional horizons broadened significantly. So many areas fascinated me: mathematics, various sciences and cultures, and non-European music. One of the many areas of interest was the music of 14th- and early 15th-century France and Flanders. What attracted me here (and to the African music cultures) was the rhythmic-metrical complexity. The six Nonsense Madrigals for six voices (two altos, tenor, two baritones, bass) are all to English texts mainly from the Victorian era—and mainly by Lewis Carroll—but also use the sounds of the English alphabet. They are virtuosic works in which I have tried to create a new kind of non-tonal but diatonic harmony as well as rhythmic labyrinths.

Roman de Fauvel, Illustration, 1310-14

GYÖRGY LIGETI’S ‘MYSTERIES OF THE MACABRE’ IN ‘MARA, MARIETTA’

Ligeti, Mysteries of the Macabre, Barbara Hannigan

FROM ‘MARA, MARIETTA’
Part Ten Chapter 13

Bongos, maracas and castanets, glockenspiel, police whistle and tom-tom: Together with brass, strings and woodwinds, the percussion weaves a texture of hysteria that the soprano pierces with coloratura cries. Going from raucous gibberish to biting interjections, soaring flights to bird-like calls, she is desperately trying to make conductor and instrumentalists understand the urgency of what she’s reporting. The conductor doesn’t give a damn, the musicians rise in defiance. ‘Ja! Nein! Nein! Ja! Nein! Nein! Ja! Ja! Nein’: Is she a whore on heels, a chorus girl seeking a cancan? Is she Cassandra in an ecstatic trance or Oedipus back from the Oracle?

Kakakakakakastrophe! Er kommt! Er kommt! Er kommt!’ Of what is she so afraid? In a tizzy of trepidation she reaches a paroxysm of panic; her hair flies out as her fear mounts: ‘Er ist schon da! Er ist schon da! Er ist schon da!’ Perhaps she’s an escapee from Pitié-Salpêtrière or a visionary of divine vengeance? Maybe she’s being ravished by an incubus, reliving the trauma of Red Riding Hood? No. She is Gepopo, chief of the secret police of Brueghelland and de facto angel of death: She has come to warn the Prince that the end of the world is at hand. And thus we relive Ligeti’s ironic take on the Requiem: The alienation induced by the grotesque is a means to overcome the fear of death.

Ligeti, Mysteries of the Macabre, Hannigan

Ligeti, Mysteries of the Macabre, Hannigan

And we, Marietta, how do we accommodate the exterminating angel? Last night after we made love, when I said I would die for you, you said nobody can die in the place of another; when I said it’s an enormous responsibility, the irreplaceability of one’s death, you said that’s precisely why you feel guilty: You could never be responsible enough. Er! Er! Er! Er ist schon da! Schon da! Da! Da! Da! Da! Da! The Secret Police Chief finally ceases her hysteria; in a bubble of calm, the redhead recomposes herself as the applause thunders down.

LIGETI, MYSTERIES OF THE MACABRE: LIBRETTO & SPOTIFY PLAYLIST

CONCERT ARIA FOR COLORATURA SOPRANO, ARRANGED BY ELGAR HOWARTH

Chef der Geheimen Politischen Polizei (Gepopo) – Koloratursopran

 

Oper in zwei Akten | Libretto von Michael Meschke und György Ligeti frei nach Michel de Ghelderodes Schauspiel „La Balade du Grand Macabre“ (1974-77) © B. Schott’s Söhne, Mainz, 1990

Barbara Hannigan

György Ligeti Edition IV: Mysteries | Coloratura: Sybille Ehlert

Barbara Hannigan

YOU CAN LISTEN TO THE TRACK IN FULL WITH A REGISTERED SPOTIFY ACCOUNT, WHICH COMES FOR FREE

Pst!
Pst-pst!
Pst-pst-pst!
Ko!
Ko-ko!
Ko-ko-ko-ko!
Ko-ko-ko!
Kokode
A-a-a-a-a!
Kokokode Zero-Zero
Höchste Geheimnisstufe!

Zero-zero! Kommen Störche!
Dabeljusi!
Menge, Menge, Menge!
Masse, Masse!
Vovovovolksmenge!
Memememenschenmasse!
Mamamamasse!
Unruhe!
Panik! Panik!
Pa-a-a-a-a-a-pa-a-pa-pa-pa-nik!
Phobie!
Unmotiviert!
Undefiniert!

