At the end, however, though the elemental conflict is not resolved or overcome, fear is dispelled and there is a calm acceptance of fate. In the grey morning light of the Lacrimosa time dawns upon another world, far away from all human consciousness or history.
from Ove Nordwall’s review of the premiere in Stockholm of Ligeti’s Requiem.
Between the Requiem, Lux aeterna, and Le Grand Macabre, death haunted much of Ligeti’s most well-known music. And around the time of the Requiem’s first appearance in 1965 the composer also described Atmosphères and Volumina as ‘kinds of Requiems’, a view that took a certain hold amongst commentators – notably Nordwall and Harold Kauffman – for several years subsequently. His memorial notice at Schott music concludes noting his desire ‘to fuse the fear of death with laughter’.
So in the grey morning light how has death left Ligeti? As the obituaries keep coming in, several themes are beginning to coalesce.
The importance of Kubrick and 2001: A Space Odyssey seems paramount. Almost every obituary mentions it, many in their headlines, but confusion still persists over Ligeti’s role in the film. Several sources still apparently believe that Ligeti was a willing participant in Kubrick’s appropriation – the AP writes of ‘his work on the soundtrack’, the Guardian ‘his contribution to the soundtrack’, and the Washington Post that he ‘worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey’. The composers at Sequenza have even written an open letter to the AP complaining about the misinterpretation here. Fortunately, the rest of the press is up to speed with the story that has been common knowledge since 1973 that Ligeti was not involved in the decision to include his music on the soundtrack, and that any associations with space etc are Kubrick’s and not the composer’s.
Although there is an understandable emphasis on his earlier works composed in the West, up to and including Le Grand Macabre, it is notable that many of his later works – especially the Piano Etudes – gain a mention. Unlike Berio, for example, whose profile at his death was not evenly spread across his career, Ligeti maintained interest in his music across his entire oeuvre.
The curiosities in his output – the car horn prelude to Le Grand Macabre, Poème symphonique, the rude noises and crashing tea sets of Aventures and Nouvelles aventures – are frequently noted, good copy that they are. Where this sort of thing (you only have to consider Cage’s infinitely more serious 4’33″) can spell certain ridicule for a composer in the eyes of the public, Ligeti has got away with it, and these aspects of his work are treated with all reverance. Poème symphonique – originally a risky joke hurried out to meet a commission – did indeed take on a life of its own, and is hailed throughout the obits as an expressive example of his ‘absurdist streak’ (Boston Globe), an exploration of ‘theories of time and space, of chance and determinacy’ (LA Times), a progression from his technique of micropolyphony (Telegraph), and ‘his style pared to its essence … The sight and sound of the metronomes stretched across the platform of the Usher Hall, their tony complexities of rhythm gradually winding down, their ticking finally a soft symbol of death, was curiously touching and forlorn’ (Herald).
Several of the press obituaries note that Ligeti was an avant gardist who found rare popularity – whether thanks to Kubrick or not – and this view is backed up by the more personal view of some bloggers. Among ten reasons to value Ligeti and his output, Do the Math notes his quality as a gateway composer: ‘Ligeti is the most unpretentious and appealing entrance to the recalcitrant cavern of Dissonant Classical Music’; Robert Gable of aworks simply acknowledges, ‘Through Ligeti (and Reich), I learned the rewards of contemporary music’. Mike of Avant Music News writes of his continuing admiration for Ligeti’s ‘ability to create compositions that are dense, dissonant and yet ultimately listenable’. Myself, I think it is the obscurity of Ligeti’s music that was always its greatest strength; its wilful difference from prevailing trends (and whether you regard Ligeti as a leader or a follower – and he was in large parts both – his music was always created from a constructed opposition), its difficulty, its bar by bar reluctance to do what you wanted it to, to fall into a pleasing, or even comfortable pattern – all of these things created a music that teases you into interpreting it and made space for a fully free interpretation. As a Ronaldinho stepover is to full backs, so are Ligeti’s notes to the ear. How else to explain the wide variety of reactions to his Requiem, for example? Paul Griffiths’ change of heart about the piece since first hearing it in London in 1970 are the most marked – then, it was limited to ‘its initial gloomy effect’; since, he has described it as ‘massively solemn and hysterically funny, or massively funny and hysterically solemn’ (Times review from 1983), and in his New York Times obituary he suggests that the work was a response to death as ‘both ominous certainty and black joke’. This was the quality of his music that Kubrick felt he could use, and while it invites facile interpretation, it does account for some of the enduring popularity of his music. Although, if this I Love Music thread is anything to go by, that popularity should be stated with caution, much of his music outside of 2001 remaining relatively unknown.
In the end, Ligeti’s reputation – not least because of the twists and turns that remain after his death – is obviously assured. Was he our greatest living composer? That depends on your definition of greatness of course, but all the pieces are there – many substantial biographies in several languages, a complete recorded edition, all those interviews, an enthralling life story (the escape from Budapest in 1956), popular acclaim, the film tie-ins – for him to be one of the most enduring. Match all this to music that is frequently of the very highest standard and future generations are likely to hold him alongside perhaps only Stravinsky as the greatest of the 20th century.