- Ligeti's Stylistic Crisis: Transformation in His Musical Style, 1974–1985
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When György Ligeti passed away in 2006, the critic Alex Ross noted that the Hungarian master may have been the very last composer whose greatness was undisputed by all musicians, otherwise divided by fundamental stylistic and ideological differences. In keeping with his unique status among composers of the second half of the twentieth century, Ligeti has inspired a voluminous musicological literature, ranging from several full life-and-works monographs to a vast number of analytical studies.
Michael D. Searby's new book, which belongs to the latter category, focuses on a single decade from Ligeti's sixty-year career as a composer, years during which his style underwent a major change, reembracing certain traditional elements after a decade spent at the forefront of the most radical Western avant-garde. This change has intrigued commentators from the start; many of us still remember vividly the surprise caused by the Horn Trio (1982) with its overt tribute to Beethoven and Brahms. Searby's main thesis is that the transformation essentially began with the opera Le grand macabre (1974–79, rev. 1996). Searby claims that the reintroduction of traditional elements had much to do with the special requirements of the operatic genre, such as the sheer length of the work, the needs of the dramatic plot, and so forth. He then posits that those traditional elements remained present in Ligeti's oeuvre even after the opera, and continued to play a major role in his music for the rest of his life. (To be sure, Searby is careful to point out that signs of a stylistic change had begun to appear in Ligeti's music from the early 1970s.)
Searby, a composer and theorist, is most at home in harmonic and rhythmic analysis, and his examinations of tonal relationships and rhythmic patterns are among the strongest sections of the book. He illustrates in great detail how dyads carry structural functions in Ligeti's music, and shows how triads can be present without implying a tonality in the classical sense. Similarly, he examines phrase structures in Ligeti's music in an extremely rigorous and quite illuminating way. This approach is very fruitful in works like the harpsichord pieces Hungarian Rock or Passacaglia ungherese or even the Horn Trio, but seems insufficient when it comes to the analysis of the opera. Searby clearly intended to place Le grand macabre at the center of the book (there are several photos from the 2001 Copen hagen production, one even on the front cover), and devotes one chapter to harmonic analysis and another to the use of quotation and pastiche in the opera. Yet despite a summary description in the appendix, he has precious little to say about the subject matter, the libretto, or indeed the larger aesthetic or philosophical questions that are very much part of the "stylistic crisis" mentioned in the book's title. Indeed, it is curious that even though the central thesis hinges on the characteristics of the operatic genre, there is very little discussion of Le Grand Macabre as opera. This omission is all the more regrettable as one of the fatal shortcomings of the so-called 1950s avantgarde (however one might define it) was precisely that it separated musical technique from aesthetics and philosophy, which automatically made opera impossible. Thus the precondition of writing a successful opera was that this gulf had to be bridged again. Furthermore, Ligeti reclaimed humor, also neglected by the modernists, as an indispensable ingredient of music; yet humor, one of the fundamental driving forces in the opera, remains essentially unexplored in Searby's book.
Searby's detailed analyses of triads in non-tonal functions show that "tonality" and "atonality" are not mutually exclusive, yet the author ultimately finds it difficult to live with the concept of "non-atonality" (p. 156), which he falsely equates with "tonality," making the surprising claim that "music is essentially either...