A survivor of both Nazi and Soviet repression - he and his wife fled their native Hungary on foot following the brutal 1956 Russian suppression of nascent Hungarian liberties - György Ligeti (b. 1923) is a fiercely individual artist, with scant patience for the contentious "isms" of music in 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 Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály - not coincidentally composers who also contributed significant pieces to the repertory of unaccompanied solo string music.
Ligeti had entered the conservatory in Kolozsvár in 1941. After the war, he resumed his studies at the music academy in Budapest, where he became secretly infatuated with one of the cello students. For her he wrote a single movement, a musical dialogue of ardent, long-spanned melodies. Since Ligeti never revealed his affection, the idea of a dialogue for a single instrument is not as contradictory as it might seem - the conversation was all in his imagination.
"I attempted in this piece to write a beautiful melody, with a typical Hungarian profile, but not a folksong...or only half, like in Bartók or in Kodály - actually closer to Kodály," Ligeti said much later.
In any case, the object of his affection never played the work. In 1953 Ligeti met another cellist, Vera Dénes, who asked him for a piece. He decided to compose a fast movement to complement his existing dialogue, creating a short, two-movement sonata. This movement he labeled Capriccio, in reference to Nicolò Paganini's Caprices for solo violin. This movement takes the cello to the limits of virtuosity - it should be played as fast as possible, the composer has said - in a style clearly modeled on the bravura Hungarianisms of Bartók.
The authorities of the Hungarian Composers' Union allowed only a single radio performance of the work. Ligeti filed the piece away; in his early years in the West he ignored much of the music he had composed in what he called his "prehistoric" style. The Cello Sonata did not have its first concert performance until 1983 and was not published until 1990.
- John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association's Director of Publications.