The concept of reducing orchestral masses to individuals rather than sections was also applicable to purely instrumental music. Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony, Op. 9 (1906) and Webern's Concerto, Op. 24 (1931-34) are models for Ligeti's Chamber Concerto, in instrumentation if not textures or forms.
"This four-movement piece is a concerto inasmuch as all 13 players are virtuoso soloists and are all treated as equals," Ligeti says. "In other words, we are not dealing with the usual type of concerto in which soli and tutti alternate, but with a piece for 13 concertante soloists. The voices always develop simultaneously, but in varying rhythmic configurations and generally at differing speeds."
A survivor of both Nazi and Soviet repression - Ligeti and his wife fled their native Hungary on foot following the brutal 1956 Russian suppression of nascent Hungarian liberties - Ligeti is a fiercely individual artist, with scant patience for the contentious "isms" of music from the second half of the 20th century.
"I hate all these pseudo-philosophical over-simplifications. I hate all ideologies," Ligeti said in a 1986 interview. "I have certain musical imaginations and ideas. I don't write music naively. But I imagine music as it sounds, very concretely. I listen to it in my inner ear. Then I look for a certain system, for a certain construction. It's important for me, the construction. But I always know it's a second thing, it's not a primary factor. And I never think in philosophical terms, or never in extra-musical terms."
Although born into a Jewish family that included the great Hungarian violinist and pedagogue Leopold Auer, Ligeti came to music late, beginning piano lessons at the age of 14. Modernist impulses in art were anathema to the Nazi and the Communist dictatorships, and during his academic training Ligeti had little knowledge of most contemporary musical developments beyond the nationalist pieces of Bela Bartók and Zoltan Kodály.
Ligeti had entered the conservatory in Kolozsvár in 1941. After the war, he resumed his studies at the music academy in Budapest, graduating in 1949. He remained there teaching until his escape in 1956. In the West he met Karlheinz Stockhausen, attended some of the influential summer festivals at Darmstadt, and worked in the electronic studio of West German Radio in Cologne. In the 1960s Ligeti began working with pure sonority in fresh ways. He composed the landmark Atmosphères in 1961, and he became famous when this piece was used (without his permission) in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968.
The following year he began work on the Chamber Concerto, composed for the Viennese ensemble Die Reihe and completed in 1970. "The four movements contrast in character," Ligeti says. "The first is polyphonic and contains micropolyphonically interwoven lines that merge together to form a homogeneous texture. The second movement is homophonic and static, the third mechanical in the manner of a clockwork mechanism (my 1962 Poème symphonique for one hundred metronomes serves as a model here), and the fourth movement is an insanely virtuosic presto."
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.