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Concerto for Piano and Orchestra

Charming and witty, Ligeti's Piano Concerto is saturated with aural illusions and sparkling textures.

György Sándor Ligeti was born on May 28, 1923, in the Transylvanian town of Dicsőszentmárton (Hungarian, “Glorious Saint Martin”), which as of 1920 was in Romania; its Romanian name is Târnăveni. He moved to Budapest for study, fled Hungary for Vienna and Germany in 1956, and died in Vienna on June 12, 2006. Ligeti’s first sketches for the Piano Concerto, promised to the pianist Anthony di Bonaventura, date from 1980. By 1986 Ligeti had completed only the first three movements, which were premiered by di Bonaventura with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by the pianist’s brother, Mario di Bonaventura, in Graz, Austria, on October 23, 1986. The complete five-movement concerto was played for the first time on February 29, 1988, by the ORF (Austrian Radio) Symphony Orchestra, again with soloist Anthony di Bonaventura and led by Mario di Bonaventura. The score is dedicated to Mario di Bonaventura. The BSO's November 16-18, 2023, performances of the concerto, with soloist Kirill Gerstein and conductor Thomas Adès, are the orchestra's first.

The score of the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra calls for 1 flute (doubling piccolo), 1 oboe, 1 clarinet (doubling ocarina in G), 1 bassoon, 1 trumpet, 1 trombone, percussion (one or two players, playing variably glockenspiel, xylophone, triangle, flexatone, suspended cymbals, siren whistle, police whistle, lotus flute, harmonica in C, guiro, castanets, whip, wood blocks, temple blocks, tambourine, bongos, tom-toms, snare drum, bass drum), and strings (8 first violins, 6 second violins, 6 violas, 4 cellos, 3 double basses). The concerto is 24 minutes long.

The week of November 12-19, 2023, the BSO celebrates the centennial of the Hungarian composer György Ligeti, joining music organizations around the world in paying tribute to a composer widely acknowledged as a truly great and individual artist. With intellect, wit, and humanity, Ligeti recast his wide-ranging influences as music immediately identifiable as his own, even while working through several different compositional and stylistic modes. His earliest compositional allegiances were to his Hungarian compatriots Bartók and Kodály, along with the classics—Beethoven, Bach, Chopin. He had grown up in a Hungarian Jewish family in a Transylvanian, mostly Romanian-speaking town. (In 1920 a wide swath of Transylvania, including Ligeti’s birthplace of Dicsőszentmárton and the larger city of Cluj, was transferred to Romania from Hungary via the Treaty of Trianon.) Due to the war and the regional influence of the Third Reich, by the time Ligeti reached university age in the early 1940s, Jews were no longer allowed to attend regular schools, so instead of studying the sciences as his father intended, he enrolled at the conservatory in Cluj, then studied with Pál Kádosa in Budapest. In 1944 Hungary officially allied with the Reich and Ligeti was sent to forced labor in a munitions dump, from which he escaped at the war’s end. His father and brother died in concentration camps, but his mother, at Auschwitz, was spared because of her medical skills.

After the war Ligeti returned to Budapest to enroll in the Franz Liszt Academy to work with Sándor Veress, but in the late 1940s Hungary came under another repressive influence, that of the Soviet Union. Artists had to adhere to state-approved social realism, which mandated the use of folk-based materials to express patriotic optimism. Ligeti, like Shostakovich, began to incorporate subversive jokes and personal meanings within his otherwise folk-like public pieces. Privately he continued to seek his own path with exposure to scores by such composers as Webern and Stravinsky acquired by him and his friend György Kurtág. Of Ligeti’s important early works, which include the String Quartet No. 1, Musica ricercata, and the related Six Bagatelles for wind quintet, many were not officially sanctioned for performance.

Following Stalin’s death in 1953, cultural restrictions relaxed somewhat. Ligeti heard music of Stockhausen on a radio broadcast from the West and began a correspondence, but hopes of freedom were quashed when Soviet troops violently intervened to stop a people’s revolution in Hungary in late 1956. Ligeti and his family made a harrowing escape to Vienna that December. He made his way to Stockhausen in Cologne and began working in Cologne’s electronic music studio, by which he found a way to write for acoustic instruments the music that he had long had in his inner ear. The immediate fruits of this process were two immeasurably important orchestral pieces: Apparitions (1959) and Atmosphères (1961), both of which brought Ligeti international attention. His Cello Concerto and Requiem further proved those pieces were no flukes. Ligeti’s name recognition skyrocketed in the late 1960s when Stanley Kubrick appropriated, without permission, some of his remarkable soundscapes for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. (He was ultimately paid royalties for their use, and Kubrick used his music, with permission, in The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut.) A hybrid style of the early 1970s culminated in the pull-out-the-stops opera Le Grand Macabre. This wonderful, absurdist comedy shows nearly the total range of Ligeti’s musical personality, from its interludes for doorbells and car horns to its intricate musical structures and apocalyptic plot.

