György Ligeti (1923 - 2006) - reluctant film composer

György Ligeti - photo György Ligeti is widely associated with various modernist movements in 20th Century music. Although he was influenced by a number of composers and their ideas, he tended to follow his own path producing music which often sounded unique and defied classification. He was born among the Hungarian population in the Transylvania region of Romania, and studied at the conservatory in Kolozsvar. The Nazi occupation interrupted his studies and being Jewish, his family were all sent to concentration camps. Although many of his relatives died in Auschwitz, Ligeti was able to resume his studies after the war. He then taught for a time at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. Communism was then the dominant political force in this part of the world, and when the Russian army quashed the Hungarian Revolution, Ligeti fled to Austria (hiding with his wife aboard a mail train to cross the border) and then settled in Vienna. There he was to have greater interaction with other western composers and his musical style developed and evolved over a number of decades.

2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack CD cover Ligeti studied all the usual aspects of compositional theory and practice, and also studied Romanian folk music. His early piano works seemed to have been influenced by the piano music of Bartok, a fellow Hungarian. While in Cologne, Ligeti dabbled for a while with electronic music alongside Karlheinz Stockhausen, in an electronic music studio owned by a German radio station. Then his most extreme exploration of the avant garde world was the "Symphonic Poem for 100 Metronomes" which are set ticking at different rates until, one by one, they wind down. However Ligeti's music soon settled into an exploration of the music of evolving textures using first orchestral forces and then voices, and it is this style of music for which he is best known. Ligeti himself coined the term "micropolyphony" to describe it. His "Atmospheres" for orchestra exemplifies this soundscape idea, and it caught the attention of Stanley Kubrick among others. The director was to use the composer's music on no less than three of his films, although 2001: A Space Odyssey is the best known for its "other worldly" sound courtesy of Ligeti (although the composer was not contacted to obtain permission for this use). In some ways Ligeti's music turned full circle when in later years he concentrated more on the kind of textures which could be created using mixes of different rhythms rather than polyphony, and this led him to study the techniques used in World Music in general and African rhythms in particular. After a number of years of ill-health, Ligeti died on 12th June 2006. A performance of his "Symphonic Poem for 100 Metronomes" poignantly concluded a concert given after his funeral in Vienna.

Key Works by Gyorgy Ligeti:

    Gyorgy Ligeti Edition 7: Chamber Music CD cover
  • Etudes (for Piano) - split into 3 separate books composed over a number of years
  • Musica Ricercata - also for piano, and was used in the film "Eyes Wide Shut"
  • Lots of other works for piano solo, other keyboards or piano duet
  • Strings Quartets - No.2 being the most well-known
  • Lots of other chamber music for various instrumental forces
  • Apparitions - orchestral work
  • Atmospheres - orchestral work used on 2001
  • Lontano - orchestral work used on 2001
  • Concertos - various concertos for Piano, Cello, Violin, and a double concerto for Flute and Oboe
  • Other orchestral pieces
  • Le Grand Macabre - a comic/satirical opera, later revised by the composer
  • Lux Aeterna - an unaccompanied choral work, also used on 2001
  • Adventures (and the later New Adventures) - choral work used on 2001
  • Requiem - for Soprano, Mezzo Soprano, two mixed Choirs and Orchestra (also used on 2001)
  • Other choral works
  • Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes - an experimental work, literally what it says on the box
  • Some examples of electronic music

Films with music by Gyorgy Ligeti:

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey - features a number of pieces and extracts of pieces by Ligeti, as identified in the listings above
  • 2010 - (the sequel) also uses "Lux Aeterna" and of course Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra"
  • The Shining - includes "Lontano" by Ligeti, a number of pieces by Krzysztof Penderecki, and some music by Wendy Carlos
  • Eyes Wide Shut - includes "Mesto, Rigido e Cerimonale" from Ligeti's "Musica Ricercata", the Waltz from Shostakovich's Jazz Suite and a number of commissioned works by Jocelyn Pook
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - has an excerpt from Ligeti's "Requiem", Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (coincidence?) and is otherwise scored by Danny Elfman

Gyorgy Ligeti - Recommendations:

The "Gyorgy Ligeti Edition" is the most comprehensive collection of recordings of Ligeti's music. Here are selected items from this collection, and other recordings which are sure to be of interest.

    Boulez conducts Gyorgy Ligeti CD cover
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack - an excellent, non-threatening introduction to Ligeti, available at and
  • Boulez conducts Ligeti - in the 3 concertos for Cello, Violin and Piano, available at and
  • Ligeti Edition 3: Works for Piano - (played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard) includes books 1 & 2 of the Etudes, Musica Ricercata, and 1 piece from book 3, available at and
  • Ligeti Edition 7: Chamber Music - including the Trio for Violin, Horn & Piano, Ten Pieces, Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet and the Sonata for Solo Viola (played by Tabea Zimmermann), available at and