A TRIBUTE TO GYÖRGY LIGETI
IN HIS NATIVE TRANSYLVANIA
Bianca Ţiplea Temeş
Proiect realizat cu sprijinul Primăriei și Consiliului Local Cluj-Napoca
Descrierea CIP a Bibliotecii Naţionale a României
A tribute to Gyorgy Ligeti in his native Transylvania : Nos. 1-2 / ed. by
Bianca Ţiplea Temeş, Kofi Agawu. - Cluj-Napoca : MediaMusica, 2020
I. Ţiplea-Temeş, Bianca (ed.)
II. Agawu, Kofi (ed.)
Grafica de copertă și ilustrațiile: Bencze Miklós (Firma9)
Any editorial endeavour is, by definition, a team effort and our gratitude goes to all
those individuals and organizations who contributed in every possible way to the
shaping of the present volume. Ligeti’s artistic personality is strongly reflected in
the cosmopolitan multi-culturalism of our long list of supporters, including the
authors of the published papers, the members of the scientific board – Nicholas
Cook, Michael Searby, Heidy Zimmermann, Amy Bauer, Violeta Dinescu, Keith
Potter, László Vikárius, and Adrian Pop – and many institutions who offered their
Association Transylvania Art and Science Cluj -Napoca;
Gh. Dima National Music Academy Cluj-Napoca;
Deutsches Kulturzentrum Klausenburg and Goethe Zentrum;
Paul Sacher Stiftung Basel; Association Musica Spiritualis – Switzerland;
Kingston University, London; University of California, Irvine; Princeton University;
National University of Music Bucharest; Institute for Musicology, Research Center
for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences Budapest; Université de
Strasbourg; University College Dublin; the Swiss Embassy in Bucharest
Of equal importance were the publishing houses or individuals that granted
reproduction rights for score excerpts or archival documents: Schott Music
International; Universal Edition; Boosey & Hawkes; Paul Sacher Stiftung Basel;
Editura Muzicală București; Netherlands Instituut voor Beeld en Geluid,
Hilversum; as well as Terry Riley, Corneliu Dan Georgescu, Fabienne Wyler, and
We would like to thank Ariana Phillips-Hutton from the University of Cambridge
for her outstanding editorial support in preparing these texts for publication in
English, as well as Bencze Miklós for the inspired cover graphic design and the
illustrations that offer a perfect visual counterpoint to Ligeti’s musical aesthetics.
Last but not least, we express our deepest gratitude to the City Hall of Cluj-Napoca
for their financial support in the publishing of the present volume, thus
acknowledging in a substantial way Ligeti’s profound connection with this city, the
point of departure for his entire artistic career.
Table of Contents
Ligeti’s Legacy in Retrospect
‘A COMPOSER SHOULD […] NOT TALK TOO MUCH’: 1
GYÖRGY LIGETI’S SPEECHES AND WRITINGS
HOW GYÖRGY LIGETI HAD HIS NUMBER ONE: 29
ELEVEN RULES FOR ATMOSPHÈRES’ SUCCESS
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF TIMBRE AS A STRUCTURAL COMPONENT
IN WORKS BY GYÖRGY LIGETI 43
GYÖRGY LIGETI ET L’IMAGE SONORE DE QUELQUES 51
GYÖRGY LIGETI AND HARRY PARTCH: 69
IN THE HAMBURG COMPOSITION CLASS
MEETING LIGETI 95
Ligeti: a Portrait with Reich and Riley
RETHINKING LIGETI’S (AND REICH’S) AFRICAN AFFILIATIONS 105
MELODY, REPETITION, AND PERIODICITY: 133
A STUDY OF PARALLELS BETWEEN
GYÖRGY LIGETI, STEVE REICH, AND TERRY RILEY
CODES, CONSTRAINTS, AND THE LOSS OF CONTROL 161
IN LIGETI’S KEYBOARD WORKS
HEARING VOICES: 177
SPEECH MELODY AS TECHNICAL AND AFFECTIVE
COMPOSITIONAL METHOD IN THE MUSIC OF STEVE REICH
LIGETI’S MAXIMAL MUSIC:
ESSAY ON THE LAST TW O PIANO ETUDES OF GYÖRGY LIGETI 205
‘SOMETHING IN THE AIR’:
LIGETI’S METRONOMES AND STEVE REICH’S MICROPHONES 221
DR. SEEK AND MR. HIDE: 247
GYÖRGY LIGETI MEETS CONLON NANCARROW
PRACTICES AND THEORIES IN MINIMALIST STAGE SETTING 257
MINIMALISM AND POPULARITY IN HUNGARY IN THE 1980S: 271
OUT OF THE LOOP? ROMANIAN MINIMALISM 285
BIANCA ŢIPLEA TEMEŞ
LIST OF CONTRIBUTORS 300
Recognized today as the composer who masterfully disturbed the clocks in
music, invented the smoking organ in Volumina and wove myriad micro-
polyphonic spider webs in his scores, György Ligeti is above all an iconic
son of Transylvania, a region with a rich and unique multi-ethnic culture.
Paying tribute to this brilliant musician here in Cluj-Napoca, where his
musical trajectory began, is the most natural of gestures taking the form of a
festival founded and directed by the musicologist and professor Bianca
Țiplea Temeș. The first edition took place in 2016, marking a decade since
Ligeti’s passing, and the second, two years later, coincided with what would
have been the composer’s 95th birthday.
Each edition of the festival has offered pride of place to the widest
possible range of musicological research by including a conference among
the events. The present volume consists of a selection of the lectures
delivered in each of the editions, with the publication divided into two
distinct parts, each retaining the title of the corresponding conference, and
offering rich new perspectives on Ligeti’s work.
The first section, entitled “Ligeti’s Legacy in Retrospect”, looks
“through the looking glass” into the composer’s laboratory, capturing
elements of his creative thinking and compositional techniques. Wolfgang
Marx – the keynote speaker of the first conference – explores the composer’s
activity as a theorist. Crossing the border between theory and practice, Julia
Heimerdinger examines aspects of Atmosphères, and Michael Searby shows
in a compelling article how timbre is a means of determining the musical
form for Ligeti. Amalia Szűcs Blănaru’s French-language study offers a
detailed account of the way in which music and mathematics subtly
intersect in Ligeti’s music, and his microtonal soundworld is addressed by
Manfred Stahnke, incidentally drawing a parallel with the music of Harry
Partch. As a “coda” to the first chapter, the composer Professor Cornel
Țăranu’s article reminisces more colloquially about his encounters with
Ligeti in Darmstadt and Aix-en-Provence during the 1970s.
Facsimile edition © Schott, 1976
The second section takes its title from one of the composer’s iconic
pieces: Self-portrait with Reich and Riley (with Chopin in the background). Kofi
Agawu, the keynote speaker of the second conference, provides the reader
with a fresh perspective on the connection between Ligeti’s and Reich´s
oeuvre and African music. The papers of Pierre Michel and Heidy
Zimmermann attempt to place in sharper relief the trajectories of American
minimalism and its impact on Ligeti’s work, while his keyboard music
afforded both Amy Bauer and Manfred Stahnke the means to explore the
fine line between strict control and complete freedom in composition.
Focusing exclusively on Steve Reich, Vlad Văidean investigates the strong
influence of speech patterns on his soundworld.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania VII
Ligeti’s eclectic personality also opens many windows on the work
of other artists of the 20th and 21st century; “auch dabei”, an extension of the
second section suggested by the subtitle of Ligeti’s piece (“und Chopin ist
auch dabei”) allows Felix Meyer to explore the points at which Nancarrow
and Ligeti’s music intersect. Anca-Daniela Mihuț pushes the artistic
boundaries still further, showing how minimalist ideas affected stage
setting. Finally, two essays discuss the contrasting ways in which two
neighboring countries (Hungary in Anna Dalos’s paper, and Romania in
Bianca Țiplea Temeș’s) approached minimalism during the communist era.
As Ligeti himself said in a biographical film:
I am a Hungarian Jew born in Transylvania. I had Romanian
nationality when I was born, and later became Hungarian
citizen when I went to Budapest (this was very difficult to
acquire!). I then fled to Vienna after the Revolution in 1956.
I didn’t become someone from the West, but rather someone
who has roots in both parts of the world.
In my heart I feel at home everywhere, in Vienna, in
Hamburg, in Paris, in New York, or in Budapest.
