A Budapest Interview with Gyorgy Ligeti

presented in Monk Mink Pink Punk #9
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Interview by Istvan Szigeti, Broadcast on Budapest Radio on July 29th, 1983.
First published in New Hungarian Quarterly
Prepared for MMPP by Juliette Redl and Josh Ronsen, February, 2003
ISTVAN SZIGETI: I should like to get a picture of your life and work
by counting on three dates, the first being 1923, the year of your birth in
Dicsoszentmarton, Transylvania. The second 1956, when you left
Hungary, and the third 1983, when you came back once more on a visit,
and which is also the occasion of a performance of your works at the
Academy of Music. Let's begin with 1923.
GYORGY LIGETI: I spent my first six years in Dicsoszentmarton, in
the heart of Transylvania. When I was six we moved to Kolozsvar,
which was always one of the centers of Transylvanian life, even in
those days, and so I went to primary and secondary school there. My
father came from Budapest and my mother from Kaposvar. They
moved to Transylvania, to Dicsoszentmarton, during the Great War
[WWI], afterwards they just stayed there.
IS: Were your parents musical in any way?
GL: They had no direct involvement with music, but there was a
famous violinist, Lipot Auer, in my father's family. They came from the
region of Lake Balaton. I do not know whether Lipot Auer was my
father's uncle or great-uncle, but he went to live in St. Petersburg and
was a famous violin teacher there at the turn of the century. He was the
only musician in the family. My grandfather was an artist, but not well-
No one in the family played a musical instrument, we did not even
possess one between us, all we had was a battered old gramophone, a
1920s model. I had always been interested in music, but I had no means
of learning to play an instrument. Right from the time of our move to
Kolozsvar it was my father's idea that I should be a scientist, and I took
an interest in physics and chemistry. I was fourteen by the time I
managed to talk my father into letting me have piano lessons. That's
why I never became a good pianist. Fourteen was too old to start. But I
was not thinking of a musical career at that time, we did not even have
a piano at home, and I always had to go and use someone else's to
practice on, so as you see, the conditions weren't ideal. However, I
began composing as soon as I started taking piano lessons. In a very
naive way... I can't really say who influenced me. When I was fifteen I
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used to play a lyrical piece by Grieg, a simple waltz... so I suppose it
was that type of thing. Then something important, and quite typical,
happened... I mentioned that I lived in Kolozsvar, and went to school
there, and that I spent a lot of time in Marosvasarhely where my aunt
and uncle lived, in fact I always used to stay with them in the summer.
These two towns were my backyard, I grew up there. I was fifteen years
old, and I hardly knew how to play a simple Bach prelude on the piano
when I began to compose music, and at the most advanced level. I had
never studied such things as harmony.
I've given so many interviews and yet I do not think I've ever told this
to anyone anywhere, it has never come up in the conversation before.
IS: Did you start by writing a fugue?
GL: No, I could not at that stage. I had not heard any contemporary
music on the radio, Richard Strauss was the most modern composer
broadcast at the time, and even so, I didn't hear much until I was
sixteen. I knew that there was such a thing as orchestration, and that
Albert Siklos had written a two-volume work on it. I asked my aunt in
Marosvasarhely to buy it for me as a birthday present when I was
fifteen, and the first volume, which contained a description of the
instruments, was unobtainable. She bought volume two, and that was
very advanced, it explained how to write scores. That became my
textbook. I started to write a major symphony straight away, without
any idea of the instruments I was writing for, or about anything. All that
I had done was to have read Siklos's book which included an analysis of
the scores of Wagner. You can imagine the result.
IS: Even so, isn't it true that some of your work was published when
you were only eighteen?
GL: I think it was when I was nineteen, by that time the Jewish laws
were already in force and the split was beginning to come about which
isolated the Jewish culture. Jews could not take part in official concerts,
but there was a Hungarian-Jewish publishing firm called “Ararat”
which organized a song-writing competition. I wrote a song called
“Kineret” which was a poem by the Palestinian poet Rachel Blochstein.
I translated it from Hebrew into Hungarian, and set it to music. This
won a prize and was published. Yes, I did write it when I was eighteen,
but I was nineteen when it appeared in print.
IS: What do you think of this piece now?
