Born to Hungarian Jewish parents, Ligeti studied composition in Cluj and then, after the war, in Budapest, at the Academy of Music, where he joined the teaching staff soon after graduating in 1949. These were difficult times. Much of the music a young composer might be interested in was officially banned, and Ligeti had to piece together his knowledge of new and recent music from diverse sources, including an uncle abroad and foreign radio broadcasts. In December 1956, following the Soviet invasion, he escaped with his wife to Austria. The premiere of his orchestral work Atmosphères, in 1961, established him as a master of color and stillness; the appearance of Aventures the next year proved his equal command of quick-fire humor. His subsequent career can be seen as one of continuing growth in range and differentiation within the world of radiant beauty and strangeness he had opened, where folk and modernist elements fuse effortlessly.
The song cycle Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel is one of Ligeti’s last completed works, composed in 2000 and premiered in Metz by Katalin Károlyi and the Amadinda percussion ensemble, to whom it is dedicated. The texts (but not the title) are taken from short poems in Hungarian by Sándor Weöres, a frequent inspiration and source for Ligeti. The opening fable is a sort of ritual incantation, statements in granite. The following “Dance Song” is just that, a rhythmic use of vocal sounds without textual meaning, shadowed and teased by the whoops of whistles and ocarinas. Weöres’ text for the “Chinese Temple” is a series of monosyllabic words, which Ligeti places in a meditative setting, with the haunted chiming of gongs and other metallic percussion shimmering against them like water lapping against stones.
According to the composer, the fifth song, “Coolie,” “is a poetic portrayal of an Asian pariah’s monotonous hopelessness and pent-up aggressiveness.” In “Dream,” the voice sways in the wheezing wind of four harmonicas, as a floating, evocative reverie. In “Bittersweet,” Ligeti put a pop-style tune in a pseudo-folk setting – he subtitled the movement, tongue-in-cheek, “67th Hungarian Etude.” For his finale, Ligeti again turns to a poem without literal meaning, “but one which produces a rhythmic swing,” as he notes.
Paul Griffiths is a Welsh music critic, novelist, and librettist.