György Ligeti was a Hungarian composer who lived the latter half of his life in Austria, due to the unstable political situation in Hungry. Ligeti attended the Franz Listz School of Music in Budapest graduating in 1949. Here he studied under several prominent Hungarian composers, most importantly Zoltán Kodály. After graduating Ligeti returned to the school as a teacher, a position Kodály help him to secure.
In his years living in Hungary, his music, while being innovative, followed in the footsteps of Kodály and Bartók and included many folk-song and folk-song elements. Many of the works from this period were considered too daring by the Soviet government and were censured. The two most important works from this period are the Musica ricercata, an eleven movement solo work for piano and it’s subsequent arrangement for wind quintet, and the First String Quartet, one of the earliest works in which Ligeti exhibits a unique personal style.
After leaving Hungary Ligeti began to explore electronic music, a period that only produced two works. His style for the next twenty years explored many avant-garde techniques, most prominently a technique Ligeti calls “micropolyphony.” Many of his works explore the minimalist style and create a sense of timelessness.
Ligeti’s work has been held in very high regard throughout the 20th century. Many pieces, such as Atmospheres, have been featured in blockbuster films such as the films of Stanley Kubrick. 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Shining each feature several moments heightened by dramatic portions of Ligeti’s work.
Musica ricercata is a cycle of 11 short character pieces for piano. Ligeti refers to these pieces as “studies.” The pieces each are based on intervalic and pitch relationships. The number of pitches increases as the studies progress. The first piece uses only one pitch in octaves, A, until the very end of the piece when D is also sounded. The second piece begins to use three notes of the 12 tone scale, and the third used four, and so forth. Ligeti seems to make use of the twelve-tone system, but on further analysis the pieces also appear to have a diatonic impetus as well.
This piece stands in some contrast to Ligeti’s later work, because of it’s influence from Kodály and Bartók. Atmospheres is a piece for full orchestra that employs Ligeti’s technique of micropolophy. This technique makes use of extremely dense textures to create tone clusters. However, this effect is created by a multitude of independent lines that vertically form these clusters. This technique was not in Ligeti’s mind at the time he composed Musica ricercata, however, there are many vertical relationships that are created by these independent lines. The lines appear more important than the resulting harmony, but it is the vertical sound that strikes the ear initially, as in Atmospheres.
The piece stuck me as interesting for a few reasons. The rhythmic variation created in the later movements functions to add interest to the growing pitch relationships. The growing number of pitch relationships also creates a texture that becomes denser and more interesting as the pieces progress.
Paul Griffiths. "Ligeti, György." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed May 3, 2014, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/16642 .
Márton Kerékfy. ’A "New Music" from Nothing': György Ligeti's Musica ricercata. Studia Musicologica. Vol. 49, No. 3/4 (Sep., 2008). p. 203-230. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25598322