- Metamorphosis in Music: The Compositions of György Ligeti in the 1950s and 1960s by Benjamin R. Levy
Long a devotee of György Ligeti's compositional theories, aesthetics, and practices, Benjamin Levy has published a book that tells the story of the composer's development up to about 1970. What makes Levy's efforts stand out is his detailed and comprehensive study of Ligeti's sketches. By arranging the composer's works chronologically, Levy narrates the evolution—or, as he puts it, "stylistic transformation" (p. 6)—of Ligeti's compositional techniques from his student days in Hungary to the full flourishing of his career as an internationally recognized artist.
Levy argues for the necessity of studying Ligeti's sketches, because the theoretical systems he employed are complex and cannot be entirely appreciated or understood in isolation. During many visits to the Paul Sacher Foundation in Switzerland, Levy consulted a trove of information pertinent to his subject and had access to additional sketches that have only recently been made available. Ligeti was secretive about his working methods, making this approach even more important. Along with his encyclopedic knowledge of the published literature—in English, Hungarian, and German—Levy inspires a high level of [End Page 118] confidence throughout. The few problems that surface with this book do not have anything to do with accuracy or diligence but rather with a lack of context, as we shall see.
In his early Hungarian years, Ligeti had to cope with increasingly difficult conditions as a composer. The official musician's union approved all music for public performance, and these decisions were made arbitrarily. In this period, Ligeti faced further difficulty working in the shadow of Béla Bartók, a much-revered composer whose more radical compositions symbolized a spirit of dissent for Ligeti's young comrades. Even though Ligeti's early compositions, such as Musica ricercata and the String Quartet no. 1, owe some of their technical and expressive techniques to Bartók and Alban Berg, Levy points out many novel elements that contain seeds of Ligeti's later style. For example, Ligeti derived material from folk sources, hybridized sonata form with "arch" form (p. 24), and evoked "nocturnal" topics; yet, these approaches never seem so overtly imitative that they are overly derivative. Levy persuasively argues that Ligeti's early techniques of interval expansion, his complex developmental procedures, and his individual reaction to Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique via Hanns Jelinek's book are all remarkable for so young a composer (Hanns Jelinek, Anleitung zur Zwölftonkomposition, 2 vols. [Vienna: Universal Edition, 1952–58]).
Given Ligeti's losing battle against the Hungarian censors, the tantalizing tidbits of leaked information he received from the West, and the composer's correspondence with Karlheinz Stockhausen, his legendary 1956 flight across the border now seems inevitable. After stopping briefly in Vienna, Ligeti made Cologne his new home. Stockhausen himself put him up for several months until he worked out a more permanent living situation. In such a richly stimulating environment, it took only a few months for Ligeti to absorb a staggering amount of new information in his new home. This is clear from his first piece in the West: Glissandi (1957). Levy argues that the piece—for all its shortcomings—provides important context for the composer's later development. Ligeti quickly withdrew this electronic "finger exercise" (p. 52), releasing it only in 1976 when his career was secure. Levy explains that the second half contains the exact same material as the first half, combined with its retrograde; but in an interesting twist, a large amount of sound is filtered out, making the texture less dense in the second half (p. 60). In Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge, completed only a year earlier, part D of the structure is an exact retrograde of three tracks from part B, with a few...