Ligeti: String Quartet “Metamorphoses nocturnes”

Program Note

The first word of the sub-title Metamorphoses nocturnes refers to the form. It is a kind of variation form, only there is no specific “theme” that is then varied. It is, rather, that one and the same musical concept appears in constantly new forms - that is why “metamorphoses” is more appropriate than “variations”. The quartet can be considered as having just one movement or also as a sequence of many short movements that melt into one another without pause or which abruptly cut one another off. The basic concept, which is always present in the intervals but which is in a state of constant transformation, consists of two major seconds that succeed each other transposed by a semitone. In this First String Quartet there are certainly some characteristics of my later music, but the writing is totally different, “old-fashioned”; there are still distinct melodic, rhythmic and harmonic patterns and bar structure. It is not tonal music, but it is not radically atonal, either. The piece still belongs firmly to the Bartók tradition (remember my situation as a composer in Hungary at the beginning of the fifties), yet despite the Bartók-like tone (especially in the rhythm) and despite some touches of Stravinsky and Alban Berg, I trust that the First String Quartet is still personal work.

—Györgi Ligeti

Györgi Ligeti was born in Transylvania but his family moved to Cluj, Romania soon afterwards, where he began studying piano at the age of 14. Although his studies progressed quickly, the early 1940s were not a good time to be a young Jewish man in Central Europe. Ligeti was sent to a labor camp in 1944 but was released a year later, avoiding the fate of most of his family in Auschwitz. He enrolled at the Liszt Academy in Budapest and graduated in 1949, studying composition under Zoltán Kodály. Kodály quickly nominated Ligeti to become a theory professor, a post which he held for six years. It was during this period that Ligeti wrote his Cello Sonata (1953), the piano cycle Musica ricercata (1953), and the First String Quartet, pushing the envelope in terms of Communist-allowed harmonic language and therefore consigning all of them to the bottom drawer, not to be performed until years later. 

He fled to Austria in 1956, leaving behind most of his portfolio and dedicating himself to the twelve-tone system whose study and practice had been banned in the Eastern Bloc. He settled in Cologne, where he heard the groundbreaking electronic textures of Karlheinz Stockhausen which partially inspired the slowly evolving pitch clusters that Ligeti began to call micropolyphony. He used this invention to write Apparitions (1959) and Atmosphéres (1961) for orchestra, his Requiem (1965) for full chorus and orchestra, and Lux Aeterna (1968) for a cappella choir. These last three were featured extensively on the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 cinematic adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Ligeti moved away from dense atonality in the 1970s, inspired by the work of minimalists Steve Reich and Terry Riley to write San Francisco Polyphony (1974) for orchestra and Three Pieces for Two Pianos (1976). His only opera (or anti-anti-opera, as he dubbed it), the striking Le Grand Macabre (1977, rev. 1996), makes heavy use of pastiche, satire, vulgarity, and allusions to classic opera. He won the second-ever Grawemeyer Award in 1986 for the first book of his Études for piano, several of which are dedicated to Pierre Boulez. He continued to write through the beginning of the 21st century, including two more books of études and concerti for piano, violin, and natural horn, before his death at the age of 83. His last work was Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel [With Pipes, Drums, Fiddles] (2000) based on poems by Sándor Weöres for mezzo soprano and four percussionists. Ligeti’s son, Lukas, is a prominent experimental percussionist and composer based in South Africa.

—Josh Davidoff