Everyone should be like that, a citizen of the world.
But of course, I am tied to Transylvania, where I haven’t been
in 36 years…1
Even though Ligeti never returned here, we present this volume as an
imaginary journey. In the words of Lewis Carroll, and ours, the main
objective of this joint editorial tribute is to
“…[wander] up and down, and trying turn after turn, but
always coming back to the house /…/”,
to his native wonderland…
1 György Ligeti: un portrait, film by Michel Follin, authors: Judit Kele, Michel Follin, and
Arnaud de Mezamat. Co-produced by Abacaris Film, Artline Films, La Sept Arte, RTBF,
Magyar Televízió, Productions du Sablier, and Centre Georges Pompidou, 1993.
Ligeti’s Legacy in Retrospect
‘A composer should […] not talk too much’:
György Ligeti’s Speeches and Writings
When Marina Lobanova prepared her book György Ligeti: Style, Ideas, Poetics
she conducted a number of interviews with the composer. On 15 December
1991, the following dialogue took place between them.
Ligeti: A composer should sit and compose, should write
music and not talk too much. Time and again I find myself
having to give a lecture or answer someone’s questions.
Lobanova: But in the twentieth century you have the quite
unusual situation of a lot of composers writing treatises on
Ligeti: …and on their own compositions. I think that is a
disaster! Wagner started it all off – he was always wanting to
anchor everything in the form of a particular world view. […].
Dufay and Machaut left us no treatises […]. There’s too much
It appears as if Ligeti positions himself here against a practice more and
more common in the twentieth century: that of composers of Western art
1 Marina Lobanova, György Ligeti: Style, Ideas, Poetics, translated by Mark Shuttleworth
(Berlin: Ernst Kuhn, 2002), 371–72.
2 Marx: ’A composer should […] not talk too much’
music spending an increasing amount of time talking or writing about their
music (or that of others). However, despite Lobanova’s assertion, the
resulting texts do not mainly engage with music theory or compositional
techniques. Of course, there are some publications of that nature (such as
Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre2), yet they represent something that was not at
all a new phenomenon – until well into the eighteenth century the vast
majority of music-related texts were written by composers (who at that time
were always also performers). Among these are figures like Franco of
Cologne, Philippe de Vitry, Michael Praetorius, and Jean -Philippe Rameau
(Ligeti is correct in stating that Dufay and Machaut left us no treatises, but a
vast number of their contemporaries did). Writings about music were often
teaching material focusing on music theory, organology or playing
techniques. From Plato onwards, other aspects they covered related to
music’s position in religious and philosophical contexts. There was little
historiography of music, biographical writing, or music criticism until the
eighteenth century. Then, however, the interest in music -related literature
beyond these topics began to grow, a n interest initially mainly responded to
again by composers such as Johann Mattheson and Charles Burney. But
soon they were joined by authors who were not active musicians. One of the
first of these may have been George Frederic Handel’s biographer John
Mainwaring who published his book in 1760; among his successors were
Stendhal with his biographies of composers (Vies de Haydn, Mozart et
Métastase, 1814; Vie de Rossini, 1824), and Georg Nikolaus Nissen’s
biography of Mozart (1828). In the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the
early Baroque, writings about music mainly addressed other musicians, but
this changed with the rise of the middle classes: now the bourgeois audience
increasingly became the text’s main target, with their interest focusing on
musical history (especially biographies), aesthetics, and musical criticism.
2 Arnold Schoenberg, Harmonielehre (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1911).
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 3
When musicology began to emerge as an academic discipline during
the nineteenth century, many of its early representatives (including central
characters such as Friedrich Chrysander, Philipp Spitta, and Arnold
Schering) were no longer active as professional musicians. A trend emerged
according to which those writing about music were no longer necessarily
professionally active musicians (notwithstanding the fact that most of them
had degrees in music and were active as amateur musicians – there has
probably never been a musicologist who is not in some way making music).
There are, however, two important exceptions to this trend in today’s
world: historically informed performance practice and contemporary music.
In historically informed performance practice, performers have always
played a dominant role as authors, as examples like Nikolaus Harnoncourt,
John Eliot Gardiner, or Joshua Rifkin indicate. In contemporary music, we
find that a large number of composers do not just write music but also texts
– in addition to regularly giving interviews or talks. This is quite a time-
consuming activity as Ligeti indicates in the quotation above. He appears to
think that these activities are induced from the outside (“I find myself
having to give a lecture or answer someone’s questions”), but is this always
true? Can we take Ligeti’s indignation seriously given that there are few
composers in the second half of the twentieth century who published more
texts or gave more talks and interviews than Ligeti himself? Why do
contemporary composers feel the need to address the public not just with
their music but also through words?
This essay approaches these questions in three stages, looking at
Ligeti in his roles as interview partner and author of texts as someone trying
to expand his income, to assert auctorial authority in music-related aesthetic
discourses, and to aid the spread and performances of his music. A final
section addresses the way in which we should engage with Ligeti’s
statements and memories, and more generally the relationship between
4 Marx: ’A composer should […] not talk too much’
contemporary composers on the one hand and musicologists on the other.
What is the best way of approaching this kind of source?
Generating Income through Talks and Essays
Ligeti lost his salary as a lecturer at the Budapest Conservatoire when
fleeing to Austria after the failure of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. He did
not receive any regular income until he accepted the professorship of
composition at the Hamburg Musikhochschule in 1973. In a radio interview
with István Szigeti in Budapest in 1983 Ligeti explained how he made ends
meet initially. “I had a scholarship for four months, and then I lived on a
very small grant in Vienna for a few months […] I do not quite know how
the money came from here and there, I wrote some texts for example.”3 The
scholarship allowed him to study with Stockhausen at the WDR’s studio for
electronic music in Cologne. In the same interview he explains that his wife
held “a modest post as a psychologist”, but her work did not contribute too
much to the household income either. In his last extended interview with
Eckhard Roelcke, Ligeti pointed out that radio work also contributed to his
income at that time, but that those fees were reduced due to his (at least at
that point) imperfect German: “Somehow I made do with radio essays. My
German wasn’t very good, and I always shared the fee with people who
spoke good German. […] Then I taught in Sweden as a guest lecturer and
somehow made ends meet that way for several years.”4
3 The interview was broadcast on 29 July 1983 and later published as István Szigeti, “A
Budapest Interview with Ligeti”, New Hungarian Quarterly 25 (Summer 1984), 205–10. Quoted
from an online reproduction of this interview: worldsoundmusic.blogspot.com/2012/12/a-
budapest-interview-with-gyorgy-ligeti_7.html, accessed on 23 March 2020.
4 “Irgendwie habe ich mich mit Rundfunkvorträgen durchgeschlagen. Ich konnte sehr
schlecht Deutsch und habe immer das Honorar mit Leuten geteilt, die gut Deutsch konnten.
[…] Ich habe dann als Gastlehrer in Schweden unterrichtet und hielt mich damit viele Jahre
irgendwie über Wasser.” In “Träumen Sie in Farbe?” György Ligeti im Gespräch mit Eckhard
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 5
Even after his breakthrough with Apparitions and Atmosphères, Ligeti
was unable to make a living from composing alone – for a long time he still
required complementary sources of income.
At that time I couldn’t live from my compositions since I only
accepted commissions if I knew I had a long time to work on
them. That is still the case today. I can’t accept a commission
every two weeks, but just once in three years, or – if it is a
brief piece – once per year. The commissioning fees are rather
meagre, except if you conduct yourself.5
Ligeti’s letters (held by the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel) allow some
glimpses into how much money could be earned through this type of work.
For example, on 12 November 1963 Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt sent Ligeti
a telegram inviting him to give a talk with music examples on “Music in the
Age of Technology” at the prestigious Kongresshalle venue in Berlin on 25
February 1964 for a honorarium of DM1,000 plus expenses.6 DM1,000 was
the equivalent of about $251.75 at that time which, when adjusted for
inflation, was equivalent to $2,098.68 “income value” in 2020 – not bad for a
Roelcke (Wien: Paul Zsolnay, 2003), 118. All translations from the German in this essay are by
5 “Damals konnte ich von meinen Kompositionen nicht leben, denn ich habe Aufträge nur
akzeptiert, wenn ich wußte, daß ich lange Zeit dafür arbeiten konnte. Das ist auch heute noch
so. Ich kann nicht alle zwei Wochen einen Auftrag annehmen, sondern nur einmal in drei
Jahren, oder wenn es ein kurzes Stück ist, einmal im Jahr. Die Autorenhonorare sind, wenn
man nicht selbst dirigiert, ziemlich gering.” In Roelcke,“Träumen Sie in Farbe? ”, 120.