GL: Mussorgsky's opera, Boris Godunov was very important to me at
that time, and I wrote the piece using the chords Mussorgsky used, it
was a very naive work. Then, after I finished school, I enrolled at the
Kolozsvar Conservatorium. Ferenc Farkas was the teacher there, which
was very lucky for me as later in Budapest I was taught at the Academy
by Sandor Veress and then by Farkas himself. Being Jewish I was not
allowed to study physics at the university. But there were no such
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restrictions at the Conservatorium at Kolozsvar, and so my parents
agreed to let me enroll there. They said that I could do as I pleased so
long as the situation remained unchanged and I could not go to the
university. I enrolled in a composition class. I could play the piano a
little, I had no idea about harmony, so I started at the very beginning
under Ferenc Farkas, never thinking that I would be a composer. I
continued to study Math and Physics on my own, but one and a half
years later I realized that I did want to be a composer, and after that I
never changed my mind.
IS: When did you come to Budapest?
GL: I studied under Farkas until January 1944, but for family reasons I
sometimes had to be in Budapest for months at a time, and then I
studied under Pal Kadosa. In January 1944 I was called up by the
Forced Labor Service, but I deserted on October 10, 1944. The
Russians had already reached the Great Hungarian Plain and I went on
foot to Kolozsvar where I spent the winter of 1944-45. I was ill for most
of the time with pleurisy and was in hospital. It was a recurrent illness
which I contracted on forced labor service, and if I had not deserted
when I did I would have died. Even if I had not ended up in
Mauthausen, the pleurisy would have been fatal as it needed a well-
equipped hospital to treat it in those days. My parents were deported,
and my father died. My mother was taken to Auschwitz, but she
survived, and returned home. She lived on right up to last year, when
she died in Vienna, aged eighty-nine.
IS: Did all these bitter experiences find an outlet in your later work?
GL: Of course, they did. We were living in terror, the few who
managed to come out of that alive knew that it was only by pure
chance. Then came the liberation and we thought that everything was
wonderful, and it indeed was wonderful for two years. By that time I
was studying in Budapest in 1945, and was taught by Sandor Veress at
the Academy of Music. Then we found that we had got from the frying
pan into the fire; we found ourselves under the Stalin dictatorship.
Dictatorships left a very bitter feeling, I think it must be the same for
everyone who lived through these times.
IS: You not only studied in Budapest, you also later taught at the
Academy, that's quite a transition. Who else taught you?
GL: I've mentioned that I studied under Sandor Veress. Well, he went
to Switzerland in 1947, and I was taught for a while by Pal Jardanyi, for
whom I continued to feel great warmth even when he had ceased to be
my teacher. Then I think in 1948 or 1949 Ferenc Farkas became
Veress's successor and I studied under him once again. I owe most of I
my skill as a composer to Ferenc Farkas, harmony, counterpoint, and
what's more, a certain truly professional way of thinking. I graduated in
1949 but I still had a few exams to pass though I was already teaching
at the Academy of Music, while preparing for the remaining exams. For
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example in score-reading, I had problems with that. In any case, 1949
was a really lucky year for me because I was awarded a scholarship
thanks to the help of Jeno Szell, who was ambassador to Romania at
that time, and I went to Bucharest and Transylvania for a while. I was
there to study Romanian and Hungarian folk music, and I collected folk
songs and music from villages in Kalotaszeg in Transylvania. In the
summer of 1950 I came back to Budapest, and then I had to face the
question of my future. Kodaly had said to me that I should call and see
him. I remember that it was very hot that summer, and Zoltan Kodaly
was sitting at the piano wearing only shorts. That was quite an
unforgettable scene.
At that time I often used to visit Beni Rajeczky; Laszlo Lajtha also
worked at the Museum of Ethnography. Part of the collection of the
earliest recordings of folk music was kept there, in fact, the very
recordings from which the "Treasury of Hungarian Folk Music" was
compiled, and which later was transferred to the Institute of
Musicology. I had started to help Rajeczky with the transcription, and I
can honestly say that I found it tremendously interesting, but when
Kodaly said that he would fix a job for me there, I told him that I did
not like to fuss on details. He replied that if I did not like to fuss on
details then I'd never become a composer. Then Kodaly asked me what
I would like to do, and I said that I would like to teach music theory
somewhere. A few months later I was given a job as a teacher of
harmony and formal analysis at the Academy of Music. I owe thanks to
many people for this, including Erzsi Kozma who was the secretary of
the Academy, but Kodaly was really behind it all. I was never taught by
Kodaly. I studied folk music under Jardanyi too, but nevertheless it is
Kodaly I have to thank for my teaching post at the Academy, which
was no small achievement for a young man of twenty-seven, and also
the fact that there was no loss of continuity, whereas others--Ferenc
Szabo--had wanted to trip me up, it was in fact a very complicated
situation. So from 1950 onwards I taught counterpoint, and I also
carried on with my own studies.
