György Sándor Ligeti (born May 28, 1923) is a Hungarian composer (now living in, and a citizen of, Austria), widely seen as one of the great composers of instrumental music of the 20th century. Many of his works are well known in classical music circles, but among the general public, he is probably best known for the various pieces which feature prominently in the Stanley Kubrick films 2001: A Space Odyssey and Eyes Wide Shut.



Ligeti was born in Dicsöszentmárton (now Târnăveni) and received his initial musical training in the conservatory at Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca), both in Transylvania, Romania. His education was interrupted in 1943 when, as a Jew, he was forced to labor by the Nazi Party. At the same time his parents, brother, and other relatives were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, his mother being the only survivor.

Following the war, Ligeti returned to his studies in Budapest, graduating in 1949. He studied under Pál Kadosa, Ferenc Farkas, Zoltán Kodály and Sándor Veress. He went on to do ethnomusicological work on Romanian folk music, but after a year returned to his old school in Budapest, this time as a teacher of harmony, counterpoint and musical analysis. However, communications between Hungary and the west had been cut off by the then communist government, and Ligeti had to secretly listen to radio broadcasts to keep abreast of musical developments. In December of 1956, two months after the Hungarian uprising was put down by the Soviet Army, he fled to Vienna and eventually took Austrian citizenship.

There, he was able to meet several key avant-garde figures from whom he had been cut off from in Hungary. These included the composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gottfried Michael Koenig, both then working on groundbreaking electronic music. Ligeti worked in the same Cologne studio as them, and he was inspired by the sounds he was able to create there. However, he produced little electronic music of his own, instead concentrating on instrumental works which often contain electronic-sounding textures.

From this time, Ligeti's work became better known and respected, and his best known work might be said to span the period from Apparitions (1958-9) to Lontano (1967), although his later opera, Le Grand Macabre (1978) is also fairly well known. In more recent years, his three books of piano Études have become quite well known thanks to recordings made by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Federik Ullén, and others.

Ligeti took a teaching post in Hamburg in 1973, resigning in 1989. Since the 1980s, he has suffered from ill health, which has slowed his compositional output, though he continues to write.

Ligeti has expressed fondness for the fractal geometry of Benoit Mandelbrot, and the writings of Lewis Caroll and Douglas R. Hofstadter.

Ligeti's music

Ligeti's earliest works are an extension of the musical language of his countryman Béla Bartók. The piano pieces, Musica Ricercata (1951-53), for example, are often compared to Bartók's set of piano works, Microkosmos. Ligeti's set comprises eleven pieces in all. The first uses almost exclusively just one pitch class, A, heard in multiple octaves. Only at the very end of the piece is a second note, D, heard. The second piece then adds a third note to these two, the third piece adds a fourth note, and so on, so that in the eleventh piece, all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are present.

Already at this early stage in his career, Ligeti was affected by the communist regime in Hungary at that time. The tenth piece of Musica Ricercata was banned by the authorities on account of it being "decadent". It seems that it was thus branded owing to its liberal use of minor second intervals. Given the far more radical direction that Ligeti was looking to take his music in, it is hardly surprising that he felt the need to leave Hungary.

Upon arriving in Cologne, he began to write electronic music alongside Karlheinz Stockhausen. He produced only three works in this medium, however, including Glissandi (1957) and Artikulation (1958), before returning to instrumental work. His music appears to have been subsequently influenced by his electronic experiments, and many of the sounds he created resembled electronic textures. Apparitions (1958-59) was the first work which brought him to critical attention, but it is his next work, Atmosphčres, which is better known today. It was used, along with excerpts from Lux Aeterna and Requiem, in the soundtrack to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey; in fact, the music was used without Ligeti's permission.

Atmosphčres (1961) is written for large orchestra. It is seen as a key piece in Ligeti's output, laying out many of the concerns he would explore through the 1960s. It virtually completely abandons melody, harmony and rhythm, instead concentrating purely on the timbre of the sound produced, a technique known as sound mass. It opens with what must be one of the largest cluster chords ever written - every note in the chromatic scale over a range of five octaves is played at once. The piece seems to grow out of this initial massive, but very quiet, chord, with the textures always changing.

Ligeti coined the term "micropolyphony" for the compositional technique used in Atmosphčres, Apparitions and his other works of the time. He explained micropolyphony as follows: "The complex polyphony of the individual parts is embodied in a harmonic-musical flow, in which the harmonies do not change suddenly, but merge into one another; one clearly discernible interval combination is gradually blurred, and from this cloudiness it is possible to discern a new interval combination taking shape."

From the 1970s, Ligeti returned to some extent to a more melodic style, and also began to concentrate on rhythm. Pieces such as Continuum (1970), Clocks and Clouds (1972-3), were written before he heard the music of Steve Reich and Terry Riley in 1972, yet the second of his Three Pieces for Two Pianos, "Self-portrait with Reich and Riley (and Chopin in the background)," commemorates this affirmation and influence. He also became interested in the rhythmic aspects of African music, specifically that of the Pygmies. In the mid-'70s he wrote his first opera, Le Grande Macabre, a work of absurd theatre with many scatological references. His music of the 1980s and '90s has continued to emphasize complex mechanical rhythms, often in a less densely chromatic idiom (he tends to favor displaced major and minor triads and polymodal structures). Particularly significant are the Études pour le piano (Book I, 1985; Book II, 1993; Book III in progress), which draw from such diverse sources as gamelan, African polyrhythms, Bartók, Conlon Nancarrow, and Bill Evans. Other notable works in this vein include the Horn Trio (1982), the Piano Concerto (1985-88), the Violin Concero (1992), and the a cappella Nonsense Madrigals (1993).

Ligeti's most recent work is the Hamburg Concerto for horn and chamber orchestra (1998-99, revised 2003).

List of selected works

  • Andante and Allegro for string quartet (1950)
  • Balad? ?i joc for two violins (1950)
  • Concert românesc for Orchestra (1951)
  • Musica ricercata for piano (1951-1953)
  • String Quartet No.1, "Métamorphoses nocturnes" (1953-54)
  • Glissandi, electronic music (1957)
  • Artikulation, electronic music (1958)
  • Apparitions for Orchestra (1958-59)
  • Atmosphčres for Orchestra (1961)
  • Volumina for organ (1961-62, revised 1966)
  • Počme Symphonique for 100 metronomes (1962)
  • Requiem for Soprano and Mezzo Soprano solo, mixed Chorus and Orchestra (1963-65)
  • Cello Concerto (1966)
  • Lux Aeterna for 16 solo voices (1966)
  • Lontano for Orchestra (1967)
  • Two Studies for organ (1967, 1969)
  • Continuum for harpsichord (1968)
  • Ramifications for 12 solo strings (1968-69)
  • String Quartet No. 2 (1968)
  • Ten Pieces for Wind Quintet (1968)
  • Chamber Concerto for 13 instrumentalists (1969-70)
  • Melodien for Orchestra (1971)
  • Double Concerto for Flute, Oboe and Orchestra (1972)
  • Clocks and Clouds for 12 female voices (1973)
  • San Francisco Polyphony for Orchestra (1973-74)
  • Études pour piano, Premier livre (1985)
  • Piano Concerto (1985-88)
  • Violin Concerto (1992)
  • Études pour piano, Deuxičme livre (1988-94)
  • Hamburg Concerto for solo Horn and Chamber Orchestra with 4 obligato Natural Horns (1998-99, revised 2003)
  • Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedűvel: Weöres Sándor verseire (2000)
  • Études pour piano, Troisičme livre (1995-2001)


See also

External links


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