The Polar Music Prize for 2004 is being awarded to the Hungarian-born composer György Ligeti for stretching the boundaries of the musically conceivable, from mind-expanding sounds to new astounding processes, in a thoroughly personal style that embodies both inquisitiveness and imagination.
Ligeti was born on May 28, 1923, in the Transylvanian town of Dicsöszentmárton, Romania. He grew up in Kolozsvar, Klausenburg and started taking piano lessons at the age of 14, enrolling in the Kolozsvar Conservatory in 1941, where he began studies with Ferenc Farkas. In January 1944, Ligeti was arrested and sent to a labor camp where he remained imprisoned until 1945. His whole family was deported and only his mother survived the Nazi camps. After the war, Ligeti graduated from the Budapest Academy of Music in 1949 and began an extended period of study of folk music.
"I believe in twelve tone music"
In the beginning of the ’50s, his music was constrained by the rigid rules of the leading Hungarian Communist party and Ligeti fled from Hungary to Vienna, Austria in 1956. There he assimilated with astonishing speed the new compositional techniques of the Western European avant-garde, of which he had previously been totally unaware; it was not until he was 30 that he was able to realise the music that had been in his head for many years.
He got the opportunity to work with Polar Music Prize Laureate Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Electronic Music Studio/WDR in Cologne, where he produced the influential Artikulation in 1958, one of his first electronic works. His international breakthrough came with Atmosphères in 1961 and thanks to his special characteristics of music with dense clusters, an imperceptibly shift between noise and harmony and new sounds made on the old instruments, he ended up being critically acclaimed all over the world.
Ligeti’s typically evocative music became ensconced in the public consciousness when Stanley Kubrick used part of the work in his film 2001 – A Space Odyssey in 1968, featuring Atmosphères and Lux Aeterna, a famous piece from 1966 for 16 solo singers.
Other favourite images include the out-of-control clockwork machinery, and dangling spider-webs that become increasingly entangled like Chamber Concerto in 1968. His imaginary miniature operas without words but with expressive vocal sequences in phonetic script are like compressed strip cartoons; Aventures in 1962 and Nouvelles Aventures in 1965.
Broad imaginative landscapes
His choral work Requiem (1963-1965) was another success, as were Ramifications (1968-1969), for string orchestra or 12 solo strings, and Clocks and Clouds (1972-1973). In 1972 Ligeti became Composer in Residence at Stanford University and the following year took on a professorship at the Hamburg Academy of Music. The richness of Ligeti’s music lies in the breadth of his imagination, for he is equally comfortable with black humour as he is with thought-provoking incidents, particularly fascinating is Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes.
In the 1980s Polar Music Prize Laureate Pierre Boulez undertook the work of phonetic writing of Aventures consisting of whispers, croaks or whisperings.
Another of Ligeti’s major works was a large anthology of piano études in three volumes. It was a magnificent, multi-faceted series of works inspired both by the classics Chopin, Liszt and Debussy but also by jazz giants like Bill Evans and Thelonius Monk. Études combined virtuosity, technical skills and expressionism and are said to be some of the most significant piano pieces of the 20th century. The different parts experimented with polyrhythm, the relation between black and white keys, complex chords and melodies. Number 1, 2 and 3 in Book 1 are dedicated to Pierre Boulez.
Le Grand Macabre
Ligeti composed his opera Le Grand Macabre in the period 1975-1977, but revised it in the 1990s, with the final version completed in 1997. It has become one of his most popular large works and it had its original premiere in Stockholm in 1978. It is one of the most frequently played operas of our times, opening with an overture for 12 car horns, and closes with a painfully beautiful passacaglia, played after Death itself has died at Armageddon and everyone else seems to have survived.
The central subject of the opera is mortality and its central character is Death, in the form of the character Nekrotzar. Set in an imaginary Breughelland, a country derived from Breughel’s paintings, the opera shows a drunken common man, Piet the Pot, and the sinister Grand Macabre, Nekrotzar, who appears to announce the coming end of the world to two lovers, Amanda and Amando.
Stockholm, May 2004
Unfortunately, György Ligeti could not attend the ceremony in May 2004 due to illness. His assistant and representative, Dr. Louise Duchesneau, received the prize in his name. In her speech she stressed the special ties that Ligeti had with Stockholm and Sweden and the fact that he was sad not to be able to attend the ceremony. Ligeti spent a lot of time in Stockholm during his lifetime, and spoke fluent Swedish. BB King was the other Laureate of 2004.