I feel that I learned most from Ferenc Farkas, and that's not just my own
personal experience, he was the greatest teacher for a whole generation
of musicians. Apart from that, Lajos Bardos's classes on theory and
analysis were extremely important, not only as far as understanding the
mechanics of music is concerned, but they also had a great effect on my
composition. Then in December 1956 I left Hungary. I went to Vienna,
first of all, and was really on the bread-line. I obtained a scholarship to
go to Cologne, the scholarship was for four months, I'd wanted to go to
the electronics studio there, which I did, and then afterwards I stayed on
in Cologne for two years, back on the bread-line again.
IS: What do you mean by "on the breadline?" What is life like for a
poverty-stricken composer in Vienna, or, rather, Cologne?
GL: By that time I was too old to be a student, and it was even quite
difficult to get a scholarship at thirty-three. I was still unknown as a
composer, so I had to work my way up from nothing. I had a
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scholarship for four months, and then I lived on a very small grant in
Vienna for a few months. I had to find some way of being able to
compose, so I got some miserable lodgings with the [toilet] in the
backyard and no running water, that is how I lived. I do not want to
make a romantic story out of it, but that's how it was. I lived for ten
years like that, from about 1957 until the mid-sixties. I do not quite
know how the money came from here and there, I wrote some texts for
example. After Apparitions and Atmospheres had been performed in
1961 I became famous, but I couldn't make a living from this. Then I
was invited to be a guest teacher in Stockholm, but I never lived there, I
just went there quite a lot, about three times a year, for two weeks at a
time. In those days there was such a difference in exchange rates
between the Swedish krona and the Austrian schilling that I could live
for six months on the money I earned teaching for two weeks in
Sweden. My wife was studying at the university, and she had a modest
post as a psychologist, we managed to come through it all somehow. It
did not bother us too much, the poverty, we walked instead of taking
the tram, we could just afford to pay the rent for our room each month,
and so we managed.
IS:What did it feel like to be famous after all that? Because I think that
it all happened quite fast; Apparitions had its first performance around
1960, and although it was not exactly overpraised, it certainly brought
you world-wide recognition.
GL:Yes, it did happen rather quickly, in fact in two stages. In 1960
Apparitions was performed in Cologne, causing quite a stir, and in 1961
Atmospheres was performed in Donaueschingen. After these two I
began to receive commissions, but I still could not make a living that
way, although they helped, and by that time I was well-known. You
know that's not really important as far as I'm concerned. Of course I do
care about the way my music is performed and so I cannot really say
that I am not interested in how it is received. But I do not feel
particularly famous. It isn't false modesty when I say this, but although
I am supposed to be a famous person it doesn't mean anything to me. I
just sit at home and work.
IS: Do you read the reviews and actually take notice of them? Some
composers say that they aren't at all interested in critical opinion, they
are the only ones who are qualified to judge their own work.
GL: I think that is very conceited. If I happen to see a review then I'm
interested enough to read it. Often it is just nonsense, whether praising
or damning, and it is usually the praise that is nonsense. But I
frequently give serious consideration to criticism. To take the example
of Le Grand Macabre, the libretto which I had written jointly with a
Swedish director, well, the libretto was the weak point of the opera, and
when it attracted adverse criticism I began to think perhaps it really was
rubbish, and that I should not write any more libretti, I should stick to
IS: If I asked you to select the work which pleases you, and you
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consider to be your most representative, which would that be?
GL: I think a composer is always interested in his last work.
Or the next one.
Yes, well, I can say only little as yet about the next one. It is a piano
concerto which I began years ago, but which I always begin fresh.