6 The telegram’s original wording is: “Technische Universitaet laedt Sie zu Vortrag mit
Musikbeispielen im Zyklus Musik im Technischen Zeitalter Montag 25. Februar
Kongresshalle ein Honorar 1000 DM plus Flug und Aufenthalt erbitte Telegrammantwort
Gruss – Stuckenschmidt Berlin Dahlem Podbielskiallee 65”. Paul Sacher Foundation, György
Ligeti Collection. I would like to thank both Dr Heidy Zimmermann and Evelyne Diendorf at
the Paul Sacher Foundation for facilitating my research.
6 Marx: ’A composer should […] not talk too much’
single talk.7 Another letter from 1961 shows Hans Otte, music director at the
Radio Bremen broadcasting station, offering Ligeti DM1,000 as a
honorarium for a composition and another DM1,000 as a fee for the later
broadcasting of the premiere (this was to become Volumina).8 The Ligeti
Collection does not reveal anything more about this project, particularly not
whether those numbers were finally agreed on by both sides (there are gaps
in the collection of letters as Ligeti either did not keep all of them or did not
hand them all over to the Paul Sacher Foundation). However, it is
interesting to note that at least on occasion a talk in Berlin could be worth as
much as a new composition – clearly there was a huge incentive for Ligeti to
pursue these opportunities. When Karl-Erik Welin, the organist who was to
perform the premiere of Volumina in Bremen, damaged an organ on which
he practiced the piece, the live premiere was called off as the authorities at
Bremen Cathedral feared for their instrument. Instead, a rehearsal tape
Welin had recorded earlier was broadcast, yet was found to not contain the
end of the piece.9 In such circumstances, one wonders how much of the
broadcasting fee Ligeti might have received.
In the Szigeti interview quoted above, but even more in the Roelcke
interview Ligeti highlighted the importance that the “Swedish connection”
had for him in the 1960s.
7 The calculation from DM to $ was made using the “Currency Converter in the Past” website
Go%21; accessed on 23 March 2020). The conversion to 2020 purchasing power was made
using the “Measuring Worth” website (https://www.measuringworth.com; accessed on 23
March 2020). However, the latter website points out that there are other types of value
conversion as well which in this case would be lower. I thank Morgan Kelly (UCD) for
introducing me to these websites.
8 Letter to Ligeti by Hans Otte, Radio Bremen, 21 September 1961. Paul Sacher Foundation,
György Ligeti Collection, Letters, microfilm MD267.1.
9 Richard Steinitz, György Ligeti. Music of the Imagination (London: Faber & Faber 2003), 124–
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 7
I was invited to be a guest teacher in Stockholm, but I never
lived there, I just went there quite a lot, about three times a
year, for two weeks at a time. In those days there was such a
difference in exchange rates between the Swedish krona and
the Austrian schilling that I could live for six months on the
money I earned teaching for two weeks in Sweden.10
A letter from Ligeti’s bank in Vienna from 1965 sheds some more light on
the income Ligeti received in Sweden. It asks him to elaborate on the
sources of 15,000 Swedish Kronas that were transferred to his account. In his
response Ligeti explains that these are two commission fees of SEK6,000 for
a composition (“Kompositionsauftrag”) paid in 1964 and 1965, respectively,
as well as SEK3,000 for his teaching in Stockholm in 1965. 11 SEK6,000
equated to $1,168.46 on the day on which the transfer to Austria took place
(31 March 1965), and is equivalent to $9,577.15 of income in 2020. SEK3,000
would naturally be half that sum; overall the SEK15,000 thus had a 2020
income value of $23,942.88. It is likely that both SEK6,000 payments were for
the Requiem, Ligeti’s most extensive composition to date, on which he
worked between 1963 and 1965 and which was premiered in March 1965 in
In another, earlier letter from 10 February 1961, Bo Wallner, an
influential Swedish musicologist and supporter of Ligeti’s, invited him to
Stockholm with these lines: “We expect that you lecture on the afternoon of
28 April at the Conservatory of Music and – in case you’ll stay on a bit
which we sincerely hope – also on 5 May 61. You will get 150:- skr each
10 Szigeti, ‘A B udapest Interview with Ligeti’.
11 The letter from the Österreichische Nationalbank was sent on 23 April 1965; Ligeti’s
response dates from 15 May 1965. Paul Sacher Foundation, György Ligeti Collection, Letters,
8 Marx: ’A composer should […] not talk too much’
time.”12 SEK150 equates to a modern income value of $251.24 – clearly, not
all talks were as lucrative as the one Stuckenschmidt offered Ligeti in Berlin.
However, this may also be related to the fact that Ligeti’s star was rising
quickly in the early 1960s so that he may have been “worth” more as a
speaker in 1964 than he had been in 1961.
Ligeti also benefited from a number of scholarships/fellowships and
stipends he received over the years. The initial Austrian stipend that
allowed him to study with Stockhausen in Cologne has already been
mentioned. Another one relates to a book project about Anton Webern,
which is referred to in several letters in the Ligeti Collection. The Institut
zur Förderung der Künste in Österreich (Institute for the Support of the Arts
in Austria) had awarded him a stipend for this work for the first time in
1958 and renewed it for another six months in November 1960.13 In another,
much more extensive letter from 12 November 1965 to Alfred Schlee, the
long-time director of the Universal Edition in Vienna (which was to be the
book’s publisher), Ligeti apologises for not having finished the Webern
book yet and blames this on his other occupations, mainly commissions for
new compositions, lecturing duties, and illnesses. Yet he anticipates better
times ahead for the completion of the book:
With this life from one deadline to another it became
inevitable that – whenever my fixed plans were affected by
an unanticipated illness or another delay to my work – it was
always the Webern book that drew the short straw as I had to
give priority to those projects that secured my primary
12 “Wir erwarten, daß Du am 28. April nachm. an der MH vorliest und – falls Du noch etwas
bleibst, was wir stark hoffen – auch am 5.5.61. Du bekommst für jedesmal 150:- skr.”. Bo
Wallner, 10 February 1961. Paul Sacher Foundation, György Ligeti Collection, Letters,
13 More details about the Webern project can be found in Monika Lichtenfeld, “Komposition
und Kommentar. György Ligetis Kunst des Schreibens”, in György Ligeti: Gesammelte Schriften,
edited by Monika Lichtenfeld, 1:9–38 (Mainz: Schott, 2007), 1:13–16.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 9
existence. [...] As my work has changed insofar as I
succeeded in reducing teaching obligations and making my
living based on radio texts etc. in order to close in on my goal
to focus on composing it is not more likely that I will
eventually manage to finish the book. But I cannot predict
exactly when I will have the required 4–6 months available to
do so [...].14
However, the book was never to be finished – presumably Ligeti kept being
preoccupied by new commissions and other projects that secured his
“primary existence”. Yet Ligeti’s Webern research also resulted in radio
programmes aired by Bayerischer Rundfunk (eight episodes, 1960),
Südwestfunk Baden-Baden (ten episodes, 1963/64) and several individual
programmes for Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln (1958–1963/64). 15 The
manuscripts on which these programmes are based are available in the first
volume of Ligeti’s Collected Writings, covering eighty-five pages (325–410).
Ligeti would have been paid for these programmes in addition to having
received the stipends to undertake (at least much of) the research they were
based on, so this was quite a lucrative arrangement for him.
Among other stipends Ligeti received was the “Berliner
Künstlerprogramm des DAAD” (DAAD Artists in Berlin Programme),
14 “Dieses Leben von einer Termin-Arbeit zur anderen brachte es mit sich, dass sobald die
festen Pläne durch eine unvorhergesehene Krankheit oder durch eine Arbeitsverzögerung
hinausgeschoben wurden, immer die Sache des Webern -Buches den kürzeren zog, denn ich
musste den Arbeiten, von denen meine Existenz primär abhing, auch die Priorität einräumen.
