Interpret: Karl-Hermann Mrongovius - Begona Uriarte
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As early as 1950, Ligeti had envisioned a new type of music, one which would become his trademark in the sixties: a static music without distinguishable melody, intervals or exact tempi, a composition of complex sound textures. It was however only with his flight from Hungary in 1956 and his subsequent confrontation with the musical avant-garde in the West, in particular his experience with electronic music, that he acquired the technical means of notating these ideas. The orchestral pieces Apparitions (1958-59) and Atmospheres (1961) which he subsequently wrote produced such a great impact on the international music world that the earlier works were ignored both by the public and by Ligeti himself. This gave rise to the curious impression that Ligeti's truly creative period began at the age of 35 with the composition of Apparitions and that the earlier works, while possibly exhibiting great craftsmanship, were nevertheless of dubious aesthetic value. We have perhaps the decline of the avant-garde and the ensuing interest in alternative directions to thank for the long delayed interest in Ligeti's "prehistoric" compositions.
Musica Ricercata (1951-53) is a collection of eleven piano pieces which even with their traditonal character went beyond what was considered appropriate for performance in Hungary in the early fifties. However, taking advantage of the greater liberalization which emerged shortly before the revolution in 1956, Ligeti managed to secure a performance of five of the pieces in an arrangement for wind quintet (Nos. 3,5,7,8,9). A sixth (No. 10) was considered too "decadent" because of the abundance of minor seconds and had to be withdrawn from the program (Ligeti: Totalitarian systems do not like dissonances). In the last few years these six pieces, the Six Bagatelles for wind quintet, have won increasing popularity, in the wake of which it is interesting to discover their original context.
In complete isolation of the musical developments in the West and all the while searching to create a new kind of music, Ligeti started to experiment with very simple intervallic and rhythmic structures, his goal being to develop from scratch this new kind of music while rejecting the musical models he knew and loved. He asked himself: Whaf can / do with one note? With its octave transpositions? With one interval? With two intervals? With certain rhythmic relationships that could serve as foundations for a rhythmic-intervallic configuration ?" Among the works stemming from this experimentation is Musica Ricercata. The eleven pieces are united by a single process of augmentation: in the first piece, Ligeti sets out to develop the music from one single note a in different octaves and rhythmic variations, adding a second note d only at the very end. The second piece is built on three notes, the third on four, etc. until the eleventh piece when all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are present. This final piece is a strict fugue whose "dodecaphonic" theme was inspired from a chromatic ricercare by Frescobaldi (Ricercor cromatico from the Messa degli Apostoli), to whom the piece is also dedicated. Remarkable is the fact that, without any knowledge whatsoever of Schoenberg's dodecaphonic technique, Ligeti arrived at similar results from completely different assumptions.
Although Bartok's shadow hovers in the wings (the ninth piece is dedicated to his memory), Musica Ricercata is far more personal than the earlier pieces and exhibits more obviously Ligeti's particular brand of wit and humor. The strong sense of unity originates from the fact that each of these eleven pieces has its own clearly defined internal logic and together they form an equally consequent process.
Ligeti's formation as a composer was one well grounded in the traditional forms and styles. The many small pieces which he wrote during his studies with Sandor Veress at the Budapest Music Academy included exercises in sonata form, song form, rondo form, as well as the writing of inventions, fugues and pastiches of various composers1 styles, for instance Couperin, Mozart or Schumann. In addition to these, there were exercises to be realized in one's own personal style. The Capriccio Nr. 1 written in November 1947, the somewhat earlier Capriccio Nr. 2 from the spring of the same year, and the two-part Invention belong to this final category of works and as such reveal convincingly the gradual emergence of Ligeti's musical identity.
Whereas the Capriccio Nr. 2, written in an ABA form, is still firmly entrenched in Bartok's musical language, the Capriccio Nr. I, formally a sonatina, already demonstrates a certain distancing on Ligeti's part from the influence of the great composer. Its tranquil nature, compared with the more robust Capriccio Nr. 2, and Ligeti's wish to have them performed as a pair prompted the decision to invert the numbering.
