Sierra Chamber Society Program Notes

Gyorgy Ligeti (1923- )

Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet (1953)

LigetiGyorgy Ligeti is a member of Europe’s avant garde composers whose names, Stockhausen, Boulez, Xenakis, Penderecki, Berio (if not music), are well known. Ligeti's music has actually been heard by a very large American audience, and the sound of his music of that period might be more familiar than its composer’s name. Parts of Ligeti’s Requiem (1963-65), as well as Atmospheres (1961) were featured along with the best part of Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, and Johann Strauss’s On the Beautiful Blue Danube waltz in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. I went to experience this movie with a group of friends shortly after it opened in New York, in the only approved way: rushing down the theater aisle in order to get seats in the first row so as to be bathed in the sights and sounds. This was to be nothing less than a Transcendental Experience. Certain substances were available for those who needed to jump-start the process. Not popcorn. Personally, I found the film’s plot long, dull, unintelligible, and ponderous, but by contrast, the colors and music were something else. This anecdote has little if anything to do with the work to be heard today, except to say that the cosmic, mysterious music used in 2001 bears little resemblance to the Bagatelles, perhaps a surprise to those familiar with Ligeti’s later music.

Ligeti was born of Hungarian Jewish parents in Dicsozentmarton, Transylvania, an area that has yo-yoed back and forth between Hungary and Romania. He received a fine musical education, first at the Kolozsvar Conservatory, and later at the Budapest Academy of Music. After his graduation in 1949, like his countrymen Bartok and Kodaly, he pursued field research in folk music; Romanian folk music in particular. In 1950, he was appointed Professor of Harmony, Counterpoint and Formal Analysis at the Budapest Conservatory, a post he held until he fled Hungary in 1956. During these years his published music consisted of arrangements of folk music or music in the folk idiom, although he was also working on more daring experimental music (as is evidenced from sketches and scores). The political climate made it impossible, as well as improvident, to publish any of the works in the style that was to bring him international recognition. However, it was during this period before the Hungarian uprising that the Bagatelles were composed. Although the Fifth Bagatelle is an outright memorial to the memory of Bela Bartok, all of these delightful miniatures bear resemblance to some of Bartok’s own folkloric works, as well as a good measure of Stravinsky, particularly No. 4 and No. 6.

What are Bagatelles? Or, as the late, great Jackie Gleason (also a songwriter and conductor) used to say "a mere bag o’ shells". A Bagatelle is a "trifle,", the most famous in the repertory being sets by Beethoven: Op. 33, 119 and 126. The title itself is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, for though the pieces are brief, Beethoven held his own Bagatelles in high regard and upbraided his publisher for thinking them pieces tossed off for pecuniary purposes. (On the other hand, Beethoven was no mean salesman for his own works). Bartok’s Bagatelles for Piano Op. 6 consist of fourteen pieces; some totally original and experimental, some arrangements of Hungarian and Romanian folk music. Dvorak also produced a set (Op. 47) which might be performed more often except for the requirement of a harmonium or parlor organ, in addition to a trio of strings. Webern’s Six Bagatelles for String Quartet Op. 9, composed in 1910 and lasting just over 3 minutes, pushed brevity and the importance of a single sound to an extreme in Western music. Thus the trifle has quite an interesting lineage, and Ligeti’s are delightful additions to their predecessors.

After leaving Hungary and settling in Vienna, Ligeti’s stature as a composer continued to grow. He has held many important and prestigious posts throughout Europe. As for the Bay Area, Ligeti was Lecturer and Composer-in-Residence at Stanford University in 1972. Among his works is a piece for orchestra dating from 1974 entitled San Francisco Polyphony.

1994-95 Season, Program V, Sunday May 21, 1995

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