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Gyorgy Ligeti.

Gyorgy Ligeti. Etudes pour piano, premier livre (1985). Final edition. Mainz: Schott, [1998], c1996. ISMN M-001-08329-6; ED 7989. [Note in Eng., Ger., 1 p.; score, p. 6-55. DM 36; duration: ca. 20'.]

Gyorgy Ligeti. Etudes pour piano, deuxieme livre (1988--94). Mainz: Schott, c1998. ISMN M-001-12047-0; ED 8654. [Performance notes in Eng., Ger., 1 p.; score, p. 5--74. DM 48; duration: ca. 22'.]

In the forty years since Gyorgy Ligeti achieved international attention with the performance of his orchestral work Apparitions (1958--59) at the ISCM Festival in Cologne in 1960, he has come to be regarded by many as Europe's greatest living composer. After leaving his native Hungary late in 1956 and arriving in Cologne in 1957, Ligeti rapidly became associated with the Darmstadt circle (Karlheinz Stockhausen, Cornelius Cardew, Mauricio Kagel, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, and Henri Pousseur, among others), but never totally adopted these composers ideas. He has always followed his own compositional path, combining his native Hungarian musical tradition with experiments in complex rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic structures, creating some truly extraordinary music. The etudes reviewed here can certainly be placed among the most important piano works of the second half of the twentieth century. Indeed, in 1986, Ligeti received the Grawemeyer Award for his premier livre of Etudes pour piano.

Muzio Clementi is usually credited with being the originator of the modern piano etude, but it was Frederic Chopin who elevated the genre from a mere technical study to a concert work of the highest artistic caliber. The etudes of Franz Liszt, Alexandr Scriabin, and Claude Debussy, although different in harmonic language, basically followed the Chopin model: they are works intended for the concert stage but are explorations of pianistic problems such as double thirds, double sixths, octaves, ornaments, and arpeggios. Most twentiethcentury sets of etudes, on the other hand, begin with the exploration of compositional problems, not pianistic ones. Igor Stravinsky's Etudes, op. 7 (1908) are concerned with polyrhythms. Bela Bartok's Etudes (1918) deal with chromaticism as well as with irregular meters. Olivier Messiaen, in the second of his Quatre etudes de rhythme, the "Mode de valeurs et d'intensites" (1949), worked out his ideas of total serialization. The more recent etude sets of George Perle (1976) and Wil liam Bolcom (1977--1986) also present pianistic difficulties that stem from compositional explorations. All of these twentieth-century etudes present tremendous technical challenges for the pianist, but of a quite different sort from those encountered in the nineteenth--century etude.

The two books of etudes by Ligeti (Nos. 1--14; a third collection is in progress) move dizzyingly beyond anything conceived of in etudes up to this time. Lisztian in their musical dimensions with cascades of notes falling and rising over the entire keyboard and Chopinesque in their artistic quality, Ligeti's etudes exceed even Beethoven's dynamic demands, asking the pianist to control a formidable range of dynamics from PPPPPPPP to ffffffff. They border on the superhuman in the mental and physical demands made on the performer. (The fourteenth etude, in fact, is so difficult that it is also published in a version for mechanical piano or Yamaha Disklavier. That version is included in the second volume.)

Ligeti has said that the genesis of his etudes is an exploration and combination of two distinct compositional ideas: the meter-dependent hemiola as used by Robert Schumann and Chopin and the additive pulsation principle of African music. To these two ideas, he adds others, including ostinato, isorhythm, asymmetrical meter, simultaneous use of different scales in the right and left hand, and multiple superimposed metrical layers. He always tries to outwit the listener's perception, to create illusions of time or space. What we see on the page is rarely what is heard in performance. Instead, rhythms, melodies, and harmonies emerge as illusions from the unique structure that Ligeti creates for each new work.

Ligeti's creation of illusion does not originate with his etudes but rather extends back to the beginning of his career. In Apparitions and another early orchestral work, Atmosphares (1961), Ligeti uses the orchestral cluster to develop a sound texture that creates the illusion of acoustically standing still. Dozens of individual lines and rhythmic figurations are notated, but what is heard is a huge mass of sound that appears to be unmoving, and yet it slowly, almost imperceptibly, changes into something else.

Ligeti creates aural illusions in the way that M. C. Escher creates visual illusions. Not surprisingly, he often speaks of a longtime interest in picture puzzles, illusions of various kinds, and paradoxes of perception and ideas (as in his program notes to Volker Banfleld's recording of the first book of Etudes [Wergo WER 60134-50, 1987]), citing as favorites (among others) the works of Lewis Carroll, Escher, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, and Douglas Hofstadter. Since the early 1980s, he has also explored Benoit Mandelbrot's work with fractals, Conlon Nancarrow's complex music for player piano, and the rhythmically intricate music of central Africa. Ligeti claims that there are no direct links to his work from these writers, authors, or musicians but only speaks about his interest in them to reveal the intellectual climate in which he composes.

