Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

An Interview with György Ligeti in Hamburg

Academic journal article Canadian University Music Review

An Interview with György Ligeti in Hamburg

Article excerpt

In gathering information for my doctoral dissertation on contemporary string quartet composition in Hungary, I conducted interviews with twenty composers in Budapest. In the course of these interviews, several composers maintained mat their composition has been influenced substantially by the music of György Ligeti, in particular by Ligeti's "micropolyphonic" style.1

It became clear, therefore, that in order to account fully for the style of contemporary Hungarian string quartet composition, it was necessary for me to study the music of Ligeti, particularly his second String Quartet, a work well known to Hungarian composers.2 In interviewing Ligeti I hoped to record his perceptions about this work. I hoped also to have him discuss the diverse influences to which he has been exposed in me West, influences which have affected composers living in Hungary to a much lesser extent until recently,

After many exchanges of correspondence with Mr. Ligeti's secretary, Dr. Louise Duchesneau, I succeeded in securing a date to meet Mr. Ligeti at his apartment in Hamburg on 9 June 1988. I arrived on the previous day and managed to contact Dr. Duchesneau by telephone. She invited me at once to attend a ceremony at the University of Hamburg on that very day. There Ligeti was to be awarded an honorary doctorate, in celebration of his many years of teaching composition at the music faculty of that university.

Armed with my tape recorder, I arrived at Ligeti1 s apartment the next afternoon, and spent an intensive hour-and-a-half with the composer. We began our conversation in English, but we soon changed to Hungarian, whereby Ligeti's communication became immediately enlivened.

Many of the observations made by Ligeti have appeared, differently expressed, hi previous interviews.3 However, his discussion with me of many details of his second String Quartet (1968) is without precedent, and his accounts of the recent recording of his opera, Le grand macabre (1974-77), and of the influence of African music on his more recent writing were unusually detailed and informative.


Satory: Mr. Ligeti, I should like to ask you mainly about your second String Quartet; but I have some questions about your current compositional activity as well.

Your First String Quartet of 1954 is a motivically unified work, with harmonic and rhythmic elements which rely on Bartok as model. However, your Second String Quartet (1968) is not a motivic-thematic composition. It is clear, nevertheless, that there are underlying sub-motivic elements, the harmonic series and the chromatic scale for example, which provide unity within the movements, but also among the movements. Is it correct to go so far as to say that these constitute the underlying principle of this work, as Paul Griffiths wrote in his book on your music?4

Ligeti: I think so. My answer is yes.

S. Then, are the chromatic scale and the harmonic series among the "secret correspondences" or rhymes among movements to which you yourself have referred?5

L. Well, chromaticism is present in the whole piece. But there is not a great number of chords which are related to the harmonic series; that is, they are present to a lesser extent. There are a great many things in that piece. Concerning chromaticism, there is an even distribution of the twelve notes, but without twelve-note rows. In addition, rhymes exist among the movements: an example is the flageolet melody at the end of the first movement and its return in varied form at the end of the second movement. In fact, such rhyming is evident only between the first two movements. But every movement is the variation of a single thought. It is very difficult to articulate this verbally: for, while composing this piece, I was thinking musically.

S. Of course. In the same connection, is Gianmario Borio, in his article, "L'credità bartókiana nel 'seconde Quartetto' di Ligeti..." correct in ascribing to your second String Quartet the same principle of continual variation which can be applied to many of Bartok's mature works, and indeed, to the works of Schoenberg and his Viennese colleagues? …

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