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Gyorgy Ligeti, 83; a Mercurial Composer Who Despised Dogmas

June 13, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Gyorgy Ligeti, a musical giant respected for his ability to simultaneously honor and modernize musical traditions and a cult pop figure whose work was used in the film "2001: A Space Odyssey" to evoke the mystery of outer space, died Monday in Vienna. He was 83.

The composer, who began an opera with a honking "Car Horn Prelude," had been in poor health for much of his life and suffered from a combination of diseases. The cause of his death was not given.

Born in Romanian Transylvania of Hungarian Jewish descent, Ligeti studied in Budapest and his musical roots were Hungarian. He survived the Holocaust as well as a harrowing escape from Communist-controlled Budapest in 1956 to Germany, but he loathed all forms of sentimentality and he reflected his tragic relationship with Hungary mostly though his surreal sensibility and ear for bizarre and unforgettable sonorities and textures.

In concertos, string quartets, orchestra and chamber pieces, piano etudes or opera, he demonstrated a compelling sense of form and an instinct for propulsive, unpredictable rhythm. But he was impossible to pin down. He absorbed rules, whether those of neoclassicism, the 12-tone system, Minimalism, African polyrhythms or microtonality; but he jealously guarded his artistic freedom and subscribed to no dogmas.

A student of theories of time and space, of chance and determinacy, he explored those concepts in a 1962 work for 100 metronomes, "Poeme Symphonique." He also had a caustic wit, a taste for sarcasm and a well-developed feel for irony, all of which are evident in his surreal opera, "Le Grand Macabre," in which he subsumes his anger at human suffering in an illicit parody that can so thrill and terrify that an audience hardly knows whether to laugh or cry.

"I don't like the idea of lists," Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's music director, who conducted Ligeti's "Requiem" at Walt Disney Concert Hall last month, said when reached in Finland for comment. "But yesterday I would have said that Ligeti qualified as one of the very, very few best living composers."

Noting how his work can "go through the full scale of incredible complexity and amazing simplicity and everything in between," Salonen credited Ligeti with being an important influence on him as a conductor as well as a composer. "We spoke a lot about music," Salonen said. "He was very interested in the idea of continuity and he hated disruptions of the flow. That influenced my thinking even about other people's music, such as Brahms."

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the French pianist for whom Ligeti wrote 18 etudes of enormous technical difficulty, said Monday that by integrating so many different layers into his piano music, including jazz and Pygmy music, the composer reinvented the way of playing the instrument and how it sounds. "You still move your fingers over the keyboard," Aimard said by telephone from Lyon, France, "but everything else is different."

Gyorgy Sandor Ligeti was born May 28, 1923, in Dicsoszentmarton, a small Hungarian town in what was then Romania, and grew up in another small Romanian town, Cluj. In 1941, he was accepted to the Kolozsvar Conservatory, despite its restrictions against Jews. Two years later the young composer was forced into a Jewish labor battalion. Ligeti survived the war by escaping during the confusion of battle and illegally entering Budapest. His father and younger brother died in Auschwitz.

After the war, Ligeti entered the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, where he studied composition from 1945 to 1949. He became a professor there in 1950. In his early years in Budapest, he explored the folk style of Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly and exalted in Hungary's newly won artistic freedom. But by the end of the 1940s, the Communist regime banned all modern music.

From 1950 until his escape to Germany six years later, Ligeti was forced to lead a double life in Budapest. He wrote inoffensive Soviet-style music for public consumption but followed his own experimental inclinations in private.

In 1949, he married Brigette Low, but they divorced three years later. In 1952 he married Veronika (Vera) Spitz, a psychologist who was about to be deported to do forced labor because her family was deemed to be bourgeois. The couple divorced in 1954 but remained friends, escaped from Hungary together by hiding under mailbags on a train in 1956 and remarried the next year in Vienna.

In Western Europe, Ligeti immediately joined with the most avant-garde composers of his generation, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. He first piece from the West was an abstract electronic work, "Artikulation."

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