It’s a cliché to say that an artist draws his power from his contradictions, but the lives of the great composers provide easy grist for the mill. Ives, living an outwardly respectable life as an Ivy League-educated New York insurance executive, turned from Jekyll to Hyde in his off hours, writing a rude and shocking type of music that the world is still trying to absorb. Schönberg, the conservative progressive, thought himself forced by fate to push Romantic music, which everyone loved, into the woolly world of Modernism, which almost everyone hated. Beethoven, music’s great idealist, wrote music that sang majestically of universal brotherhood, while enduring a personal life of crushing loneliness. The list goes on.
At first glimpse, György Ligeti appears to reflect this familiar pattern. As Richard Steinitz writes in his new biography (which arrives in America just before the end of the Hungarian composer’s eightieth-birthday year): “Ligeti is a dreamer who is a meticulous technician, a creator of mechanisms who believes in intuition, an insatiable explorer who is mercilessly self-critical, a hater of ideologies, a profound intellectual who is sensitive, witty, self-deprecating and devoid of pomposity.” He is also a man who has lived through harrowing times, so much so that one is tempted to hear the combination of horror and humor in his music–never more manifest than in his magnum opus, the opera Le Grand Macabre, in which the worlds of Bosch and Breughel lie down as lion and lamb–as we do the bitter ironies of Shostakovich, another tortured genius from the Eastern bloc.
But Steinitz–a British composer, academic and new-music impresario–knows better, and after sampling Ligeti’s music, played with astonishing expertise by some of Europe’s leading performers in a series of discs on the Warner Classics label, so do we. There may be a handful of composers still living who can match Ligeti’s achievement (Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter most quickly come to mind), but none of them are more deserving of the honor of a complete edition of recordings–which Warner, picking up the baton from Sony Classics, has recently finished. (The fifth and final volume of the Warner set is scheduled to be released in spring 2004.) In the midst of a dislocated life in a misbegotten century, Ligeti has created a body of music that, with a few exceptions, maintains an underlying serenity of purpose even while it indulges a taste for the ghoulish and the macabre. As a victim of Soviet domination, the young Ligeti was not free to choose the direction in which his music could go, but the sheer scope of his vision was apparent even from the beginning–a vision that would expand to embrace the influences of Boulezian serialism, Cageian chance techniques, American minimalism and the crazy, serried rhythmic schemes of the player-piano composer Conlon Nancarrow. Much of Steinitz’s book is made up of analysis, but unlike so many composer studies, the descriptive sections are so well written and metaphorically articulate that an intelligent reader will know what to take and what to leave behind. He devotes some forty pages to analyzing the workings of Ligeti’s three books of piano études–which makes sense, as these richly varied, virtuosic and delectable works have become some of his most popular and accessible pieces.
You won’t find much detail about Ligeti’s life in Steinitz’s book, which, he says, “was not intended to be” a biography, but which became one as the writer warmed to his subject. The founder and former artistic director of Britain’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (long a renowned showcase for the most intrepid of modern composers), Steinitz first met Ligeti in 1973, and his book, Music of the Imagination, is an official biography in all but name: Ligeti not only welcomed Steinitz into his Hamburg home for three days of interviews but checked the book’s first draft, making corrections the writer duly incorporated into his text. So it’s no surprise that Steinitz, by his own admission, has touched on Ligeti’s personal life only insofar as it will illuminate the composer’s music, the topics including “his relationship with his mother, his continued distress concerning the murder of his father and brother [by the Nazis], the circumstances of his three marriages to only two people, his generous advocacy of little known composers, personal warmth and professional scepticism.” Andrew Clark, in a review of the book’s European edition, describes Ligeti (whom he once interviewed himself) as “a restless, obsessive, almost childlike figure who shields himself within an emotional/psychological world of his own making, for the fulfillment of his extraordinary creative talent.” This, too, is a twentieth-century cliché, and I would hesitate to apply it to a Jew who successfully survived the Holocaust and a Hungarian who escaped the Russian onslaught against his country in 1956 by hiding under mail sacks and dodging border guards.