While we usually associate Ligeti's early work with the compositions using orchestral sound clusters that seem to eliminate all rhythm, melody, and harmony, Ligeti experimented with creating illusionary rhythms as early as 1962, in the Poeme symphonique for one hundred metronomes. In this work, a very thick texture is created by the layered ticking of one hundred metronomes. As each machine winds down and fewer ticking metronomes remain, various rhythmic patterns begin to emerge. Exactly what rhythmic patterns are heard will vary from performance to performance--a kind of chance piece for metronomes. This idea is explored further in Continuum for harpsichord (1968). The listener sees a consistent pattern of equal eighth notes when looking at the score but hears something very different, for the frequency of repetition of certain pitches and the introduction of new pitches sound as slower, disjunct rhythmic patterns emerging out of the overall texture.

Ligeti's three pieces for two pianos, Monument--Selbstportrait--Bewegung (1976), carry the concept of illusionary rhythm even further. As in all of Ligeti's music, the basis of the three pieces stems from the sound possibilities inherent in the particular instrument for which he is writing--in this case, two pianos. Speaking of these pieces, Ligeti explains that one hears "something like the three-dimensional impossible perspectives in Maurice Escher's pictures. In the same way there are rhythms and rhythmic formulae which neither pianist plays, but which emerge from the combination of the two pianos. What you get there is a complex acoustical illusionary rhythm" (Istvan Szigeti, "A Budapest Interview with Gyorgy Ligeti," New Hungarian Quarterly 25 [1984]: 210).

Ligeti's interest in the etude did not begin with his piano etudes. He wrote two early etudes for the organ (Etude no. 1, "Harmonies" [1967] and Etude no. 2, "Coulee" [1969]) that deal with harmonic and rhythmic illusion, and the Three Pieces for Two Pianos are actually etudes in everything but name. In the Etudes pour piano (bk. 1, 1985; bk. 2, 1988-94; bk. 3 in progress), Ligeti has combined the tradition of the virtuosic technical study with his ever-evolving ideas of rhythmic articulation to produce a stunningly original and fiendishly difficult set of etudes.

A brief look at some of the etudes will demonstrate their wealth of invention and show Ligeti's extraordinary mind at work. In the first etude, "Desordre," the right hand is diatonic throughout, playing only the white keys. The left hand is pentatonic, playing only the black keys. This combination of pentatonic and diatonic scales creates the illusion of a different kind of scale or tuning system, an aspect Ligeti explores further in the Piano Concerto (1985-88) and in the second book of etudes. Against a constant pulse of eighth notes throughout, the right hand begins with one melody, the left with another. Initially the two are synchronized, creating an impression of order. These two melodies are each governed by a different isorhythm, however, and after four bars, the right hand moves one eighth ahead. At the end of the next motive, the right hand has moved two eighths ahead, and the listener has entered the "disorder" portion of the piece. Eventually the two hands again coincide, and again move out of sy nc, but since each hand has a different isorhythm and each is using a melody of a different length, the "disorder" and "order" sections do not follow an easily recognized pattern, as in a phased piece. Ligeti also uses his expanded concept of the hemiola principle in this etude to produce combinations such as four repetitions of the right hand melody versus three of the left, or the right hand melody in a 7:9 relationship to that of the left. In an unpublished lecture given at the International Bartok Seminar and Festival in Szombathely, Hungary, 26 July 1990, Ligeti cites Chopin, and in particular, the Fourth Ballade, as an influence on his concept of hemiola. He points to mm. 175-76 in the ballade in which the left hand plays two groups of six sixteenths in 6/8 meter. The right hand plays triplets, so the relationship is 3:2; but additionally, the sixteenth-note triplets are accented in nine groups of four extending over the barline, thus forming a 9:4 relationship. Ligeti reasons that if Chopin could do th is, then why could he not extend these relationships to other prime numbers such as 7:5 or 11:7, irrespective of the bar line.

The third etude, "Touches bloquees" ("Blocked Keys"), uses the same technique that first appeared in "Selbstportrait," the second of the Three Pieces for Two Pianos. Certain keys are held down silently with one hand while the other hand plays a very fast chromatic line on and around the blocked keys, which of course do not sound. The result is a complicated rhythmic pattern that gives the music a somewhat mechanical quality. At first the silent gaps are all the duration of a single eighth, but eventually the gaps are two eighths, then three, and continue to increase in length until the texture becomes increasingly sparse. Again, this etude is about the creation of illusion; we see a continuous pattern of eighth notes on the page, but what results in performance are quirky rhythmic patterns that are not discernible to the eye and would be all but impossible to notate in a more traditional fashion to achieve the desired effect.

