Ligeti the maverick? An examination of Ligeti's ambivalent role in contemporary music.

Searby, Michael (2018) Ligeti the maverick? An examination of Ligeti's ambivalent role in contemporary music. Journal of the Society for Musicology in Ireland, 13, pp. 3-15. ISSN (online) 1649-7341


György Ligeti, the Hungarian composer, is often described as a maverick by commentators on later twentieth century music, and this article will examine the evidence for using such a label. To what extent can Ligeti can genuinely considered as a maverick, or is this epithet perhaps an over-simplification of a more complex situation? The OED’s definition of a maverick is ‘an unorthodox or independent-minded person: a person who refuses to conform to the views of a particular group or party: an individualist.’ This definition is close to the often stated view of Ligeti when compared with his peers and colleagues, and it is also the view that Ligeti himself seems to want to project in his many interviews. When he was accused by Helmut Lachenmann in 1984 as ‘selling out’—initiated by a performance of Ligeti’s rather postmodernist-sounding Horn Trio—Ligeti suggested that he was actually composing non-atonal rather than postmodernist music. Thus suggesting that he felt he was not following the prevailing new cultural movement of postmodernism; though works such as Hungarian Rock for harpsichord seem to undermine this assertion, with its use of tonality and influences of jazz. When one compares Ligeti’s Apparitions for orchestra with Penderecki’s contemporaneous Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, it is possible to observe the similarities of approach in each of these works; thus suggesting that Ligeti was in fact part of a more general approach to composing in the 1960s, focused on texture and timbre. When one views Ligeti’s entire oeuvre, one can see that he did in fact follow various contemporary compositional trends. The analysis of Ligeti’s music will be used to construct a more nuanced evaluation of his approach, with the conclusion that the term ‘maverick’ does not do justice to the wide range of his output.

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