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 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-known.

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 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 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 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 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 music.
IS: If I asked you to select the work which pleases you, and you 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 say.

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 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. [Ligeti instead revised his first opera. -Ed.]

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