This weekend (May 25-28), guest conductor Jaime Martín conducts the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in music by Bartók, Liszt, and Ligeti. It’s Ligeti’s centenary–he was born on May 28, 2023, and died June 12, 2006–which means that he’s getting programmed a bit more often than usual, although still not as often as some of us would like. Also on the program is the rising young virtuoso George Li, whose presence on a Liszt and Ligeti bill pleases me with its lilting plethora of ells.
I wrote these notes for the concert, the last installment of the regular concert season. (I’ll keep updating my blog, though; I have a capacious backlog.)
Martín Conducts Ligeti, Liszt, and Bartók
by Rene Spencer Saller
György Ligeti (1923–2006): Concert Românesc für Orchester (Romanian Concerto)
Ligeti was born into a Jewish Hungarian family in Transylvania who moved to Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca, in northwestern Romania) during his infancy. In 1941, unable to pursue his goal of becoming a scientist because of the Jewish quotas at the local university, he began studying composition at the nearby conservatory, then walking all the way to Budapest in the summertime so he could take lessons there as well. World War II not only interrupted his formal training but also destroyed his family: his father and brother were forced into Nazi concentration camps, where they died, and in 1944 Ligeti himself was sent to a labor camp. He survived the Holocaust, as did his mother, who had been imprisoned at Auschwitz.
When the war ended, Ligeti resumed his studies at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. After graduating in 1949, he spent a year researching Romanian folk music, collecting recordings and making transcriptions much as the Hungarian composers Bartók and Kodály—both significant influences on the young Ligeti—had done a generation or two earlier. In 1950 he was appointed professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Academy. As a composer, he focused on exploring the folk idiom (the Romanian Concerto is a sterling example) and tried not to violate the dictates of Socialist Realism, however tedious and oppressive he found them.
When the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 failed and he could no longer endure the creative and political restrictions imposed by the Soviets, he moved to Vienna and then Cologne, where his style underwent a dramatic change, moving away from the essentially tonal, folk-derived idiom of his Soviet years to a less accessible, sometimes even strategically hostile, musical language. He worked with Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Electronic Music Studio of Westdeutscher Rundfunk until 1959, when Ligeti chose a still more independent path, moving away from formulaic and systematic compositional techniques—all those established schools and scenes—to an equally challenging but more organic and inquisitive approach.
It is this Ligeti—dense, uncompromising, micropolyphonic—whom my friends in noise ensembles and experimental rock bands mostly worship, and for good reason: Ligeti was hardcore before there was a word for it. Many of us were formed by our first, indelible exposure to his music by way of the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which used Ligeti’s 1966 choral piece Lux aeterna (without his authorization) to accompany the scene in which the rocket shuttle approaches the lunar monolith site. Elsewhere in the film Kubrick used portions of Ligeti’s Atmosphères and Requiem (1963–65). However disrespectful, the director’s violation of Ligeti’s intellectual property rights spawned legions of ardent young Ligeti fans, allowing his music to reach listeners who likely would never have heard of him otherwise. His influence is incalculable, but it often goes unnoticed, possibly because his style never stagnated over the many decades of his career, and it touched so many people who don’t attend conservatories or engage with traditional concert culture, from aging punk rockers to Gen Z–ish aspiring cinéastes encountering Kubrick and Ligeti for the first time in college film classes.
A Closer Listen
Completed in 1951, the Romanian Concerto reflects Ligeti’s attempt to sneak his microtonal experiments into a seemingly “safe” (under Soviet strictures) musical context: the folk-derived concerto, in the tradition of Bartók and others. But as Ligeti explains in his program note, even traditional folk music could end up in the censors’ crosshairs if it was sufficiently dissonant.
Cast in four movements, the concerto lasts about 15 minutes in the average performance. The orchestra calls for three horns, with the third seated at some distance. Ligeti composed the first two movements by adapting his 1950 composition Ballad and Dance for Two Violins. The first movement, a gracious and enveloping Andantino, deploys fourth and fifth intervals to create harmonies that sound both ancient and (to our modern ears anyway) crazy-future. The second movement, a fleet-footed, percussion-rich dance with scampering violin and piccolo passages, is played attaca, which means it immediately follows the first, without the customary pause between movements. In the third-movement Adagio ma non troppo, also played attaca, one horn recalls material from the opening Andantino while another, positioned at some distance, evokes a distant alphorn response; rather than the conventional equal temperament, Ligeti calls for the horns to use natural tuning, which often sounds dissonant to modern ears. The “alphorn” effect returns at the end of the finale, but not until Ligeti has doled out generous portions of mysteriously buzzing strings and a fiddle-flavored, Roma-inspired violin solo that whips the rest of the orchestra into a righteous tizzy.
The Composer Speaks
“In 1949… I learned how to transcribe folk songs from wax cylinders at the Folklore Institute in Bucharest. Many of these melodies stuck in my memory and led in 1951 to the composition of my Romanian Concerto. However, not everything in it is genuinely Romanian as I also invented elements in the spirit of the village bands. I was later able to hear the piece at an orchestral rehearsal in Budapest—a public performance had been forbidden. Under Stalin’s dictatorship, even folk music was allowed only in a ‘politically correct’ form, in other words, if forced into the straitjacket of the norms of Socialist Realism: major–minor harmonizations… were welcome, and even modal orientalisms in the style of Khachaturian were still permitted, but Stravinsky was excommunicated. The peculiar way in which village bands harmonized their music, often full of dissonances and ‘against the grain,’ was regarded as incorrect. In the fourth movement of my Romanian Concerto there is a passage in which an F sharp is heard in the context of F major. This was reason enough for the apparatchiks responsible for the arts to ban the entire piece.” —György Ligeti
Franz Liszt (1811–1886): Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major for Piano and Orchestra
Liszt may not have invented the symphonic poem, but he was the first to call it by that name. He also may not have been the first Romantic rock star—he styled himself after the demonically gifted violinist Niccolò Paganini and wasn’t too proud to admit it—but no one was better suited to the role. He was handsome, exciting, and wildly talented, forever at the vanguard of pianistic technique. He redefined what it meant to be a virtuoso, an entertainer, a celebrity. Rival concertizers came off like sausage-fingered dolts by comparison; noblewomen swooned and bore him illegitimate children. He was gracious to the rude, and he was loyal to the insufferable (including his son-in-law, the brilliant monster Richard Wagner). On and off for almost 60 years, Liszt taught hundreds of students for free. He was a tireless booster of other composers, living and dead.