Le Grand Macabre also pushed Ligeti to an impasse. He eventually found a way forward through study of Central African polyphonic drumming and the player-piano experiments of the maverick American expatriate composer Conlon Nancarrow. Their music unlocked for Ligeti an interest in pattern and phase already evident in his early Musica ricercata and the harpsichord work Continuum, and led directly to the two works that would be the wellspring for all the works of his last two decades: Book I of the Piano Etudes and the Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano. The three biggest works of the last twenty years of his life were concertos for (in chronological order) piano (1988), violin (1992), and horn (2002). Although there were other major new works during this period, including a solo viola sonata, two further books of piano etudes, and vocal music, much of his activity during this time otherwise involved revision and codification of earlier pieces. He was also enlisted to oversee recordings, by some of the best ensembles, conductors, and musicians available, of his entire catalog of works.

The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra was already in process by the time Ligeti completed his Horn Trio and the first book of Piano Etudes. He started the piece at the request of the West Virginia-born pianist Anthony di Bonaventura, who was for many years a faculty member at Boston University. (Di Bonaventura played Witold Lutosławski’s Piano Concerto with the BSO under the composer’s direction in 1990.) Ligeti biographer Richard Steinetz reveals that the composer went through some twenty-five attempts at the first page of the first movement before finally hitting on the right idea, but the continuation of the concerto was nearly as tortuous. Only in 1986 did the composer allow a performance—this being of only the first three movements, with the fourth and fifth being completed by 1988. A similar situation occurred with Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, his next big project, which was also premiered piecemeal and took years to reach its final state. No wonder, really, since these works were the result of Ligeti’s decision to rebuild his musical language almost from the ground up.

Along with the musical inspirations of Nancarrow, African drumming, and the harmonic language of the Canadian composer Claude Vivier, who was influenced by the French master Olivier Messiaen, among others. Ligeti made his own way, by trial and error as it were, but he also found inspiration in other arenas. In the 1970s he was engrossed by the ideas in Douglas Hofstadter’s book Gödel, Escher, Bach, which explores regenerative or self-replicating processes. The Russian composer Edison Denisov had suggested to Ligeti, somewhat to his surprise, that his music shared something in common with the logic-bending illusions and pattern-making of the visual artist M.C. Escher, and thereafter Ligeti thought of Escher’s work as a kind of model. More on the technical side was Ligeti’s interest in the self-similar structures of fractals as explored by the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot and others. According to Steinetz, Ligeti avoided the restrictions of the complex mathematics underlying fractals, preferring work intuitively and organically.

These ideas of transformation, considered as analogies, are to a great extent actually audible in Ligeti’s music of this time, especially in the constrained context of the Piano Etudes. Anyone familiar with those pieces and the Horn Trio will hear fractured echoes of them throughout the Piano Concerto. In the Horn Trio, the presence of two instruments capable of producing microtonally tuned pitches alongside the equal-tempered, strictly 12-tone sonority of the piano creates tensions and musical possibilities that Ligeti exploits in the piece. Each of the three concertos grapples with those tensions in a different way. In the piano concerto, it’s necessarily the orchestral instruments that provide this harmonic expansion. The orchestral horn, which in performance of Tchaikovsky or Ravel would tend to “correct” its pitch to match the rest of the ensemble, is asked here explicitly not to do so; a clarinet plays an ocarina tuned to G; other similar “natural” deviations create a kind of unstable harmonic halo, most fully explored in the concerto’s second movement.

The frenetic, off-balance first movement recalls the first Piano Etude, Désordre, with its illusory layered tempos. (Just from the hearing one can tell how tricky the piece is to play, as opposed to just being hard—which is also is.) The chamber-music sparse second movement is a bleak lament, its motifs recalling, as Ligeti has related, the mourning women of Eastern European funerals. This movement recalls the finale of the Horn Trio and the somewhat more aggressive sixth Etude, Autumn in Warsaw. The ocarina’s wavering sound is a kind of emblem for harmonic instability. The lament is interrupted rudely with louder music in the winds, sustained music that could have come from Atmosphères or the Requiem.

The third movement opens with quick layered patterns that hark back to other early works, especially the solo harpsichord Continuum or organ Coulée, but the foreground is again the falling lament motif. This is broken up to become faster music of entirely different character as the movement goes on—it’s a fast movement built from a slow idea, somehow, with several audible streams present at once.

A mosaic of harmonic clashes—piano equal temperament versus microtonal freedom in the orchestra—begins the third movement. The short phrases, though topically related, initially avoiding any sense of long-term trajectory. Gradually the shapes extend and overlap, becoming music of dense activity. (Ligeti wrote that this movement was the one most influenced by fractal ideas.) The finale is a kind of summing up—we hear, again in distinct layers, the out-of-tune tunes of the second and third movements, the piano’s interlocking but unpredictable patterns, the circus-like outbursts of the first movement.

After all this, Ligeti has no need to wrap up the piece with big, Romantic cadence. As he had in other works, he closes this one almost distractedly. The composer might well have been thinking of one of his favorite books, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. “That’s all,” said Humpty Dumpty. “Goodbye.”

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications.