György Ligeti, Requiem

by Byron Adams

Written for the concert Requiem for the 20th Century, performed on December 10, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Born May 28, 1923, in Dicsőszentmárton, Transylvania
Died June 12, 2006, in Vienna
Composed Spring 1963–January 1965
Premiered March 14, 1965, in Stockholm by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Gielen with soloists Liliana Poli and Barbro Ericson
Performance Time: Approximately 29 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 2 piccolos, 3 oboes, 1 English horn, 3 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 1 contrabass clarinet, 1 E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 5 French horns, 3 trumpets, 1 bass trumpet, 1 trombone, 1 bass trombone, 1 contrabass trombone, 1 tuba, percussion (glockenspiel, xylophone, snare drum, bass drum, suspended cymbal, tamtam, slapstick, tambourine), 1 celesta, 1 harpsichord, 1 harp, 26 violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos, 8 double basses, chorus, soprano soloist, and mezzo-soprano soloist

“One dimension of my music bears the imprint of a long time spent in the shadow of death.” In a single eloquent but understated sentence, György Ligeti summed up the aesthetic and expressive reasons that led him to compose his Requiem. That Ligeti had close acquaintance with death is unquestioned given the circumstances of his youth. Born in Transylvania to a family at once Hungarian and Jewish, he was sent to a forced labor camp in 1944. Ligeti’s teenaged brother perished in the Mauthausen concentration camp and both of his parents were sent to Auschwitz. Astoundingly, his mother survived.

After the war, Ligeti studied with Zoltàn Kodàly at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. In the midst of the Hungarian revolt of 1956, Ligeti escaped to Vienna and soon made his way to Cologne, then a hotbed of the musical avant-garde. He soon tired of the unhealthy atmosphere created by his colleagues in Cologne: “There [was] a lot of political fighting because different people, like Stockhausen, like Kagel, wanted to be first.” From the time that he left Cologne to the end of his life, Ligeti eschewed all dogma as a man and as a composer. As he declared to a British interviewer in 2003, “I am extremely far away from messianic thinking.”

One of Ligeti’s towering achievements of the 1960s is his searing Requiem, which is scored for soprano, mezzo-soprano, double chorus and orchestra. Lasting approximately twenty-nine minutes, the Requiem was Ligeti’s most extended score to date when he completed it in 1965; the work was premiered in Stockholm on March 14th of that same year, somewhat ironically sharing the program with that hymn to nineteenth-century German idealism, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. As noted above, Ligeti composed his Requiem at a time when he had decisively rejected the post-war European avant-garde: communication with his listeners became of paramount importance. One result of his aesthetic volte-face is that Ligeti created a Requiem that—for all of its innovative techniques and utterly distinctive sonority—is in the grand tradition of Requiem masses by Mozart, Berlioz, and Verdi. Ligeti does not set the Requiem mass in its totality, however, but divides the most despairing portions of the liturgical text into four movements: a sepulchral Introit, a vertiginous Kyrie, a terrifying Dies Irae, and a haunting Lacrymosa. Ligeti divides the chorus into twenty-one disparate parts, which enables him to employ in the Kyrie a technique of dense, intertwined contrapuntal strands that he called “micropolyphony.” Within the context of his Requiem, Ligeti uses “micropolyphony” to evoke a sense of communal mourning. By deploying such an unusually subdivided choral texture with breathtaking skill, Ligeti was able to conjure up the sound of a seemingly limitless number of mourners, a crowd of witnesses who keen not just for the ones who are lost, but also for themselves.

Byron Adams is Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside.