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Ligeti: Lontano for Large Orchestra

György Ligeti was born May 28, 1923, in Dicsöszentmárton, Transylvania (now Tirnaveni, Romania), and died June 12, 2006, in Vienna, Austria. He composed Lontano in 1967, on commission from the Southwest German Radio, Baden-Baden, for the Donaueschigen Music Festival of 1967. The work is dedicated to the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra, Baden-Baden, and its conductor, Ernest Bour, who performed the premiere on October 22, 1967, at the Donaueschingen Music Festival in Germany. These are the first performances by the San Francisco Symphony. The score calls for four flutes (second and third doubling piccolo, fourth doubling alto flute), four oboes (fourth doubling English horn), four clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet, fourth doubling contrabass clarinet ad libitum), three bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, and strings. 

György Ligeti grew up in a Jewish family in a Hungary that was in turn dominated by Hitler and Stalin. Unlike his father and his brother, he managed to survive internment in a labor camp. Despite his perilous condition, he was able to cobble together a firm musical education, and he spent the years immediately following World War II studying at the Academy of Music in Budapest. He produced the stream of folk-based choral music that was de rigueur in Hungary at the time, but he also worked at experimental pieces, building on the models of Bartók and the few other avant-garde composers of whose music he was aware. 

Ligeti became part of the great Hungarian exodus of 1956 and settled in Germany, where he soaked up the thriving culture of contemporary music. In 1960 his dramatic Apparitions for Orchestra was premiered in Vienna, and it boosted him to a prominent position among experimental composers. Its dense, cloud-like textures, the result of great clusters of orchestral sounds, wove vaguely through the slowly evolving piece, sometimes in “micropolyphony” (his word). 

In the course of the 1960s he grew increasingly fascinated by the possibility of music with a harmonic center (an idea that was not at all orthodox at the time among composers at the edge), and this interest led him in the direction of Lontano (the Italian word for “far”), which he composed in 1967. (That year he assumed Austrian citizenship, having settled in Vienna several years earlier.) Writing in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (second edition), critic and Ligeti biographer Paul Griffiths says this of Lontano: “This was not a return to conventional tonality—Ligeti preferred chords with no clear diatonic sense . . .—but, together with the principle of canon, it allowed him access to the continuity of conventional tonal music. Lontano is partly a salute, across a gulf of elapsed time, to the late Romantic symphony. In Lontano . . .  Ligeti made his music of long, slow gestures, but there was another basic element in his world, that of rapid mechanical activity.” 

The new-music community was watching Ligeti closely long before he was thrust to a sort of popular fame in 1968. That’s when, without the composer’s knowledge or permission and to his horror, Stanley Kubrick incorporated three of his compositions—Atmosphères, Lux Aeterna, and Requiem—into the soundtrack of the MGM film 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Ligeti was particularly offended by having his music placed in proximity to works by Johann Strauss II and Richard Strauss, as they were in 2001.) Kubrick would make further use of Ligeti (now with the composer’s permission), in 1980 using Lontano (among other pieces) to help create the creepy background in The Shining (along with excerpts of works by Bartók, Penderecki, and Berlioz) and in 1999 employing his Musica Ricercata II in the film Eyes Wide Shut

Ligeti’s scores usually project a sensual appeal to which audiences respond intuitively, even though its vocabulary is not that of most other music. The composer François-Bernard Mâche, writing in Music, Society and Imagination in Contemporary France (Routledge, 1994) and pointing to how strictly “acoustic” pieces such as Lontano might trace their ancestry to electronic music, proposed a metaphor that may help listeners interested in how such music is built: “The proliferation of complex sounds prompted composers of the fifties to transpose these mass effects [of electroacoustics] to the orchestra. . . . From this results a music that is ‘woven’. . . . Musical technique is like the technique of plaiting and consists of bringing ordered networks into being, in composing various types of intersections. In a way, that is comparable to the techniques used in the textile industry, musical skill works on a fibrous material to which it gives glowing colour, profusion, mobility.” 

Mâche’s comparison seems apt; Lontano does come across as an example of musical weaving, its warp and woof being defined not by the interaction of disparate melodic lines (as one finds in traditional counterpoint, for example) but rather by the shifting qualities of constantly changing instrumental combinations—vertical textures, we might call them—against the horizontal axis of time. This is not a domain inhabited by Ligeti alone; Elliott Carter had explored similar territory earlier and a number of composers, Kaija Saariaho perhaps most notable among them, have made telling use of related processes in the years since Lontano was introduced. But Ligeti achieves his goal with elegance and conveys it through notation of almost unbearable meticulousness. Almost every moment of every instrumental part in this immense score is marked not only by a pitch but also by a precise dynamic indication (beginning at the top of the piece from an almost imperceptible pppp), by precise points of crescendo and diminuendo, by instructions relating to attacks, muting, bowing, and other details of technique. 

In a preface to the score Ligeti provides further advice about how to approach the work’s performance: “The bar lines serve only as a means of synchronization; bar lines and beats never mean an accentuation; the music must flow smoothly, and accents (with a very few, precisely indicated exceptions) are foreign to the piece. To avoid any effect of accentuation, it is recommended that all instruments enter with an imperceptible attack, even when this is not specifically prescribed; the softest attack possible is necessary in the oboes, English horn, and brass instruments. When there are sustained tones in the strings, the change of bow should, if possible, not coincide with the bar lines, and should be imperceptible and individually executed; the same applied to all legato passages in the strings.” 

The traditional “building blocks” of Western music are melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre. Lontano, however, is not a traditional piece, and Ligeti draws on these elements selectively. We will listen in vain for much that seems to be a melody, although analysts have pointed to several pitch patterns, often buried in the midst of the orchestral makeup. Even if melody is not pre-eminent here, pitches have significance. It can hardly be coincidental, for example, that the first few measures of the piece are given over to overlapping soundings of the note A-flat—surely a musical joke of sorts in that it sounds for all the world like an orchestra tuning up—but a half-tone below the standard tuning pitch. 

Soon other notes impinge on the proceedings, and the simultaneous sounding of various pitches unquestionably means that harmony is in the equation. Rhythm is there, too, to the extent that we understand rhythm to mean the unrolling of sounds over time with some discernable pattern. But since the rhythms are never repetitive, this piece does not involve the recurring pulses we perceive as meter; and without meter, we are left with an incomplete sense of tempo, the speed at which music unrolls. (Most of us will probably experience the piece as being slow, but someone studying the score and noting the constant alterations of timbre and texture might instead conclude that it is moving quickly.) Timbre stands at the heart of the piece in the guise of the constantly shifting tone color, along with orchestral texture—the combinations of the various instrumental sounds, more or less dense or transparent from moment to moment. The emphasis on timbre, texture, and harmony-not-born-of-melodies yields a cloud-like effect, with the sounds moving slowly through a succession of musical shapes that are constantly coming and going, never arriving at a firm destination or even a point of real repose. In this regard, Lontano is an unusually life-like composition. 

Each fleeting moment displays a distinct quality, a unique sound born of the interaction of the music’s strata. Ligeti offered this observation about the layered quality of the music in Lontano: “The crystallizations of harmonies have several layers: within the harmonies are enclosed interior harmonies, and more interior harmonies within those interior harmonies, and so on. There is not merely one process of harmonic transformation, but rather several simultaneous processes going on at different speeds, which shine through one another, overlain one upon the other, and by means of various refractions and reflections make perceptible an imaginary perspective. This process unfolds itself gradually on the listener, rather like what happens when you step from sharp sunlight into a dark room and gradually begin to notice colors and outlines become more and more perceptible.” 

Lontano is cast in a single movement of about thirteen minutes’ duration. Listeners will want to be attentive to its evolving details throughout. By the end, they are likely to sense that they have experienced something of definable, if nebulous, form that quite transcends the transience of each moment. Writing about his Piano Concerto, unveiled in 1988, Ligeti enunciated his essential posture as a composer, but what he suggested then was already present three decades earlier, when Lontano was first heard: “[My] aesthetic credo [includes] my independence both from the criteria of the traditional avant-garde and from those of fashionable post-modernism. The musical illusions so important to me are not pursued as an end in themselves, but rather form the foundation of my aesthetic considerations. I favor musical forms that are less process-like and more object-like. Music as frozen time, as an object in an imaginary space that is evoked in our imaginations through music itself. Music as a structure that, despite its unfolding in the flux of time, is still synchronistically conceivable, simultaneously present in all its moments. To hold on to time, to suspend its disappearance, to confine it in the present moment, this is my primary goal in composition.”

—James M. Keller


An earlier version of this note appeared in the programs of the New York Philharmonic and is used with permission.

On Disc and In Print

On Disc: Jonathan Nott conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Teldec)  |  Claudio Abbado conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, in a live recording with some ambient audience sounds (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Ernest Bour conducting the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra (Wergo)

In Print: György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination, by Richard Steinitz (Northeastern University Press)  |  György Ligeti, by Richard Toop (Phaidon)  |  Ligeti, Kurtág, and Hungarian Music during the Cold War, by Rachel Beckles Willson (Cambridge University Press)

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