Ligeti wrote the two-part Invention in 1948 as part of his counterpoint studies and dedicated it to his friend, the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag, then also a fellow music student. The piece is based on a chromatic subject which fans out from a central tone f, to be answered by the second voice, in retrograde motion, which focuses in on the note b. With this intervallic relationship of a tritone between the central tones, f and b, Ligeti nods in the direction of the traditional textbook model, where the tension between the tonic and the dominant is reflected in the relationship between subject and answer. However, by substituting a tritone for a perfect fifth, Ligeti achieves an almost tongue in cheek effect. Similarly, the rhythm of the answer is almost, but not quite, identical with that of the retrograde of the theme, being shifted the value of a quarter-note. On the one hand, this seemingly mischievous play with traditional rules and forms demonstrates Ligeti's evident mastery of the medium and on the other, reveals his fascination with "crooked" perspectives and slightly dephased configurations, musical traits that perhaps more than any other can be traced throughout his entire oeuvre.
The three pieces for two pianos, Monument-Selbstportrait-Bewegung were written in 1976 while Ligeti was working on the opera Le Grand Macabre. It was the firsttime since leaving Hungary that Ligeti turned his attention solely to the piano. Although the pianistic technique is solidly anchored in musical tradition, permeated by a profound knowledge of Scarlatti, Schumann and Chopin, Ligeti's intention was to initiate a totally new stylistic direction.
The conception of these three pieces arose from the inherent technical possibilities afforded by the simultaneous playing of the two pianos. Ligeti works here with processes which develop consequently from an initial core to "unfurl" in great complexity. By superimposing two highly intricate rhythmic and metric frameworks or grids (one for each piano), these processes generate musical forms and configurations of a "second order", musical illusions, mirages which momentarily crystallize only to vanish again into the fabric of the music. These patterns are reminiscent of those which result more of less by chance in the Poeme symphonique for 100 metronomes (1962) or the melodic and rhythmic patterns which automatically derive from the prestissimo buzzing of the harpsichord in Continuum (1968). In this respect, Monument-Selbstportrait-Bewegung continue the direction set in the earlier works.
One immediately apparent structural aspect of Monumenf is Ligeti's use of differentiated dynamic levels. The piece begins in ff and f and gradually introduces the other levels, mf, mp, p and pp (also ppp at the very end). These dynamic levels appear in a "pure" state, without crescendo or diminuendo. Each level is coupled for extended periods with particular pitches, creating for the listener the impression that these dynamic planes are separated spatially from one another. This structural use of dynamic levels distorts the image of a "single" source of sound (the two pianos which, due to their identical timbre, melt into one another) and produces an illusion of perspective, where the ff-level is felt as the nearest, f being a little further behind and so on till the most distant pp-level. The simultaneity of these levels creates a three-dimensional musical illusion, like a hologram which floats in an imaginary space (Ligeti).
The second piece Self-Portrait with Reich und Riley (with Chopin in the background) incorporates a new playing technique of "blocked keys". Conceived by Karl-Erik Welin for performing Ligeti's organ piece Vol-um/na, it was further developed by Ligeti for the piano according to a concept by Henning Siedentopf. One hand silently depresses the keys in varying combinations while the other hand "plays" on and around them. Because the notes which are already depressed do not sound as they are played, the performer is able to "play" evenly yet produce irregular rhythms with great precision. This discrepancy between that which is played but not heard and that which is heard but not played as such illustrates Ligeti's predilection for the ambiguous or illusionary.
The title, with its references to the American composers Steve Reich and Terry Riley, stems from the musical allusions found in the piece to certain aspects of their music. The similarity between Riley s technique of pattern repetition or Reich's phase shifting and that which Ligeti was writing in the sixties (particularly Poeme symphonique, Continuum and the third movement of the String Quartet Nr. 2) was purely coincidental for neither knew the music of the other at that time.
The third piece In a gently flowing motion is related to Monument. Ligeti calls it a "liquified" variant of the first piece, pointing to its unifying function. At the end, as the piece evaporates into nothingness, we are left with a chorale, which forms a coda not only for the third piece, but for the entire cycle.