Tag Archives: bela bartok

16. György Ligeti’s Music for the Black Masses

György Ligeti was born in 1923, in a village in Transylvania… Obviously there’s more to be said than just that, but it’s where I feel we should start – for Ligeti is another of the composers I leant on heavily for musical succour (or should I say terror?) while at work on The Possessions of Doctor Forrest.
A Jew, Ligeti was subjected to forced labour during WWII and both his parents were sent to Auschwitz. He survived the war and studied music in Soviet-controlled Budapest, where he was influenced notably by Béla Bartók and Zoltan Kodaly, of whom we have heard recently. Ligeti escaped Hungary not long after the 1956 uprising and became an Austrian citizen, but found his great spark in the experimental music of Cologne, the city where, in 1960, Ligeti’s Apparitions was first heard. In short order he became a towering figure of the musical avant-garde, Apparitions succeeded by kindred works that came to be described as ‘sound mass compositions’: Atmosphères (1961), Requiem (1963-65) and Lontano (1967). Their eeriness, their dark radiance, is highly pronounced: certainly they are ‘dramatic’ works – they also have the power to shock. Of Atmosphères the popular American orchestral conductor Keith Lockhart remarked in 2006: ‘Any music teacher can tell you of the four main bodies of music: melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre. Ligeti, in this work, has chosen to abandon all but the latter, giving [Atmosphères] a thickness of texture that few have accomplished before.’
Lontano is one great building mood, full of dread and shudders and shivers, leading to outright terror. If you haven’t heard it in a concert hall you may well have heard it in Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining. As usual I look to Alex Ross to say what should be said: ‘[Lontano] is a musical shadow play, in which voluptuous acts seem to be taking place behind a heavy scrim… The music hovers out of reach, teasingly imprecise, yet viscerally beautiful.’
The three great Ligeti sound-masses, bless them, are below:


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8. Bela Bartok & love’s death

'Portrait of Bela Bartok', Robert Bereny (1913)

At one fraught stage in The Possessions of Doctor Forrest our eponymous (anti-) hero finds himself alone at home, enveloped in evening gloom, “listening to Bartok’s ‘String Quartet #1’, staring out through my window at an orb of a moon in all her high, mesmeric splendour. Then She was at my shoulder, her breath in my ear…” The ‘She’ to whom Forrest refers, however, is not someone he was hoping to see.
Bartók’s first string quartet was composed in 1908 and inspired partly by his unrequited love for the great violinist Stefi Geyer, for whom he had a towering passion but who advised him, finally, that she would never entertain a proposal of marriage. The young Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (1907) had been a sort of love-song to Geyer. But when she heard that first String Quartet she may have felt considerable unease, as the opening notes of its Lento borrowed a motif from the devotional violin concerto, only to transform it into a pained piece of profound lamentation – a ‘funeral dirge’ as its composer described it, the death in question being that of love.
String Quartet #1 is considered by Bartók connoisseurs to be very much an early opus wherein the composer was still actively seeking his own creative voice. But I can’t think of a Bartók piece I like better than that slow fugue with which the piece begins. It’s lush, romantic, yearning, haunting. It has been compared – rightly, I daresay, since this is another piece I love and which I will write about in time – to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.
Bartok’s great friend the composer Zoltan Kodaly described the First Quartet as ‘an intimate drama, a kind of ‘return to life’ of one who has reached the brink of the abyss.’ And indeed there are magical moments within that Lento where in the mood of mournfulness is broken or lifted by startling outbursts of rhythm or crescendo. It is young man’s music, it testifies to the spirit that won’t be broken. In later years, though, Bartok must surely have regarded it still with some wistfulness. For me, as you’ll have guessed, it is also yet another fantasy-‘Theme From Doctor Forrest‘…

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