[...] Da sich die Art meiner Arbeit allmählich insofern geändert hat, als es mir gelang, die
Lehrtätigkeit und das Leben aus Radiotexten, etc. abzubauen und meinem Ziel,
hauptsächlich komponieren zu können, näher zu kommen, gibt es eine grössere
Wahrscheinlichkeit, dass ich doch irgendwann dazu komme, das Buch fertigzustellen. Ich
kann es aber nicht mit Bestimmtheit voraussagen, wann ich die nötigen 4 bis 6 Monate dazu
frei haben werde [...].” Letter to Alfred Schlee, Vienna, 12 November 1965. Ligeti Collection,
Folder 235 Labirintus, 00019.
15 György Ligeti: Gesammelte Schriften, edited by Monika Lichtenfeld, 2 vols. (Mainz: Schott,
10 Marx: ’A composer should […] not talk too much’
which was awarded to him in 1969 to live and work in Berlin for one year.
In 1972, Stanford University offered him a half-year residency that allowed
Ligeti to acquaint himself directly with the Californian musical culture,
particularly minimal music.
As we have seen above, fees for live talks or appearances on radio
were significantly higher in the 1960s than they are today. Ligeti’s statement
that he had to support himself this way because he could not make a living
as a composer indicates that the main reason for his activities in this area
was a pragmatic one: he needed the money. This view is strengthened if one
takes into account the dates of those of his writings that are not dedicated to
his own music. Altogether, sixty-three of these texts are published in the
first volume of his Collected Writings. The opening four essays were written
during Ligeti’s Hungarian years while the concluding nine “Geleit- und
Gedenkworte” (except the one commemorating Hans Rosbaud from 1963)
stem from the period 1979 to 2003. However, of the remaining fifty texts,
forty-two were penned between 1957 and 1973 (including his most
influential essays such as “Wandlungen der musikalischen Form” or the
analysis of Boulez’s Structures 1a) while only eight were written in later
So Ligeti more or less ceased writing musicological or theoretical
essays particularly about music in general or music by other composers
once he had the financial security that came with the professorship in
Hamburg. From then on he mainly restricted himself to laudations,
responses to honours he received, and commemorative texts which are
normally much shorter than the earlier essays. However, throughout his
life Ligeti continued to give interviews and write introductions to his own
works, on his musical style and his development as a composer (which are
collated in the second volume of the Collected Writings). Hence Ligeti’s
statement that his talks and essays mainly served to earn money appears
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 11
plausible. Of course, this does not mean that he cared less about them – he is
likely to have proposed topics that he was interested in himself – yet we can
assume that many of them would not have been written had Ligeti already
had a chance to accept a permanent position at a conservatory earlier.
Establishing Auctorial Authority
As pointed out above, until the eighteenth century comparatively little
music historiography, biography, aesthetic discourse, and music criticism
was produced. Yet with the onset of the bourgeois age, the need for music-
related writings addressing general audiences became pressing and was
quickly fulfilled, particularly in the nineteenth century. Kath arine Ellis
describes Hector Berlioz’s engagement with criticism as follows:
in using criticism to justify his art, Berlioz was at the
forefront of a nineteenth-century tradition presaged by E.T.A.
Hoffmann and continued by Schumann and Wagner – a
tradition of educative and even propagandistic writing […]
that acknowledged and attempted to close the gap between
avant-garde composition and a predominantly bourgeois
public with considerable purchasing power but conservative
This probably applies to post-war avant-garde composers even more than to
Berlioz: they too faced a conservative, bourgeois audience that was by and
large reluctant to engage with the new, instead embracing the canon. At the
same time, more and more authors entered a more and more complex
aesthetic discourse around the discussion and evaluation of compositions.
Ian Pace states that this discourse is inevitable in today’s art world:
16 Katharine Ellis, “The Criticism”, in The Cambridge Companion to Berlioz, edited by Peter
Bloom, 157–63 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 157.
12 Marx: ’A composer should […] not talk too much’
“Aesthetic discourse […] is a necessary element within the operation of any
developed cultural infrastructure such as is required for the continued
existence of artistic activity in the public realm”; Pace adds that these
discourses “have become well-established in various different musical
cultures to such an extent as to attain a type of autonomous life of their
This poses a challenge to composers with regard to the stylistic and
aesthetic assessment of their works. Who has the highest interpretative
authority (or, in German, Deutungshoheit) when it comes to determining the
quality and the meaning of a piece of music – particularly in a world that
has embraced Barthes’s concept of the “death of the author” (and, by
extension, also the composer)? Its creator? Or a critic / musicologist on the
basis of reception and synchronic as well as diachronic comparative
analysis? It is no surprise that composers were unwilling to leave the field
entirely to those specialists’ judgments.
The Canadian singer and musicologist Dillon Parmer has published
an interesting interpretation of this process as a battle for power between
musical theory and practice. He observes in this “academic discourse […] an
agenda that aggrandizes the scholar on the one hand by demeaning
musicians on the other”.18 His extensive article traces the positioning of
“epistemic knowledge” over “procedural knowledge” back to Boethius and
Boethius denies performers the capacity for understanding
the art they practice, not just because they themselves are
without such capacity, but also (and just as important)
17 Ian Pace, “Verbal Discourse as Aesthetic Arbitrator in Contemporary Music”, in The
Modernist Legacy, edited by Björn Heile, 81–99 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 87–88, 83.
18 Dillon Parmer, “Musicology, Performance, Slavery: Intellectual Despotism and the Politics
of Musical Understanding”, Intersections: Canadian Journal of Music 33/2 (July 2015): 59–90; 60.
http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/1030870ar (accessed 23 March 2020).
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 13
because the actions in which they are engaged themselves do
not entail thinking.19
He sees this rating of theoretical knowledge above practical abilities still
prevalent today, in that “epistemic understanding comes to be as sociated
with knowledge (the purview of the musicologist), whereas procedural
understanding comes to be associated with skill (the purview of
musicians).”20 Parmer describes the resulting power balance as a clear case
of “intellectual despotism”21 that is ultimately rooted in the values of ancient
Greek and Roman societies, according to which practical tasks were to be
undertaken by slaves while their masters can focus on intellectual issues.
When the emerging discipline of musicology assumed leadership in
the production of music-related texts and expanded its remit beyond music
theory and related issues, it claimed that no appropriate understanding of
music was possible without proper knowledge of all these areas. This
represented an indirect way to establish and fortify intellectual leadership
over performers and composers (Parmer combines these two groups under
the heading of “performer”):
For when such scholars [for which read, musicologists]
subject the musician (and themselves) to the rule of
disciplinary understanding, when they say that music
making is improved only when the musician is informed by
history or theory or analysis or critical theory or semiology or
whatever, they do exactly the same thing Boethius does
when he claims that bodily work becomes ennobled only
when it is subservient to the rule of reason, they do exactly
the same thing that Aristotle does when he advises that the
19 Ibid., 68.
20 Ibid., 63.
21 Ibid., 70.
14 Marx: ’A composer should […] not talk too much’
actions of the slave are legitimated by the authoritative
understanding of the master.22
A composer active in the second half of the twentieth century could
be certain that her/his music, her/his style, her/his relationship to the past
and other aspects of her/his work would be made subject of musicological
deliberations (but also to comments / reviews by her/his fellow composers).
For example, when Ligeti established himself in Austria and West Germany,
the contemporary music scene was dominated by musicological and critical
heavyweights such as Heinz-Klaus Metzger, Theodor W. Adorno, and Hans
Heinz Stuckenschmidt. The Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik
Darmstadt and other festivals, as well as several radio, and (occasionally)
even TV programmes offered platforms for dialogue between composers,
but also included musicologists. 23 It was of crucial importance for a
composer to participate in these discussions, particularly if s/he did not
agree with how others interpreted her/his music, or if they critiqued her/his
music for ideological reasons. During an interview with Ulrich Dibelius,
Ligeti outlined his own view of this development particularly in the 1950s in
West Germany. According to him, the group centred around Stockhausen,
Koenig, Maderna and others had
a need of a quasi-theoretical framework outlining that this
music, or this conspiracy, this Clique, this mafia – whichever
way we label it – is on the right way and has really invented
the then new music of the fifties. One was looking for a
22 Ibid., 77.
23 Monika Lichtenfeld’s introduction to Ligeti’s Collected Writings outlines this situation in
some detail. See Monika Lichtenfeld, “Komposition und Kommentar. György Ligetis Kunst
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 15
continuous vindication, a continuous self-affirmation. And I
think that’s why there were so many texts.24
An additional reason for the perceived need to express themselves so much
through the medium of text could be that the representatives of the avant-
garde regarded themselves as successors of what the Nazis had declared to
be “degenerate art” (entartete Kunst). Because this tradition had been cut off
in Germany, it had to be reintroduced and “explained” to audiences in more
detail than would have been the case elsewhere.25 In any case, being a
regular and high-profile participant in the aesthetic discourse on
contemporary music was (and still is) an important factor in ensuring that a
composer’s works as well as s/he as a person was not only talked about in
general, but that the auctorial views regarding the music’s structure and
meaning played as significant a part as possible in it. Establishing
herself/himself as an important voice in more general aesthetic discourses
could also help drawing attention to her/his music.
