1991 Balzan Prize for Music
The early compositions of Ligeti (*1923 – †2006), as for instance the string quartet no. 1, “Metamorphoses nocturnes (1953-54) written before his emigration follow the line of the Hungarian School and are closely related to Bartók’s style, whom Ligeti always highly respected. On his arrival in the West, Ligeti became familiar with the theories and practice of the experimental music of the times, actively participating in the research in electroacustical music. But from 1958, intent on making his own way, he returned to vocal and instrumental “ensembles” (above all symphonic orchestra) for which he wrote a series of highly original pieces, making his name.
With Apparitions (1958-59) and Atmosphères (1961) he opened the way to a new, innovative kind of music, liberated from the dogma of serial compositions. Ligeti declared his independence: “To be free in Arts means being free from all constraints including those of the modem world”. Without ever giving in to the nostalgic temptation to use languages of the past, even though he is perfectly acquainted with them, Ligeti once more showed the importance of harmony, rhythm and melody. Aventures (1962), Requiem (1963-65), Lontano (1967), Melodien (1971), the concerts for cello (1966) and piano (1985-88), the pieces for harpsichord, Continuum (1968), Passacaglia ungherese (1978) and Hungarian Rock (1978); the opera Le Grand Macabre (1974-77; from a stage play written by Michel de Ghelderode); the Trio for piano, violin and horn (1982) used by Brahms, as well as the Nonsense Madrigals (1988-89) show a surprising way of modernising, a determination to waste no time repeating an idea. Many of these works are already classics. They have won over a vast audience without relying on the effects of sentimentality: in a form that is restrained, even when he requires an image of disorder, Ligeti offers to the listener musical inventions which excite very complex emotions, coming from the collection of most subtle feelings. When Ligeti makes use of mechanical formulae, it is often to suggest machines which break down, as Franz Kafka or Jean Tinguely have done.
“Music ploughs the sky” wrote Baudelaire. Among the composers of our century, it is the work of Ligeti himself which most closely reflects this definition. Proof of this can be found in the way he arranges musical rhythms like a space, or even a cluster of multiple spaces. He knows how to weave complicated patterns and build extraordinary Monuments” (which is the title of a work for two pianos, 1976). Also he encourages singular visual experiments developing “volumes”, forms and aggregates, superimposing layers, introducing “micropolyphones”, material of countering density or transparency, acoustic illusions, imaginary perspectives… Shapes invented by Ligeti reflect, in their detailed precision and in their unexpected flexibility – according to what he himself states – some new aspects of scientific thought.
The manner in which he develops the ramifications of sound was stimulated by mathematical discovery (for example the geometry of fractual objects), but he has always given way to his priority of sensitive experience and love of the game. Music is not relevant to the intellect, but to the sense of hearing. Ligeti, artist of our times, recognised in musicians of the past his precursors and brothers-in-arms, who can now be viewed in a different light. Having listened to the music of Ligeti, enthusiasm is rekindled for the masters of Western musical heritage (Ockeghem, Machaut, Dufay, Palestrina, etc.) as well as the rhythms and sound systems of the ancient African and Asian civilisations. The doors opened by Ligeti are two: that of the previously unheard, which is revealed, and that of a distant memory, which is awakened and invites the involvement of all.