Who is Hungarian composer György Ligeti?

Friday, February 2, 2018 - 15:00

Eclectic, unpredictable and refusing easy classification – György Ligeti is an intriguing figure among 20th-century composers. His work is being celebrated at Southbank Centre this spring in a series called Ligeti in Wonderland, featuring solo piano music, orchestral works, talks, a study day and more.

Ahead of it, read on to discover some fascinating facts about his life and work.

He survived the Holocaust

Ligeti - Ligeti in Wonderland

György Ligeti was born to a Hungarian-Jewish family living in Transylvania in 1923. In 1944 he was forced by the government to join a labour corps on the Eastern Front, transporting heavy munitions. Ligeti escaped twice – once when Nazi death transports began and he realised he would be murdered, and again after he’d been captured by Soviet troops following his first escape. He spent two weeks walking back to his home village, only to discover strangers living in his family home. Ligeti’s mother, father, brother, aunt and uncle were all sent to concentration camps; only his mother survived.

He escaped to the west as Soviet communism arrived in Hungary

After the war, Ligeti enrolled in the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. In 1956, as Soviet tanks rolled into the city to crush an uprising, Ligeti escaped first by hiding under post sacks in a mail train and then dashing across the border into Austria. Ligeti had been a fan of fellow avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who offered him a place in his electronic music studio at West German Radio in Cologne. Commentators have suggested his experiences of war, Shoah and communism pushed him in the direction of absurdism in his art.

He married his second wife twice

Ligeti was married for the first time to Brigitte Löw, from 1949-52. His second marriage was in 1952 to a Hungarian psychologist, Dr Vera Spitz, to help keep her from being sent away to a labour camp. They divorced after two years but remained friends, escaping from Hungary together in 1956 and remarrying in 1957, a union that lasted until the composer’s death in 2006. Their son Lukas, who is also a composer, was born in 1965. Vera Ligeti still practises as a psychologist in Vienna, specialising in child and adolescent psychoanalysis.

He had no idea his music was in 2001: A Space Odyssey until a friend told him

2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece is famous for its use of Richard Strauss’s ‘Also Spake Zarathustra’. But equally important is the use of recently composed music by Ligeti – Atmosphères, Requiem, Lux aeterna and Aventures.

Kubrick initially commissioned an original score for 2001, but was unhappy with the result and ended up using pre-recorded music. The first Ligeti knew about his involvement, according to Richard Steinitz’s book György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination, was when he received a letter from an American friend telling him to see the film when it came out in Europe to hear his music. Shocked at the news, Ligeti saw the film in Vienna and discovered it was true. Initially he was very angry that his work had been used completely without permission. Things worked out well though, as Ligeti’s music later ended up being used – with permission, and a decent fee this time – in Kubrick’s films The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, helping Ligeti to become better known in America.

His love of mathematics and Escher inspired The Devil’s Staircase

György Ligeti: Étude No. 13: L'escalier du diable / The Devil’s Staircase

Ligeti was, of course, influenced by other composers and styles of music, but his keen interest in maths, science (his original career ambition was to be a scientist) and visual arts also informed his work. A particularly good example of this is Etude No.13, The Devil’s Staircase – its relentlessness, ultimately futile, echoes the mathematical concept of the same name, as well as MC Escher’s drawings of impossible staircases.

He only wrote one opera

Hannigan & GSO - LIGETI Mysteries of the Macabre

Like Beethoven, Ligeti only finished one full-length opera – but with it he certainly left his mark. Le Grand Macabre was inspired by the chaotic, hellish paintings of Pieter Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch, and begins with a prelude that is surprisingly tuneful, given that it is scored for 12 car horns (they’re played by percussionists, in case you were wondering).

Since its premiere in Stockholm in 1978, it has been revived some 30 times and is regarded as a classic of 20th-century opera. Filled with sex, booze and bawdy humour, it’s not for the faint-hearted. In the extraordinary concert performance, above, see one of the arias from Le Grand Macabre sung and conducted by the incomparable Barbara Hannigan with the Gothenburg Symphony.

Ligeti in Wonderland

The series runs from Friday 11 – Sunday 13 May and booking is now open.