Reich and Ligeti: turning darkness into light

Monday, January 22, 2018 - 15:09

Birdsong, water, the seasons, literature… the sources of inspiration from which some of the most famous and most loved classical pieces have been composed are rich, varied, and perhaps, infinite. But it is not just aspects of beauty, from which great music takes its cue, sometimes the motivation for composers lies in much darker depths.

Saturday 27 January marks Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK. The date, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, is intended as a day for all people to remember the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, the millions killed in Nazi persecution, and subsequent genocides around the world. But, even here, in such unspeakable horror, the seeds for classical composition lie, along with a want to ensure such a tragedy is never forgotten.

One composer who knows all too well the devastation of the Second World War’s concentration camps is Gyorgy Ligeti. Born to a Hungarian Jewish family in Târnăveni, Romania, Ligeti found himself studying in Cluj, the cultural capital of Transylvania, when the region fell under the control of Hungary, then an ally of Nazi Germany, in 1940. As Jews were banned from military service, rather than being conscripted, Ligeti was sent to a slave labour camp near the conflict’s front lines.

As the Second World War neared its end Ligeti managed to escape from the camp, and made the long trip back to Cluj on foot. The walk took him two weeks, and on his arrival he discovered his family’s home occupied by other people, and learned his parents and brother had been deported to Auschwitz. Only his mother would return.

Gy. Ligeti -- Requiem

It is perhaps easy therefore to understand why themes of darkness exist as recurring motifs in Ligeti’s work, from the musical terror of the Kyrie of the Requiem to the warped harmonies of the Horn Trio. The connection to his past is most evident in Ligeti’s only opera; the mock-apocalyptic Le Grande Macabre. Set in the imaginary principality of Breughelland, which is shadowed by corrupt politicians, sado-masochist court astronomers and other wayward individuals, the opera’s characters appear to satirise the people and political systems that had terrorized Ligeti’s life.

Whilst the abhorrence of Auschwitz and their ilk may’ve run subconsciously through Ligeti’s work, the inspiration of the concentration camps is more directly evident in US composer Steve Reich’s work Different Trains.

The idea behind Reich’s famous work came from his childhood, when between 1939 and 1942, following his parents separation, he would regularly take the train across the width of America, between their respective homes in New York and Los Angeles.

While the trips were exciting and romantic at the time I now look back and think that, if I had been in Europe during this period, as a Jew I would have had to ride very different trains
Steve Reich

Reich, is talking of the infamous death trains, the wagons which would transport Jewish people from across mainland Europe to the Nazi concentration camps of Germany and Poland. And with this in mind he set out to create a piece, which would accurately reflect this juxtaposition of experience.

The result is Different Trains, a piece in three movements; America - Before the war, Europe - During the war, and After the war. The composition combines string instruments with taped speech from Reich’s childhood governess, a former Pullman porter who worked the trans-American lines, and holocaust survivors speaking of their experience.

Part oral documentary, part modern classical masterpiece, Different Trains is a truly moving composition. An apt tribute, and reminder that even in the darkest of recesses, we can find a light.


Steve Reich’s Different Trains is performed at Southbank Centre on 10 April 2018, the 30th anniversary of its premiere, by London Contemporary Orchestra.

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Ligeti in Wonderland, a series of concerts, talks and performances recognising the works of Gyorgy Ligeti take place at Southbank Centre from 11-13 May 2018.

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The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is the charity which is committed to promoting and supporting Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK.

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