Rrsch!
What was that?
Rrsch! Marsch! Marsch!
Marschroute!
Marschrichtung!
Richtung!
Marschrichtung!
Fürst! Palast!
Marschrichtung Papalast!
Fürst! Palast!

Tarnwort
Gogogogolasch, Gogolasch!
Demonstration!
Protestaktion!
Provokation!
Pst! Pst! Diskretion!
Observation!
Sanktion!
Ende.

Pst! Pst!
Keinen Pieps!
Bankgeheimnis!

Was ich noch sagen wollt
Schweigen ist Gold!

Gold!
Was ist so wieder?
A-a-a-a-a
Geheimmeldung!
Ziffer
Blaue Ente!
Roter Komet!
Planet!
Magnet!

Pst! Diskret, diskret!
Ja!
Nein! Nein!
Ja! Nein!
Nein! Ja!
Ja! Nein!
Ohne Zweifel
Satellit!
Asteroid!

Planetoid!
Polaroid!
Am Zenit!
Morbid!
Period!
Bedrohlich!
Gefährlich!
Tödlich!
Massnahmen!
Massnahmen!
Massnahmen?
Massnahmen!

Kh!
Khk!
Kh!
Kh! Kh!
Kh! Kh! Kh!
Ka! Ka-Ka!
Ka-ka-ka-ka-kakastrophe!
Er kommt!
Kukuriku! Kikeriki!
Er kommt!
Wer kommt?
Er kommt!
Er kommt!
Er kommt!
Er kommt!
Kekerikeke!
Kokorikökö!
Kukurikükü!
Kakarikakaka!
Makarikaka!
Makabrikaka!
Makabrika!

Kamakabri!
Kabrikama!
Brikamaka!
Makabri!
Makrabi!
Makrabe!
Makrabe!
Makrabe!
Er kommt!
Er kommt!
Er kommt!
Er! Er! Er!
Er ist schon da!
Er ist schon da!
Er ist schon da!
Schon da!
Ist schon da!
Ist schon da!
Schon da!
Schon da!
Schon da!
Ist schon da!
Ist schon da!
Is’ schon da!
Is’ schon da!
I’ schon da!
I’ schon da!
I’ scho’ da!
I’ scho’ da!
Ist schon da!
Da! Da!
Is’ da! etc.
Da! etc.
Pa-la-pa-la
Pst!
Ho- ah!

VIDEO: LIGETI, MYSTERIES OF THE MACABRE & (NOUVELLES) AVENTURES

Mysteries | Barbara Hannigan; LSO, Simon Rattle

Aventures & Nouvelles Aventures | Psappha Ensemble

Mysteries | Barbara Hannigan, Göteborgs Symfoniker

LIGETI, NONSENSE MADRIGALS V: THE LOBSTER QUADRILLE – WORDS & SPOTIFY PLAYLIST

John Tenniel | Alice in Wonderland

György Ligeti Edition IV: The Lobster Quadrille

John Tenniel | Alice in Wonderland

YOU CAN LISTEN TO THE TRACK IN FULL WITH A REGISTERED SPOTIFY ACCOUNT, WHICH COMES FOR FREE

Ralph Steadman | Alice in Wonderland

The Lobster Quadrille
Lewis Carroll

Will you walk a little faster? said a whiting to a snail.
There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle—will you come and join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?

You can really have no notion how delightful it will be
When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters, out to sea!
But the snail replied, Too far, too far! and gave a look askance—
Said he thanked the whiting kindly, but he would not join the dance.
Would not, could not, would not, could not, would not join the dance.

What matters it how far we go? his scaly friend replied.
There is another shore, you know, upon the other side.
The further off from England the nearer is to France—
Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance.
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?

LE GRAND MACABRE: INTERVIEW WITH LIGETI | ARTICLE BY SOPRANO ELIZABETH WATTS | GUARDIAN REVIEW

Click on the image to go to the corresponding article

Soprano Elizabeth Watts on ‘Le Grand Macabre’

György Ligeti: Interview on Le Grand Macabre

Le Grand Macabre: Guardian review

GYORGY LIGETI: THREE BOOKS

NEO-CLASSICAL & CONTEMPORARY MUSIC IN ‘MARA,MARIETTA’

CLICK ON AN IMAGE TO GO TO THE CORRESPONDING PAGE

Henze

Rihm

Ligeti

Reimann

Hartmann

Kurtág

Nina Hagen

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