Born on May 28, 1923, in Dicsoszentmárton, Romania; son of Sándor (a bank employee) and Ilona (a physician) Ligeti; married Vera Ligeti; children: Lukas. Education: Attended the Music Conservatory of Kolozsvár, 1941-43; Franz Liszt Academy of Music, Budapest, graduated in 1949. Addresses: Record company--Teldec Classics International, Schubertstrasse 5-9, D-22083, Germany, website:

Stepping into the intriguing, multi-dimensional, thought-provoking musical world of composer György Ligeti is an intellectual and spiritual adventure. This is a composer whose richly textured and deeply compelling music makes references, playful and serious, to great European poetry, the conundrums of science, the realism of M.C. Escher, and the visions of Hieronymus Bosch. Attempts to define Ligeti's music (critics have called it ironic, light, paradoxical, melancholy, mysterious, grotesque, and haunting) barely capture the essence of an art which defies labels and categories. Difficult to define, Ligeti's art nevertheless reflects the elusive substance of its creator's extraordinary spirit.

A pioneer but also a maverick, Ligeti has consistently refused to adopt any particular variety of musical modernism. After some early involvement with electronic music, Ligeti began to compose in a largely tonal idiom, using traditional instruments. For Ligeti, innovation and tradition do not exclude each other. He has never lost sight of modern music's historical background, and many listeners hear echoes of medieval and Renaissance music in Ligeti's works, as well as the musical archetypes of folklore. In certain works, such as the Sonata for Viola, Ligeti has been able to incorporate fundamental sonorities into finely crafted expressions of a highly sophisticated musical language. Despite his immense learning, Ligeti has composed accessible music. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he has insisted that music is not a code to be deciphered by a chosen group of initiates.

Born in 1923 in a part of Hungarian Transylvania which had been ceded to Romania in 1918, Ligeti grew up in an atmosphere that was conducive to his talents, and his great-uncle was the legendary Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer. The family moved to Cluj, which enabled Ligeti to study composition with Ferenc Farkas at the Cluj Conservatory. In 1944, during World War II, Ligeti's studies were interrupted when he was sent to a labor camp as a Jew. He survived the war and resumed his studies, this time at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, where he graduated in 1949. The following year Ligeti accepted a teaching post at the Academy.

Post-1945 Hungary was a Stalinist country, and artists, including composers, were expected to glorify the state in their works. Since any innovation was considered "decadent," composers had two options: kitsch or folklore. Ligeti wisely turned to researching the immense treasures of Hungarian and Romanian folk music, keeping his more daring creative efforts hidden from the authorities. In 1956, after the Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination was savagely crushed, Ligeti escaped to the West, reaching Vienna toward the end of the year.

Ligeti's talent was immediately recognized by the musical avant-garde, and Europe's most prominent composers, including Karlheinz Stockhausen and Herbert Eimert, greeted him with enthusiasm. In 1957 Ligeti accepted Eimert's invitation to join West German Radio's Electronic Music Studio, and the following year Ligeti started teaching summer classes at Darmstadt. Although he had composed some electronic pieces, Ligeti soon abandoned experimentation with electronic media and decided to follow a different path. In his Apparitions for orchestra, Ligeti offered a personal alternative to the serialist paradigm of Western music. In this haunting, dream-like composition, Ligeti introduced orchestral clusters, a new technique used to create original sonic effects. Apparitions was such a sensational success that it literally established Ligeti's international reputation.

For Ligeti, an artistic triumph meant that it was time to try something different. In his composition Atmosphès, the orchestral clusters that had been used to create a somewhat static feeling in Apparitions now formed a sonic cloud that was illuminated by harmonic and coloristic transformation.

Ligeti combined his minute, almost obsessive, awareness of details and nearly imperceptible distinctions with original imagery and affective depth. These qualities were vividly exemplified by Lux eterna and in his admirable Requiem, first performed in Stockholm in 1966, for which Ligeti received the Beethoven Prize in 1967. Ligeti's music reached movie audiences worldwide when his music, including fragments of Lux eterna, was incorporated into the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Oddysey.

The early 1970s found Ligeti in Berlin and Vienna. He served as a visiting professor at Stanford University in 1972 and then settled in Hamburg the following year. His focus now was now on composing an opera titled Grand Macabre. The story was based on a play by Michel de Ghelderode, which Ligeti set to music. In Grand Macabre Ligeti introduced original instrumental timbres, as well as an array of ingeniously executed procedures including collage, quotation, and fragmentation, to create a topsy-turvy world dominated by a feeling of eerie estrangement and grotesque absurdity. Hailed as a masterful meditation on the macabre absurdities of twentieth-century history, the opera was produced in Hamburg in 1978, and many successful European productions followed.

In the 1980s and 1990s Ligeti turned to the fundamental questions of modern music. He returned to choral music, a medium he had cultivated in the 1940s, and set to music the works of his favorite poets---Hölderlin and Sándor Weöres. Ligeti also realized the absurdity of the compulsion to choose between tonality (the idea that a composition should have a tonal center, or "home") and atonality. In his Etudes for piano, the first volume appearing in 1985, Ligeti demonstrated the coexistence of different tonalities in the same work, thus identifying the tonality issue as a false problem. In works composed in the 1990s Ligeti successfully applied these techniques in his orchestral projects. Ligeti's Violin Concerto in many ways represented a synthesis of his extraordinary artistic quest. The work contained compositional breakthroughs that integrated the tonalities of various types of instruments and created a compelling musical narrative.

In his discussion of Ligeti's Sonata for Viola in Exploring Twentieth-Century Music: Tradition and Innovation, Arnold Whittall felt that the work expressed sadness and rage in reaction to a century of mindless violence, but added "a sense of a wordless, breathing human voice reasoning with the void, in a spirit which seeks to assuage the Dionysian turmoil of modernity in Orphic songs." Whittall concluded: "There is no resolution of the conflict in Ligeti's sonata, however--no wry, rueful cadential gesture, like Berio's, no Boulezian celebration of science, and little of Carter's poise and refinement." In other words, Ligeti knows that the questions he poses only lead to further questions. As a composer in the twenty-first century, Ligeti still experiences music with the wonderment and enthusiasm of his youth. In 2003 he received the prestigious Polar Music Award, which was created by the founder of the Swedish rock group ABBA. One of Ligeti's fellow laureates was legendary bluesman B.B. King.

by Zoran Minderovic

György Ligeti's Career

Taught harmony and counterpoint at the Franz Liszt Academy, 1949-56; started lecturing at the Darmstadt summer sessions, 1958; appointed visiting professor of composition at Stockholm Academy of Music, 1961; visiting professor at Stanford University, 1972; professor at the Hamburg Musikhochschule, 1973-89.

György Ligeti's Awards

Beethoven Prize for Requiem, 1967; Bach Prize of the City of Hamburg, 1975; Grawemeyer Prize, 1986; Adorno Prize, 2003; Polar Music Award, 2003.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

June 12, 2006: Ligeti died on June 12, 2006, in Vienna, Austria. He was 83. Source:,, June 15, 2006.

Further Reading


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