GYÖRGY LIGETI: Romanian Concerto

György Ligeti was born May 28, 1923, in Transylvania, Romania, and died in Vienna on June 12, 2006. Ligeti’s Concert românesc or Romanian Concerto was completed in 1951 although it was not performed publically until 1971 due to the conservative confines of mid-century Hungary. The score calls for pairs of flute, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons; three horns; two trumpets; percussion; and strings.

Most listeners, if they know the music of Hungarian composer György Ligeti at all, will have heard him in the soundtracks to some of Stanley Kubrick’s most famous movies, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and Eyes Wide Shut. In these films, Ligeti’s music signified, respectively, the eerie ambience of alien worlds, the inner demons of our own psyches, and the sometimes frightening intensity of human emotions. And though Ligeti’s public reputation has certainly benefited from this association, his works stand on their own as some of the most original, idiosyncratic, and influential compositions to emerge from the second half of the twentieth century.

Ligeti freely admits that his life experience has directly influenced his approach to composition. He was born into an unusually musical family (his great uncle was the famed violinist Leopold Auer) in a Hungarian-speaking community in Romania, and then moved with his family to Hungary when he was young child. He studied at the conservatories in Cluj and Budapest, but in 1943 his music studies were interrupted when, as a Jew, he was sent into forced labor for the remainder of World War II. He resumed his studies after the war, and in 1950 joined the faculty of the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. Ligeti escaped from Hungary immediately after the 1956 revolution, eventually making his home in Austria where he took citizenship in 1967.

Work as a composer in communist post-war Hungary was beset with government-imposed limitations and expectations. The folksong settings of Kodály were officially hailed as model works, and other composers were expected to follow suit. (Although Bartók was publicly praised as a national hero, government censors prohibited performances of most his works in Hungary.) Ligeti dutifully produced the requisite folk-based compositions in what he would later term his “prehistoric” style, but also began experimenting in private compositions written “for the drawer.”

When the political strictures began to soften in 1954, Ligeti felt emboldened to pursue his more challenging and experimental style, building on what he had observed in Bartók’s scores. As scholar Paul Griffiths notes, Ligeti was suspicious of systems, and unlike his contemporaries in the West during this period he reserved the right to access elements of music that serial orthodoxy had rejected: simple harmony, melody, ostinatos. In all of Ligeti’s works, as Griffiths writes, he “rejoiced in the delightfulness and evocativeness of sound.”

Ligeti’s Concert românesc (Romanian Concerto) was completed in 1951, but harks back to early musical experiences from his childhood in Romania. Ligeti remembered that as a child, Romanian folk music seemed alien and alluring, especially the alpenhorn melodies from the Carpathian Mountains and the shamanistic rituals of peasant Romanians. Then, in 1949, Ligeti began transcribing Romanian folk songs from wax cylinder recordings at the Folklore Institute in Budapest. These melodies, and the musical memories from his childhood, directly inspired his Romanian Concerto. He was able to hear the work performed during an orchestral rehearsal, but public performance was banned. While music based on folksong was permitted, even encouraged, Ligeti’s Concerto was considered too modernist.

Ironically, Ligeti’s Romanian Concerto was more true to the authentic folk tradition than the banal and simplistic arrangements promoted by the Stalinist government. The tuning of the alpenhorn, for example, relies on the pure harmonic series, not the equal-tempered tuning of the Western tradition. And village bands often harmonized folk melodies with biting dissonances. But when Ligeti included an F-sharp in an F-major triad (a rather mild dissonance by modern standards) in the finale of the Romanian Concerto, it was enough incite censure from the government bureaucrats.

It was precisely this kind of political interference that encouraged Ligeti to start composing music that was radically dissonant, music that had no hope of performance in Hungary at the time, but which represented a personal, private resistance to outside control. Ligeti later reflected that these works were not written for anyone; they were composed “simply for the sake of the music itself. A real performance—this struck me as an unattainable luxury in Hungary.” But while the Romanian Concerto is unabashedly tonal and diatonic, and one of the few works from the period that Ligeti did not consign to the category of “juvenilia,” it was still too dissonant for communist Hungary in 1951. It was first performed publicly in 1971, and the first recording was made in 2001.

The four movements of this concerto for orchestra—another overt nod to Bartók—are played without pause, but fall into two distinct sections of two movements each. Each section consists of a slower, vocally-conceived melody which then shifts into lively dance rhythms and orchestrations that suggest a village band. In this regard, these sections follow the typical Hungarian folk form of the verbunkos or czárdás in which a slow, stately “lassú” is followed a lively “friss.”

Cello and clarinets open the first movement with a lyrical, pastoral introduction, a kind of Central European reinvention of Copland’s Appalachian Spring in its evocation of folk serenity. Then energetic dance rhythms break in at the start of the Allegro vivace second movement.

It is in the third movement where we find hints of Ligeti’s emerging mature style. The horns recall the natural tuning of the alpenhorn by playing without using the valves, producing major thirds and minor sevenths that are intentionally flatter in tuning than western audiences are accustomed to. Ligeti would later use this technique in works from the 1980s and 90s including the Horn Trio from 1982. Accompanying this melody, the strings play tremolo (fluttering) and sul ponticello (near the bridge) to create an ethereal textural background that continues under the English horn solo, prefiguring Ligeti’s extensive use of these techniques in later compositions.

The exhilarating fourth movement begins with trumpet fanfares, then invokes the liveliness of Bartók whose own Concerto for Orchestra ends with an animated, Romanian-flavored finale. The music then alludes to village fiddler with a solo violin playing themes that are subsequently taken up by the orchestra. These themes begin to overlap contrapuntally (again, a feature of Ligeti’s later style), vying for attention against a rollicking oom-pah accompaniment. The solo violin keeps on playing while the horns recall their theme from the third movement—even tutti orchestral chords cannot silence it—and the work ends with one more emphatic exclamation point from the orchestra. –© L. H.