Securing a “Brand Identity”
Ian Pace regards a composer’s and also a performer’s participation in the
aesthetic discourse as not only important to secure interpretative authority,
but also as crucial with regard to receiving commissions and organising
Whether such things are explicit or implicit (or, most likely,
some combination of the two), the discourse and the value
24 “[...] das Bedürfnis nach einer sozusagen theoretischen Skizze, daß diese Musik oder diese
Verschwörung, diese Clique, diese Mafia – egal wie wir es nennen – auf dem richtigen Weg
ist und eigentlich die damalige neue Musik der fünfziger Jahre erfunden hat. Man brauchte
eine dauernde Apologetik, eine dauernde Selbstbestätigung. Und ich glaube, deswegen gab
es diese vielen Texte.” Ulrich Dibelius, Ligeti. Eine Monographie in Essays (Mainz: Schott, 1994),
25 Dibelius, Ligeti, 254.
16 Marx: ’A composer should […] not talk too much’
judgements contained within in essence determine who and
what is to be commissioned, which works are to be
performed, who is to perform them and so on […]. In this
sense, the very terms of the discourse itself that such people
engage in are an absolutely vital arbitrating factor in the
process of making actual composition and performance occur.
[…] composers and performers need to satisfy the terms of
the predominant discourse that exists at the time […] if they
are to gain any type of career-related success. This situation is,
I believe, inevitable […].26
György Ligeti was particularly successful in this area. A surprising
dialectical twist allows for the very statements he made in order to position
himself in the context of the avant-garde’s aesthetic discourses from the
1960s onwards to be used by the culture industry as promotional vehicles.
In an article published in 2004, Charles Wilson has outlined this process
convincingly and in great detail, commencing with the following lines:
[C]omposers’ public statements, through the uniquely
authoritative status accorded to them by scholars, have
played an essential role in propping up this image of the
heroically independent creator. Artistic self-representations –
in articles, programme notes, and especially interviews – are
naturally individualistic, for reasons that go beyond mere
egocentricity. The “rhetoric of autonomy” has served an
especially important function for writers and artists ever
since the advent of what Felicity Nussbaum has called “the
published self as property in a market economy” – the
function, namely, of differentiating them from other creators
26 Pace, “Verbal Discourse”, 84.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 17
and proclaiming the uniqueness of their work in a
competitive market of symbolic goods.27
In other words, the rules of capitalism require an artist to emphasise his/her
uniqueness and originality so that her/his products can be categorised and
marketed more successfully in the highly competitive market of symbolic
goods. Wilson explains that Ligeti found a unique way to distinguish
himself from other serial and post-serial composers of his time. As a first
step, he invented a terminology to describe the stylistic parameters of his
music. As Wilson recounts, “In the 1970s [Ligeti] enumerated the
components of what he then unapologetically called the ‘Ligeti style’, with
such terms as ‘micropolyphony’ [...], ‘intervallic seed crystals’ [...] and
‘meccanico-type music’.”28 But the crucial move was (according to Wilson)
that Ligeti did not try to explain his personal style as the result of studying
the music of composers like Schoenberg, Webern, Stockhausen, Boulez, or
Bartók, but instead described them as quasi-autobiographically induced and
thus independent from the Western European post-war avant-garde.
He relates the ticking sounds of “meccanico-type music” to a
short story by the Hungarian writer Gyula Krúdy about a
widow living alone in a house full of clocks, barometers, and
other intricate mechanisms. The dense micropolyphonic
textures, on the other hand, he associates with a childhood
dream, often quoted by Ligeti commentators, in which the
path to his bed was blocked by a huge, dense web of filament
in which beetles, moths, and various pieces of rotting detritus
were trapped. His fear of spiders is something else he
27 Charles Wilson, “György Ligeti and the Rhetoric of Autonomy”, Twentieth -Century Music
1/1 (March 2004): 5–28; 6.
28 Ibid., 13.
18 Marx: ’A composer should […] not talk too much’
suggests may have influenced the notion of “the
impenetrable web of sound” – as he puts it.29
Ligeti thus describes his stylistic development not as a reaction to the music
of other composers, but as something he developed out of his own, personal
roots – a development that occurred in an almost teleological, uninterrupted
way (“these alibis serve to reinforce the sense of an independent and logical
stylistic evolution, free of significant aberration or rupture”30). This applies
at least to the period up to 1980 – less so for the later years, as Ligeti has
spoken about entering a compositional crisis after Le Grand Macabre and
freely admitted being inspired by other musical cultures (such as the central
African pygmies), composers (such as Conlon Nancarrow), and styles (such
as the Ars Nova) with regard to his later works. Wilson sees a great
advantage in this autobiographic manner of explaining stylistic
developments as compared to the often abstract, jargon-laden explanations
provided by other composers. This way of introducing new pieces was
much better suited to appeal to a general audience as it came across as more
personal and less technical and abstract.
These autobiographical “alibis” help to dispel the aura of
chilly remoteness that normally surrounds avant-garde
figures, presenting, by contrast, a friendly and personal
image of the composer and a view of the music rich in
metaphorical, even quasi-programmatic, content. And in
doing so they unite with his talk of the synaesthetic
association of “sounds with color, form and texture” and the
“involuntary conversion of optical and tactile into acoustic
sensations” to drive home the sense of an instinctive and
30 Ibid., 15.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 19
unmediated engagement with sound, a world away from the
“abstract” cerebration of the serialists.31
Ligeti thus succeeds in presenting himself as different, individual, and
original – a strategy well known from the advertising industry where each
and every product is presented as different, authentic, and beyond the
normal well-trodden paths. Such advertising suggests to us that through
using a particular product we, too, will become more different, authentic,
and original. Wilson outlines that an artist’s self-presentation as an outsider
in the style of Beethoven today mainly represents a promotional vehicle –
even if it is not intended as such.
The image of the artist as isolated outsider – cultivated
assiduously by Ligeti […] – becomes a prestigious symbol, a
mark of authenticity, though this “outsider” no longer
signifies a genuine other, the often genuinely impoverished
and isolated bohemian artist of the early nineteenth century,
but rather what Hal Foster calls a “token of otherness”, a
mere “emblem of the marginality to which artists were once
consigned”. In this way the stubborn creative independence
that forms a central component in Ligeti’s self-representation
[…] proves ultimately vulnerable to co-option by the very
promotional forces it sets out to resist.32
Did Ligeti himself reflect on how his public statements aided his
“marketability”? By using the term “alibi”, Wilson appears to hint at a
conscious strategy on the composer’s part. As far as I know, Ligeti never
said anything to this effect, but one would not expect him to – after all, it
would have been detrimental for both his position in the intra-musical
discourse and the promotion of his music. However, given the high number
31 Ibid., 14.
32 Ibid., 20.
20 Marx: ’A composer should […] not talk too much’
of interviews and introductory talks he gave, it can be assumed that he
probably was aware of this effect at least in a subconscious way. On the
other hand, he clearly had those dreams and visions he often talked about,
rather than “inventing” them for consumption by an eager audience. A
sheet in the Paul Sacher Foundation may serve as an example of this. On its
reverse side it contains the following lines.
Some musical imaginations
Many years ago during a nightly walk I was overwhelmed
by a vision of unmoving, sounding planes and spaces,
expanding through time in powerful simultaneity while
assembling themselves all around me in iridescent, never-
before heard colours of sound before gradually receding into
the limitless darkness. At the time I was unable to transfer
this musical vision into notation as I still lived in the boring
prison of the steady-going pulsating music and its frames,
the bar lines, which forbade me any escape into the area of
those free, levitating and unconstrained sounding spaces.33
On its front side, the following words can be found.
33 “Einige musikalische Vorstellungen
Vor vielen Jahren, einmal bei einem nächtlichen Spaziergang (während eines nächtlichen
Spaziergangs) überwältigte mich die Vision unbeweglicher, sich in mächtiger
Gleichzeitigkeit in (durch) die Zeit ausdehnender klingender Flächen und Räume, die in
noch nie (nicht) gehörten, irisierenden Klangfarben, gleichsam durch ein internes Licht
durch(ge)leuchtet sich allmählich rund um mich aufbauten und in der genzenlosen
Dunkelheit nach und nach verhallten. Es war mir damals nicht möglich, diese musikalische
Vision in (im) Notenschrift festzuhalten, den ich befand mich noch im langweiligen Kerker
gleichmässig dahinpulsierender Musik und deren Gitter, die Taktstriche, verboten mir das
Entrinnen (Entkommen) in den Bereichen jener freien, durch nichts gebundenen
schwebenden klingenden Räume.” Ligeti Collection, “Unidentifiziertes, Fragmente, Notizen”,
single A4 sheet, undated, reverse side.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 21
Faceless like in paintings by Chirico, enormous expanses and
distances, an architecture consisting of pure framework yet
lacking a manifest building. Austereness and grandeur
remain alone of the organ tradition – everything else
vanishes in the vast caves (“volumina”) of the musical form.
The second set of lines indicates that these texts probably stem from the
gestation period of Volumina in 1961/62. These two small texts would have
been great “fodder” for marketing the new piece, but to my knowledge they
have not been published before – so Ligeti did not always use his visions
and imaginations as the culture industry might require or expect.
How Should We Engage with Ligeti’s Memories?
For about half a century György Ligeti regularly gave talks or interviews as
well as writing texts about his life and about music (his own and that of
others). How should one treat the views expressed in them, as well as the
facts he describes – particularly in light of Wilson’s arguments? Of course,
no one knew more about his life and his music than the man himself, but
like everybody else he was most likely interested in presenting himself in as
positive a light as possible, in excluding negative (or potentially
embarrassing) aspects, and in creating the best possible conditions for
himself and his music. In addition, aesthetic judgements can change over
the decades while memories can fade.
34 “Ohne Antlitz wie in Chirico-Bildern, gewaltige Weiten und Fernen, eine Architektonik,
die bloss aus Gerüstzeug besteht, denen aber ein greifbares Gebäude fehlt. Strenge und
Erhabenheit bleiben als Einzige aus der Orgel-Tradition übrig – alles Andere verschwindet in
den weiten Hohlräumen (“volumina”) der musikalischen Form.
György Ligeti”. Ligeti Collection, “Unidentifiziertes, Fragmente, Notizen”, single A4 sheet,
undated, front side.
22 Marx: ’A composer should […] not talk too much’
After Ligeti’s death, Rachel Beckles Willson undertook research in
Hungarian archives and found some of the composer’s memories to be
questionable. For example, in 1985 he recalled that his entrance exam at the
Conservatory in Budapest in autumn 1945 coincided with the news that
Béla Bartók had just died: “as we saw on the day of the entrance exam the
black flag above the Conservatory: Just that day the news arrived that
Bartók had died at the age of sixty-four in New York.”35 However, Beckles
Willson discovered that in 1945 the entrance exam took place a few weeks
before Bartók’s death so that this apparently vivid memory cannot be
Furthermore, Ligeti pointed out that his Aranyi Songs could not be
performed in public in Hungary after a committee had rejected them as too
modernist in style following a private performance. Again, Beckles Willson
found that the Aranyi Songs had been performed at the Hungarian Music
Week 1953 in public and had also been reviewed. Other “creative acts of
memory” (as Beckles Willson calls them) on the part of the composer
include his claim that he could not really teach composition (rather than
music theory) because that would only have been possible as a
representative of socialist realism – yet Ferenc Farkas and Pál Járdányi, both
professors of composition in Budapest during these years, were not
specifically active in this area.37
Equally interesting in this context are the discoveries that Julia
Heimerdinger made in other archives with regard to the use of Ligeti’s
35 “als wir am Tag unserer Aufnahmeprüfung die schwarze Fahne über der M usikakademie
wehen sahen: Gerade an dem Tag traf die Nachricht ein, daß Bartók im Alter von
vierundsechzig Jahren in New York gestorben war.” György Ligeti, “Begegnung mit Kurtág
im Nachkriegs-Budapest”, in György Ligeti: Gesammelte Schriften, edited by Monika
Lichtenfeld, 1:480–83 (Mainz: Schott, 2007), 482.
36 Rachel Beckles Willson, Ligeti, Kurtág, and Hungarian Music during the Cold War (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2007), 167.
37 Ibid., 166–67.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 23
music in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey.38 Ligeti’s version of the story
can be found in, for example, Richard Steinitz’s book.39 There the composer
outlines that he knew nothing of his music’s appearance in the movie until a
letter by an American friend alerted him to it after the movie’s release.
Steinitz wrote on the basis of his interviews with Ligeti: “Yet neither Ligeti
nor his publishers had been asked for permission, nor had any warning of
this cavalier disregard for their copyright.”40 Yet Heimerdinger found out
that Ligeti had actually heard of the film project earlier (as indicated by a
letter he sent to Ove Nordwall on 19 February 1968 and confirmed by a later
one to Nordwall from 12/13 October 1968), even though rather indirectly
through a letter he received from a member of the choir of the Bayerischer
Rundfunk (it was this broadcaster’s recording of the Requiem that was used
in the movie).41 Heimerdinger adds that from a legal point of view Ligeti
did not have to be asked for permission at all as the producers of the movie
only had to deal with the two music publishers holding the copyrights (C.F.
Peters and Universal Edition) and the rights holders of the recordings.
Despite Ligeti’s hints to Steinitz and others, these permissions were
requested and granted in a legally correct way. It may be morally dubious
that Ligeti was not consulted personally, yet legally it is not problematic. In
any case, once he had seen the film he was outraged about the extent to
which his music featured in it and felt betrayed by his publishers (certainly
Peters). Heimerdinger also suspects that he did not like the classification of
his music as “background music” (Hintergrundmusik) in the contracts. 42
However, he probably did not know that this was the proper technical term
for the non-diegetic use of music in a film – that is music that is not
38 Julia Heimerdinger, “‘I have been compromised. I am now fighting against it’: Ligeti vs.
Kubrick and the Music for 2001: A Space Odyssey”, Journal of Film Music 3/2 (2011): 127–43.
39 Steinitz, György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination, 161–64.
40 Ibid., 162.
41 Heimerdinger, “I have been compromised”, 130.
42 Ibid., 137.
24 Marx: ’A composer should […] not talk too much’
produced as part of the scene and cannot be heard by the characters in it
(unlike the honkytonk piano in the Western saloon, for example). Later
Ligeti settled with the film’s producers for an additional fee of DM4,000,
based on the length of the extracts used in the film, and also on the fact that
the extracts of Aventures had been electronically manipulated which had not
been permitted according to the original contract. Both Steinitz and
Heimerdinger emphasise that Ligeti is likely to have earned substantial
royalties through TV screenings and sales of videocassettes and DVDs.
We do not know whether Ligeti’s memories had changed over time
so that in all the examples given by Beckles Willson and Heimerdinger he
really believed his version to be the truthful one. This would be perfectly
plausible: we all know from our own experience how misleading memories
of events that took place long ago can be. In particular, memories can be
selective and malleable, excluding certain aspects or people, evaluating
events and individuals differently over time. Wilson has shown that Ligeti
developed his own meta-narrative carefully over many years; it is possible
that his memories adapted themselves to suit it. The news of Bartók’s death
arriving in Budapest on the day of Ligeti’s entrance exam, for example,
could depict him as an emerging successor of the great composer, entering
the stage at exactly the moment at which Bartók leaves it.
There are many reasons that might induce contemporary composers to
express their views on music through spoken words or in writing, and on
most occasions it is likely that several of them are in play. Gene rating
significant income in this way (as was very important to Ligeti until 1973) is
no longer possible in the twenty-first century as radio stations pay much
less these days and also have fewer programmes on offer to which art music
composers could contribute (the same applies to print media). Instead
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 25
composers now have their own webpages through which they address the
general public as well as their peers with texts, interviews, and recordings
of their music. However, this type of presentation generates no income
whatsoever in the case of text files and at most a marginal one with regard
to sound files. It is the other two functions that now occupy centre stage.
At a time at which there is probably more written about music than
ever before, the struggle to claim an authoritative voice is also fiercer than
ever. Ligeti emphasised repeatedly that his talks and interviews were
regularly given as a result of requests by others, yet composers who
developed new compositional techniques or aesthetic concepts have for a
long time felt the need to prepare their audiences for the respective
novelties through explanatory texts. Richard Wagner was perhaps the first
composer to undertake this at a large scale, which is probably why Ligeti
referred to him when reflecting on text-producing composers. The music of
a composer as important and influential as Ligeti was bound to generate
musicological and analytical discourses, and it is in the composer’s best
interest to participate in these while s/he can. Yet Charles Wilson’s thoughts,
flanked by Rachel Beckles Willson and Julia Heimerdinger’s findings
indicate that we cannot take what composers tell us entirely at face value as
their motivations or their memories can on occasion be clouded. These
statements are not to be treated as pure truth, but as selective facts used in a
strategic way that may on occasion distort them. Of course, as long as the
Romantic notion of the artistic genius continues to permeate our cultural
sphere there will always be a great interest in what the creator of a work of
art is prepared to reveal about it, as well as about her/his motivation,
techniques used etc. Composers will continue to attempt to steer the
perception of themselves and their work while simultaneously fortifying
their “brand”. Ahead of premieres of new works it is expected that the
composer will give interviews in radio, online or print media, write an
introductory essay, or give a public introduction just before the concert. The
26 Marx: ’A composer should […] not talk too much’
same applies to first recordings. This “performative” presence of composers
in the media is a central component of the culture industry’s PR strategies;
introverted composers that try to evade these events or generally do not
come across well in public are at a disadvantage. In many cases, there is a
significant reduction in the number of performances and recordings after a
composer’s death – without the creator’s presence it appears to be more
difficult to “sell” the product. Yet it is not just presence as such that is
important but also what is being said. As Wilson points out, a composer’s
attempt to differentiate oneself from other composers and outline one’s own
compositional technique or musical aesthetics will serve both as
contribution to the aesthetic discourse and as ammunition for the culture
industry’s marketing machine.
After his arrival in Western Europe Ligeti learned very quickly how
to develop and expand his auctorial position in the music-related aesthetic
discourses of the 1950s and onwards, as well as becoming quite adept and
successful at playing his part in the culture industry’s marketing strategies.
His way of relating elements of his musical style at least in part to childhood
experiences – thus avoiding technical jargon – was one of the most
successful aspects of his relative popularity even beyond new music circles.
Wilson’s article can serve as an excellent example of a critical approach to a
composer’s statements about herself/himself and her/his music; even if one
does not agree with all of his conclusions this method is certainly preferable
to the more hagiographic one that we often encounter in musicological
essays or books about living or recently deceased composers. Most
important, however, is avoiding a danger that Ligeti mentioned himself:
namely, of trusting composers’ texts more than their music, which always
has to be the central point of call. But even so – it is certainly wrong that a
composer should not talk too much. In today’s world , participation in
aesthetic discourses is a crucial aspect of advancing both one’s music and
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 27
one’s career, and Ligeti certainly protested too much when he claimed that
this was a “disaster”.
Beckles Willson, Rachel. Ligeti, Kurtág, and Hungarian Music during the Cold War.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Dibelius, Ulrich. Ligeti. Eine Monographie in Essays. Mainz: Schott, 1994.
Ellis, Katharine. “The Criticism”. In The Cambridge Companion to Berlioz, edited by
Peter Bloom, 157–63. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Heimerdinger, Julia. “‘I have been compromised. I am now fighting against it’:
Ligeti vs. Kubrick and the Music for 2001: A Space Odyssey”, Journal of Film
Music 3/2 (2011): 127–43.
Lichtenfeld, Monika. “Komposition und Kommentar. György Ligetis Kunst des
Schreibens”. In György Ligeti: Gesammelte Schriften, edited by Monika
Lichtenfeld, 1:9–38. Mainz: Schott, 2007.
Ligeti, György. György Ligeti. Gesammelte Schriften, edited by Monika Lichtenfeld. 2
vols. Mainz: Schott, 2007.
Lobanova, Marina. György Ligeti: Style, Ideas, Poetics, translated by Mark
Shuttleworth. Berlin: Ernst Kuhn, 2002.
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The Modernist Legacy, edited by Björn Heile, 81–99. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009.
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Politics of Musical Understanding”. Intersections: Canadian Journal of Music
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Music 1/1 (March 2004): 5–28.
How György Ligeti had His Number One:
Eleven Rules for Atmosphères’ Success
As is well known, György Ligeti’s Atmosphères for orchestra (1961) was a
key work in his career and became his most famous and successful piece.
With a minimum of 526 performances1 since its premiere on 22 October 1961
and twelve different recordings2 released on dozens of labels, it outstrips
other outstandingly famous new music works, like Pierre Boulez’s Le
Marteau sans Maître from 1954, in a number of different categories.3
A first version of this text was published in: Seiltanz. Beiträge zur Musik der Gegenwart, vol. 13,
October 2016, 31–37.
1 Counted: 200 performances from 30 August 1972 to 29 November 1996 (Universal Edition
Vienna [henceforth referred to as UE], archive papers) + 326 performances from 7 December
1996 to 21 April 2016 (UE, performance calendar online). The performances after the
premiere and before 30 August 1972 could unfortunately not be determined.
2 The conductors were: Hans Rosbaud, Hermann Scherchen, Leonard Bernstein, László
Somogyi, Ernest Bour, Seiji Ozawa, Claudio Abbado, John Mauceri, Simon Rattle, Thomas
Kalb, Jonathan Nott, and David Afkham.
3 Le Marteau sans Maître has been performed at least 387 times after its first performance on 18
June 1955. Counted: 197 performances from 7 October 1972 to 30 July 1996 (UE, archive
papers) + 189 performances from 12 September 1996 to 15 March 2016 (UE, performance
calendar online). The performances after the premiere and before 7 October 1972 could
unfortunately not be determined. There are seven recordings, of which only two are not
conducted by Boulez (I indicate conductor/singer): Boulez/Yvonne Minton, Boulez/Jeanne
Deroubaix, Boulez/Marie-Thérèse Cahn, Boulez/Hilary Summers, Boulez/Elisabeth Laurence,
Robert Craft/Margery McKay, Odaline de la Martinez/Linda Hirst.
30 Heimerdinger: How György Ligeti had His Number One
Atmosphères is one of very few twentieth century works that has
made it into the mainstream canon, into the separate new music canon, and
into standard repertoire. This cannot be explained just by its use as film
music in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968, though the
piece’s prominent placement there certainly played a role. To explain its
tremendous success, I will specify which musical and non-musical factors
are accountable. As it turns out, Ligeti followed some of the rules of the
Two analyses back up my argument: first is The Manual (How to Have
a Number One the Easy Way) by Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty (1988),
who formed the acid house band The KLF in the 1980s.4 Second, Anne
Shreffler’s 2013 essay ‘Musical Canonization and Decanonization in the
Twentieth Century’.5 Both analyse the conditions under which a piece of
music is successful in terms of making it into the charts or being seen as part
of the musical canon (and part of a separate new music canon), respectively.
The details and source materials concerning György Ligeti and Atmosphères
predominantly stem from my doctoral research examining the composer’s
commentary and the secondary literature on the work.6
4 Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way),
(London, 1988). German edition: Das Handbuch – der schnelle Weg zum Nr. 1 -Hit (Berlin, 1998).
As I couldn’t get hold of any printed English version, I use the quotes from
<http://freshonthenet.co.uk/the-manual-by-the-klf/>, accessed 24 May 2016. Page references
will refer to the German edition.
5 Anne C. Shreffler, ‘Musical Canonization and Decanonization in the Twentieth Century’,
Published in German translation as: ‘Musikalische Kanonisierung und Dekanonisierung im
20. Jahrhundert’, in: Der Kanon der Musik: Theorie und Geschichte. Ein Handbuch, edited by
Klaus Pietschmann and Melanie Wald-Fuhrmann (Munich, 2013). Citations are from the
English version available on Anne C. Shreffler’s page on academia.edu, accessed 9 August
6 Julia Heimerdinger, Sprechen über Neue Musik. Eine Analyse der Sekundärliteratur und
Komponistenkommentare zu Pierre Boulez’ Le Marteau sans maître (1954), Karlheinz Stockhausens
Gesang der Jünglinge (1956) und György Ligetis Atmosphères (1961), Dissertation, Halle
University, 2013, <http://digital.bibliothek.uni-halle.de/id/1801704>, accessed 22 July 2016.
