Ligeti: ‘Hungarian rock’  [5’33”]

Erika Haase, harpsichord

40 Cartoon of György Ligeti (artist unknown)

Hungarian rock musician: György Ligeti

Shostakovich had trouble enough with one crazy dictator.  The Transylvanian-born György Ligeti (1923–2006) had his life blighted by both of “the two gangsters of the twentieth century,” as he called them.  As a young jew in Axis-aligned Hungary he was bound to suffer at the hands of Hitler, and suffer he did, only escaping the fate of his father and 17-year-old younger brother who both died in the camps.  Then came Stalin’s turn.  Following a period of Soviet-compromised democracy after the war, local Stalinists took effective power in the country in 1948, putting Ligeti, by now a budding composer, under manners once again.  Popular discontent during the ensuing years of occupation / suppression, with their predictable cocktail of control, indignities large and small, bad faith and outright criminality, came to a head with the 1956 uprising, brutally crushed by a full-scale Soviet invasion within a fortnight.  Realizing the jig was up – it would indeed be more than 30 years before freedom returned to the streets of Budapest – Ligeti was among those who managed to get out.  It would be pleasant to imagine that with time he was able to put these experiences behind him.  Pleasant, perhaps, but mistaken.  In reality he made no bones about the feelings of hate and disgust he was left with, which only grew stronger over the years, once confiding: “I am permanently scarred; I will be overcome by revenge fantasies to the end of my days.”

During her fleeting moment of liberty Hungary’s airwaves were unjammed and the outside world could briefly be heard.  Three days before the Soviet clampdown, that is on 7 November 1956, as he recalled with precision 45 years later, Ligeti heard on West German radio two of Stockhausen’s most celebrated works to that time, the chamber ensemble piece Kontra-Punkte (1951) and the brand-new, electronic Gesang der Jünglinge.  In December he fled with his wife across the border to Austria, making his way thence to Cologne and Stockhausen, with whom he had by then corresponded.  “A few weeks after the revolution,” Karl H Wörner reports, probably on the basis of Stockhausen’s account, he “appeared in Cologne in a state of complete exhaustion.  Immediately after his arrival Ligeti had lost consciousness.  He was taken first to hospital and then to Stockhausen’s house, where he slept for 24 hours and refused all food.  On waking he broke into a four-hour-long conversation about new music and electronic music, then he went back to sleep for another day and another night.”  He was given entrée to Stockhausen’s studio and was soon – this man who a short time before had known next to nothing about recent musical developments, though actually five years older than his new friend – producing electronic pieces of his own.  From there he went on to become one of the best known of avant-garde composers in his own right, given a push on that path by the inclusion in 1968 of his well-named Atmosphères (featured in one of Radio 3’s Fifty Modern Classics podcasts), and other works, in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Ligeti never stopped developing, playing a leading part in the re-admittance of melody, and of the past more generally, into advanced music after the 1960s.  Our selection, the manic Hungarian Rock, written in 1978 for (of all things) harpsichord, is an example.  Its subtitle Chaconne refers to a baroque form consisting of variations over a repeating bass.  Sure enough, the five-note motto heard on its own at the start repeats unrelentingly, if erratically, for most of the piece’s course and is audibly the basis for everything that happens, the right hand playing off it the whole time.  Or at least until around the four-minute mark, when the piece, which has not been of sound mind for a little while, undergoes a sort of seizure and the five-note figure falls silent.  After this, what remains seems not so much coda as a sequence of deathbed utterances.

As to the two elements of title, you wouldn’t say the result is obviously Hungarian, though some YouTubers have imagined it sounds a little prog in places.  A coincidence, presumably; Ligeti was eclectic, but I doubt his tastes extended to Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The unhinged high spirits and steely sound of much of the piece put me in mind rather of Nancarrow, and indeed Ligeti was, as we have heard, one of the American’s staunchest advocates – “the best of any composer living today,” he went so far as to describe him.  The strangest thing about this strange piece, in fact, may be the fact that its composer didn’t, by his own account, discover the other’s music (on record) until two years after it was written: a case of creative convergence, no doubt.

There are lashings of Ligeti on Spotify.  You’ll find everything from the early, Budapest-days Musica Ricercata (six of whose entertaining pieces were adapted to make the relatively popular 6 Bagatelles for Wind Quintet) to the late Violin and Piano Concertos, by way of his key opera Le Grand Macabre and the fine, Brahms-referencing Horn Trio of 1982.  On YouTube there is even a version of Hungarian Rock for barrel organ, though I’m not sure where it leaves us except perhaps closer to ELP than before.  As to other resources, a short Paul Griffiths article provides a typically laconic summary of Ligeti’s career.  A fascinating BBC interview with John Tusa – you can’t beat a composer speaking for themselves, and what wouldn’t we give to hear some of the earlier ones in this playlist do so? – is illuminating on Ligeti’s background and early experiences, and even Alec Guinness and Winston Churchill get to make appearances.  (You’ll need Realplayer to play this archived audio, incidentally, unless you convert the file to mp3; or you can just read the transcript.)

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