“My soul would sing of metamorphoses. But since, o gods, you were the source of these
bodies becoming other bodies, breathe your breath into my book of changes: may the song I sing be seamless as its way weaves from the world’s beginning to our day.” Ovid, Metamorphoses
Featured image is a collage by Marie H. Sirois
Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1, titled Métamorphoses nocturnes, was composed in 1953–54. It is thus representative of what Ligeti used to call “the prehistoric Ligeti”, referring to the works he wrote before leaving Hungary in 1956. This quartet was heavily inspired by Bartók’s third and fourth quartets, so much so that it was called “Bartók’s seventh string quartet” by fellow Hungarian composer György Kurtág. Ligeti knew these works only from their scores, performances of them being banned under communist regimes at the time. Source
The quartet is approximately 21 minutes long, and was premiered at the Vienna Musikverein on 8 May 1958 by the Ramor Quartet, an ensemble that had also fled into exile. It is in one continuous movement, which can be divided into sections.Source
Compared to Ligeti’s String Quartet no.2, Métamorphoses nocturnes is a piece that has been less explored, although it towers over the author’s early creations. Using a sole melodic motif extracted from Bartók’s piano piece Klänge der Nacht, the Quartet develops a set of syntactic and language characteristics that confer this Budapest period work a reverential gesture to Ligeti’s outstanding predecessor. The arch form structure, the continuous variation technique, the fusion between chromaticism and diatonicism, they all highlight a compelling interconnection with Bartók’s universe. Source
Ligeti says of his String Quartet :
The first word of the sub-title Metamorphoses nocturnes refers to the form. It is a kind of variation form, only there is no specific “theme” that is then varied. It is, rather, that one and the same musical concept appears in constantly new forms – that is why “metamorphoses” is more appropriate than “variations”. The quartet can be considered as having just one movement or also as a sequence of many short movements that melt into one another without pause or which abruptly cut one another off. The basic concept, which is always present in the intervals but which is in a state of constant transformation, consists of two major seconds that succeed each other transposed by a semitone. In this First String Quartet there are certainly some characteristics of my later music, but the writing is totally different, “old-fashioned”; there are still distinct melodic, rhythmic and harmonic patterns and bar structure. It is not tonal music, but it is not radically atonal, either. The piece still belongs firmly to the Bartók tradition (remember my situation as a composer in Hungary at the beginning of the fifties), yet despite the Bartók-like tone (especially in the rhythm) and despite some touches of Stravinsky and Alban Berg, I trust that the First String Quartet is still personal work. Source
György Sándor Ligeti (b. 1923–d. 2006) is arguably the most influential composer of the late 20th century. Over the course of six decades, he produced solo Chamber Works, choral compositions, Fluxus experiments, analog Electronic pieces, orchestral compositions, and works of music theatre.
Ligeti was born in Transylvania of Hungarian-Jewish parents, where he first studied music at the Kolozsvár Conservatory. Although he lost his father and brother to the wartime concentration camps, Ligeti escaped a Nazi work camp and entered the Liszt Academy in 1945. He joined the Academy faculty on graduation, just as Communist dictates began to affect Budapest’s cultural and political life.
Under the constraints of socialist realism, Ligeti embarked on a compositional career divided between acceptable works and more dissonant compositions “for the desk drawer.” During the 1956 Hungarian revolution Ligeti escaped to Vienna, and in 1957 worked at the electronic studio of West German radio in Cologne. His early Orchestral Works Apparitions (1958–1959) and Atmosphères(1961) cemented Ligeti’s reputation with the European avant-garde. Rejecting the dogmatism of the Darmstadt school, Ligeti embraced influences from early music, art, literature, science, and folk music, producing complex but often remarkably accessible works known for their eccentric humor and dark wit.
In the 1970s Ligeti continued to refine and expand his style, producing everything from intimate solo works for harpsichord to the suitably grand opera Le Grand Macabre (1974–1977, revised in 1996). His music from the 1980s onward incorporated influences from African and other non-Western music, the canonic music of Conlon Nancarrow, and fractal geometry, but remained rooted in his native language and conservatory training. The championing of his music by leading performers, and numerous awards that followed his 70th birthday in 1993 contributed to the growing influence of Ligeti’s music in the last decades of the 20th century, by which time his students had established careers on several continents.
Ligeti’s music is widely lauded for uniting intellectual sophistication with a respect for the sensual attributes of his materials, a perception supported by Interviews and theoretical writings that span his career. The publication of György Ligeti: Eine Monographie (Mainz, Germany: Schott, 1971) and Das musikalische Material und seine Behandlung in den Werken “Apparitions,” “Atmosphères” und “Requiem” von György Ligeti (Regensburg, Germany: G. Bosse, 1969) presaged an intense scholarly interest in Ligeti’s works which only intensified as his oeuvre expanded and he embraced new compositional challenges. Much of the scholarship on Ligeti thus revolves around the categories of musical technique and influences, not surprisingly given the composer’s focus in his own theoretical writings and lectures.