He also managed to compose a massive body of work: 13 symphonic poems, two symphonies, two piano concertos, several sonatas, hundreds of vocal pieces, and even organ music. Imaginative and wide-ranging, his music not only distilled the spirit of Romanticism but also gestured beyond it.
Although Liszt composed at least 20 pieces for piano and orchestra, he completed only two full-fledged piano concertos. The First Piano Concerto, in E-flat major, didn’t receive its premiere until 1855, and he revised it over a quarter-century. A third piano concerto, left unfinished at his death in 1886, was reconstructed in the 1980s.
Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 took years to write. The composer sketched out the main themes in 1830, when he was just 19. For more than two decades, he worked on the score, tweaking and polishing it even after the 1855 premiere. By the time the First Concerto was finished, he was experienced enough to recognize stale formal habits and subvert them in ways that seemed both startling and inevitable. For concert pianists, it is the ultimate bravura showpiece, the Mount Everest of concertos. But its technical difficulties are never an end in themselves.
A Closer Listen
From the sumptuous first movement to the dreamy, proto-Impressionist second movement, the boldly original scherzo, and the breakneck finale, the concerto’s four movements are richly varied. Yet they feel coherent, thanks to the compulsively hummable main theme, always a reliable presence behind its myriad disguises.
Although it’s impossible not to gape in wonder at the shivery trills and fleet-fingered polyrhythms, to marvel over the ways Liszt transforms the piano into a harp, a drum, some kind of strange hybrid instrument, the orchestra is never shortchanged. Liszt, generous on so many levels, gives important cameos to the other instruments: the clarinet that duets with the piano in the first movement; the cellos and basses that introduce the luminous song of the second movement; the assertively pinging triangle that punctuates the scherzo; the oboe that brings it all back home. In the end, the orchestra gets the last two notes.
Béla Bartók (1881–1945): Concerto for Orchestra
You’d never guess that the Concerto for Orchestra, which ranks among Bartók’s most popular and accessible works, was the product of a sad, impoverished, terminally ill man. But working on the commission gave the Hungarian expat a much-needed boost, and his concerto traced a similar per aspera ad astra trajectory. He explained his intentions in his own program notes: “The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first moment and the lugubrious death-song of the third to the life-assertion of the last one.” His theme isn’t about mere survival; it’s about the will to live.
In 1940, after the death of his mother, Bartók fled Nazi-occupied Hungary for the United States, where he spent the last five years of his life. Although he settled in New York, with his much-younger wife, he never truly left his native country behind. His musical language was steeped in the folk idioms of the Eastern European countryside.
For years he and Zoltán Kodály had logged countless hours as musical documentarians, using Western notation and early portable recording phonographs to capture Hungarian, Slovak, and Romanian folk melodies from indigenous singers. Those years of immersive field work meant that Bartók carried his homeland with him, no matter where he happened to be living.
When Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Serge Koussevitzky commissioned the concerto, Bartók was perilously poor, depressed, and racked with high fevers caused by undiagnosed leukemia. He weighed only 87 pounds. Aware of Bartók’s grim circumstances and his stoic refusal of charity, Koussevitzky offered him a $1000 advance to compose a new orchestral work in memory of Koussevitzky’s late wife. Although the Russian-born entrepreneur really wanted to cover Bartók’s medical expenses and probably never expected him to fulfill the assignment, Bartók was buoyed by the prospect. He set out for a sanatorium at Lake Saranac in upstate New York, where he finished the Concerto for Orchestra in less than eight weeks. He orchestrated it the following winter, while recuperating in North Carolina.
The Composer Speaks
“The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single orchestral instruments in a concertante or soloistic manner. The ‘virtuoso’ treatment appears, for instance, in the fugato sections of the development of the first movement (brass instruments), or in the perpetuum mobile–like passage of the principal theme in the last movement (strings), and especially in the second movement, in which pairs of instruments consecutively appear with brilliant passages.” —Béla Bartók, from his own program notes
A Closer Listen
Cast in five movements, the concerto boasts brisk contrasts and weird symmetries. It’s a storehouse of stylistic touchstones: Bach fugues, peasant folk songs, angular tonal experiments, birdsong, night music. There’s even a jab at Dmitri Shostakovich’s recent “Leningrad” Symphony, which Bartók considered a celebration of state violence and duly despised.
The first movement, Introduzione, starts slowly and mysteriously, then develops into a swifter fugato section. Presentando le coppie, or “Presentation of the Couples,” contains five sections in which instrumental pairs (bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes, and muted trumpets) are separated by specific intervals (minor sixths, minor thirds, minor sevenths, fifths, and major seconds, respectively). Elegia, the central Andante, is a poignant nocturne based on three themes derived from the first movement. The fourth movement, Intermezzo interotto (“interrupted intermezzo”), pits Eastern European folk tunes against a parodic quotation from Shostakovich (itself a quotation from Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow, which Bartók probably didn’t realize at the time). The propulsive fifth movement brings it all back home with more fugal splendor and folky exuberance.
Copyright 2023 by René Spencer Saller