Printed version: Berlin 2014.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 31
Rule 1 | Internalise the scene
To be successful as a composer – or as Drummond and Cauty would say,
producer – one must understand the music scene, identify the most
successful works of the time, and analyse them. The Manual advises: ‘Watch
Top of the Pops religiously every week and learn from it.’7 Or again:
Between you sipping this cup of tea and getting to Number
One you are going to be involved with a lot of people along
the way and from all these people you can learn a lot.
Whether they are just a tea boy or an international superstar
you bump into down at TV. Centre while doing Top of the
Pops, everybody involved in this music game has some sort
of insight or angle on it all. Listen to what they all have to say
but take nothing as gospel; you are going to have to start
building up your own picture of how it all moves.8
Repeat: ‘Thursday evening. A cosy mild depression will settle in. Watch
Top of the Pops. Read a music paper. Then let Friday roll by at its own
Upon arriving in Western Europe in 1956, Ligeti had already
unerringly identified the two most prominent composers and their most
interesting works and techniques: namely, Pierre Boulez’s Structures Ia
(1952) and Le Marteau sans maître (1954), and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s
electronic music. At the Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne, Ligeti tried
out different techniques and, in the course of composing his electronic
pieces (Glissandi , Artikulation , and Pièce électronique no. 3 [1957–
1958], the latter of which was not realized until 1996), he discovered how to
7 Drummond and Cauty, The Manual, 15.
8 Drummond and Cauty, The Manual, 31.
9 Drummond and Cauty, The Manual, 104.
32 Heimerdinger: How György Ligeti had His Number One
compose the textures for Atmosphères.10 Then, he carefully analysed Boulez’s
Structures Ia and Le Marteau sans maître in 1958 and 1959, respectively, only
to realise, among other things, how much certain of Boulez’s habits and use
of percussion annoyed him.
In an introduction to Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître for the West
German Radio in Cologne on 21 May 1959, Ligeti stated:
Concerning its tonal and formal nature, the work is unique
and inimitable. What a pity that it has still been imitated so
often, even by Boulez himself. Its accumulation of
vibraphone, gongs, and maracas pushes the envelope of
tolerability and the art of this almost too beautiful music
dangerously approaches the realm of arts and crafts. Under
the feet of the epigones, and of the epigones of the epigones,
the world is drowning in the floods of vibrato-motors, and
the tubular bells gently ring to the burial of those who passed
away from vibraphone poisoning.11
A note among the composition sketches for Atmosphères from the György
Ligeti Collection at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel is obviously related
to this introductory text: ‘The time will come when vibraphone poisoning
will cause an allergy to all percussion. All percussion bores me. Let’s get rid
10 See esp. Jennifer Iverson’s work on the subject: ‘Historical Memory and György Ligeti’s
Sound-Mass Music 1958–1968’, PhD diss., University of Texas at Austin, 2009.
11 György Ligeti, introduction to a radio broadcast of Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître on
21 May 1959, 23:15, at West German Radio Cologne. ‘Das Werk ist in seiner klanglichen und
formalen Besonderheit einmalig und unnachahmlich. Schade, daß man es dennoch so oft
imitierte, Boulez selbst nicht einmal ausgenommen. Was hier nämlich an Vibraph on, Gongs
und Maracas angehäuft ist, geht bis an die Grenze des Erträglichen, und die Kunst dieser fast
schon zu schönen Musik nähert sich gefährlich dem Bereich des Kunstgewerbes. Unter den
Füßen der Epigonen und der Epigonen der Epigonen geht aber die Welt in den Fluten der
Vibratomotoren unter, und sanft läuten Röhrenglocken zur Bestattung der an
Vibraphonvergiftung Hingeschiedenen.’ WDR archive, radio script IV-26422.
A Tribute to György Ligeti in His Native Transylvania 33
of this stupid percussion at last!’12 This statement not only explains why the
score for Atmosphères is subtitled ‘for orchestra without percussion’, but also
exemplifies Ligeti’s vehemence in demarcating the contemporary music
scene – brusquely turning away from the works he had exhaustively
Rule 2 | Be of music-historical significance
Music-historical significance is one indicator for canonical works, as
Shreffler stresses: ‘Some works, the most famous example being
Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, mark a definitive moment in music
history, when innovations in technique, form, tonal systems, rhythm, or
other aspects were introduced.’ 13 Following his Apparitions (1958–1959),
Ligeti’s first orchestral piece to gain wider attention, Atmosphères was his
first work to leave out most reminiscences of existing styles and formulate a
single characteristic musical vision. He heeded both his aversion to specific
effects and his musical vision and left musical figures and percussion out. To
communicate this demarcation, or the work’s otherness, Ligeti used an
exceedingly violent vocabulary, which was quickly picked up in the
secondary literature and is still there today (in contrast, it stayed in Ligeti’s
own writing for only ten years after the premiere). For example, in an
interview with Josef Häusler, Ligeti said that in Atmosphères, he had
‘destroyed the intervals.’14 In the secondary literature, for instance in the
12 ‘[?] Es [?] die Zeit [possibly: kommen] wo die Vibraphonvergiftung gegen alles Schlagzeug
allergisch macht. Es langweilt mich alles Schlagzeug. Weg endlich mit diesem dummen
Schlagzeug!’ In: Sketches of Atmosphères, György Ligeti Collection, Paul Sacher Foundation
Basel (henceforth referred to as GLC, PSF).
13 Shreffler, ‘Musical Canonization’, 10.
14 ‘In Apparitions und Atmosphères bin ich abgekommen von der Arbeit mit Harmonik, oder
ganz allgemein: von der kompositorischen Arbeit mit Intervallen. Ich habe die Intervalle
zerstört’, György Ligeti and Josef Häusler, ‚Zwei Interviews mit György Ligeti (1967)’, in:
Ove Nordwall, György Ligeti: Eine Monographie (Mainz, 1971), 127.
34 Heimerdinger: How György Ligeti had His Number One
1994 edition of the German music history book dtv-Atlas der Musik one
reads: ‘Ligeti […] destroys the intervals, eliminates the harmonics and
suspends the usual rhythm.’15 Ligeti’s strong statements made it easy for
music journalists and music historians to locate his work in the vast land of
modern stylistic attempts, which Ligeti, in another note, characterized
ironically: ‘Serial music is intelligent. Aleatoric music is amusing. Lots of
percussion sounds modern. Musical graphics are pretty and changes of the
seating plan impressive.’16
Consequently, Atmosphères was labelled ‘post-serialist’, a term
indicating what the music is not. Positively defined, the work was labelled
with ‘Micropolyphony’ and Klangfarbenmusik [‘tone-colour music’ or ‘timbre
music’], the latter term not making Ligeti particularly happy, but being
extremely helpful to communicate the work’s essence. Thus, the piece’s
form and musical texture were innovative enough to be recognized as
significant, even though the technique of total divisi has already been used
in Iannis Xenakis’s work Metastaseis (1953–1954, premiered in 1955 at the
Rule 3 | Sound unusual and distinctive but not so unusual as
to be distracting
To enter the concert repertoire or to be suitable for a modern blockbuster
film, a new music piece should – to paraphrase Stanley Kubrick this time –
‘sound unusual and distinctive but not so unusual as to be distracting.’17
15 ‘Ligeti [...] zerstört damit die Intervalle, eliminiert die Harmonik und hebt die gewohnte
Rhythmik auf’, Ulrich Michels, dtv-Atlas zur Musik (Munich, 1994), 2:551.
16 ‘[Serielle Musik ist gescheit. Die “aleatorische“ unterhaltsam. Viel Schlagzeug klingt
modern. Musikalische Grafiken sind hübsch und die [...] (Änderung) der Sitzordnung im
Orchester [...] (Eindrucksvoll).]’ Programme text draft, in: Sketches of Atmosphères, GLC, PSF.
17 See Jeremy Bernstein’s description in ‘Profile: Stanley Kubrick, Interview by Jeremy
Bernstein’, in: Stanley Kubrick: Interviews, edited by Gene Phillips (Jackson, 2001), 38: ‘[T]here