About my last finished work: it consists of four choral pieces: The
Three Fantasies were written to Holderlin poems, and as the title of one
of them is “Abendfantasie,” I named all three fantasies. Then I set a few
of Sandor Weores's Hungarian Etudes to music, but I have never even
heard them, in other words, they only exist on paper. The last really
finished piece that I wrote last summer is a Trio for violin, horn, and
piano, which has already been performed. This I am now able to judge
in perspective. A pianist who played the Brahms Trio with a very good
horn player and violinist asked me whether I felt like writing
something, and I was just in the mood because I am very fond of the
horn. I even thought of a horn concerto but I decided to keep to
chamber music. This piece is important for me, because after my opera,
which I completed in 1977, I composed only two harpsichord pieces in
1978. A four-year gap followed which had two causes. One of them
was that when a man approaches sixty, that is in itself an illness. To put
it bluntly, I had been gravely ill for some time, and this meant a pretty
big break in my life. The other was a stylistic caesura, that is, the works
of my youth were composed under the powerful influence of Bartok,
and gradually already here in Budapest, even before 1956, a change
came about. I began to write what I call surface music and
micropolyphonic music. Then I gradually arrived at a point where I felt
this could no longer go on, I wanted to remain myself. I did not want to
follow any kind of fad, not even the fashion of turning back to
romanticism, but I knew I would have to change something in my own
music as well. This occurred gradually, in the course of the Le Grand
Macabre opera, but the four years after it were not really a pause, I
simply did not complete any piece. I was writing a piano concerto, I
have started on it about twenty times, but it was still not the real thing, I
tried to loosen up the dense polyphony in it. I had already started this in
the Kammerkonzert, [Chamber Concerto] and in the piece entitled
Melodien, but I would like to loosen it further, so that there should
remain a complex polyphony, but I want the individual parts to be more
melodious and independent. I should like to return to the large, but not
static, form, nor to thematic or motivic work. It is very difficult to
express this in words, because I think in terms of music, I have never
yet formulated things in this way. I shall try to outline what I have to
It is a kind of intervallic and rhythmic basic thought, which I would not
call a motive, because the word motive is linked so strongly to the
Beethoven technique of motivic development; the large form however
must be developed slowly and gradually out of such small seeds, and at
different levels. Let us say that the elements stand as small units, and I
picture them as static units, like the stones of a kaleidoscope. At the
level of the intermediate form there is a kind of metamorphosis, a kind
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of transformation of these kaleidoscopic pictures, an associative
kaleidoscope, which is another thing. At a yet higher level there is a
kind of organic proliferation, as when lianas gradually grow over a
primeval forest, in other words, a very complex polyphonic lianoid
structure. I could say that my earlier pieces are crystalline in nature, and
that these are much more vegetative and proliferating pieces. Let me
say that this Horn Trio is the first piece in this new Ligeti style.
IS: Can I say that this static music has been as it were, a bit troubled?
GL: Well, in fact if you listen to the Horn Trio, this cannot be
categorized according to the traditional forms, except perhaps its third
movement alone. There I applied such a primitive device as the a-b-a
form, that is, it is a march movement with a trio in the middle and the
march returns in varied form, but this is only the outer framework. The
most essential thing here is a highly complex polymetrics. I wonder
whether you know my two-piano pieces, Monument, Selbst-Portrait mit
Reich und Riley and Bewegung? In these we do not hear the various
levels but something else, something like the three-dimensional
impossible perspectives in Maurice Escher's pictures. In the same way
there are rhythms and rhythmic formulae which neither pianist plays,
but which emerge from the combination of the two pianos. What you
get there is a complex acoustical illusionary rhythm, which I then
extended to a type of proliferant melody also, and this I developed
further, this is what is essential in it. Then I clearly turned away from
chromaticism, I might say that the horn piece is not an atonal work, but
a non-tonal diatonic horn composition. There are even micro-intervals,
because I use the horn as a natural horn, a natural horn always with a
different tuning, but its individual melodies are homogeneous, they
always remain within a given valve position. In this sense it is very
typically written for a horn.
IS: Will there be a new Ligeti style? Perhaps you'd like to say
something about your plans, about your life.
GL: My private life? Well I live in Vienna with my wife and son, and I
teach in Hamburg, there will be no changes in that respect. I am bold
enough to say that I have already found that new style. I am myself, but
let us call this my last period, the period of my old age, I do not know
how long it will last. I have a great many plans, my next piece happens
to be just that piano concerto which I have tried to write so many times.
I should like to realize this complex polymetrical and very melodious
style in it. Of course it will be a virtuoso piece, it is important for me
that I think in terms of instruments. I am also planning a wind
instrument orchestral composition, and then, in time, a new type of
opera, based on Shakespeare's The Tempest.
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