After encountering Nancarrow's music for the first time in a Paris record shop in 1980, Ligeti became fascinated with its polyrhythmic complexity. He determined to create the same kind of rhythmic complexity for live performer as did Nancarrow for the player piano. This is particularly apparent in the sixth etude, "Automne a Varsovie" ("Warsaw Autumn"). This etude draws not only upon the complex structures of Nancarrow, but upon the many rhythmic levels inherent in the additive pulse principle of African music, which superimposes over an underlying layer of fast pulsations various rhythmic layers that are multiples of the basic pulse. Translated into Western terms, we might speak of an underlying pulse of sixteenth notes, with other layers of eighths, dotted eighths, quarters, dotted quarters, quarter plus sixteenth, quarter plus three sixteenths, and so forth.

In "Automne a Varsovie," the pianist plays a very fast pattern of sixteenth notes. The movement is notated in 4/4 but the bar lines are merely for ease of reading and do not define pulses. The main theme of the piece is a descending line (Ligeti's "lament" motif heard in several other works, including the last movement of the Horn Trio) sounded initially in octaves, each equal to five of the sixteenth note pulsations. Several measures later, the melody enters in the left hand in note values corresponding to three pulsations each, thus a faster layer superimposed upon a slower. Throughout the work, Ligeti adds layers, always on top of the steady sixteenth note pulsations. These layers may be other combinations of pulsations such as seven, four, or two, or may be two noncoinciding layers of the same pulse. In one section of the work at mm. 79-81, melodic layers of two, three, four, five, and seven pulses are all superimposed on the sixteenth note layer. Ligeti refers to this etude as a fugue, and indeed, he su bjects the melodic motif to augmentation, diminution, and inversion. Unlike a traditional fugue, however, Ligeti does not intend for the listener to hear the various voices but only to be aware of them as part of the overall texture. The rhythmic complexity grows until the piece literally collapses.

"Galamb borong," the seventh etude and the first in the second set, is an artificial name for an imaginary gamelan music. In common with "Desordre" (the first etude in book 1), each hand uses a different scale--the whole-tone scale C#-D#-F-G-A-B in the right and the complementary whole-tone scale C-D-E-F#-G#-A# in the left--to create the illusion of a different kind of composite scale or tuning. In addition, there is no common meter in the two hands; instead each plays melodic motifs in irregular accents that overlay rapid sixteenth notes.

Etude 9, "Vertige" ("Vertigo"), explores the illusion of creating an endlessly descending spiral. The etude begins with a descending sixteenth-note chromatic scale in even eighths. After eight notes, a second part enters with the same scale. The third entrance is seven notes later, and the fourth seven notes after that. New voices continue to enter, always with the descending chromatic scale, like overlapping waves. As the piece progresses, the intervals between entrances become shorter, narrowing to three or even two eighths, causing the texture to become more dense and complex and contributing to the listener's sense of vertigo.

While "Vertige" deals with endlessly descending cascades of notes, in the fourteenth etude, "Columna infinita" ("The Endless Column"), both hands play ascending cascades of fff chords. Each "phrase" begins in a low register and goes progressively higher, the next entering before the previous one has finished, so that the illusion is of continuously upward, frenetic motion. Because it is so technically difficult, this etude is also published in a version for player piano, certainly a link to Nancarrow's player piano studies which served as such catalysts for Ligeti.

Ligeti's etudes are among the most difficult works that exist for solo piano, perhaps the most difficult. They explore and extend the possibilities of the piano and challenge the musical and physical capabilities of the performer as do few other works. But, in the tradition of Chopin's etudes, they are artistic gems as well as virtuosic masterpieces. The performance time of all fourteen etudes is about forty minutes. In the notes accompanying Banfield's recording of book 1, Ligeti comments that the six etudes may be programmed individually, but if performed as a set, the pianist should maintain the original order since the "collapse" of the final etude serves as the conclusion to the entire set. I assume that the same holds true for book 2, and that Etude 14 is the necessary culmination if this set is also performed complete.

Schott's edition of both books is beautifully produced in an easy-to-read, rather large-note format, with all notes by the composer in both German and English. This is a long overdue publication, particularly for the first book, which was finished in 1985. The music appears far less daunting in this printed score than it does in the original facsimile edition of book 1 (published by Schott in 1986 [ED 7428]), although the ease of reading is certainly an illusion. I must admit, however, to missing the facsimile score, from which I learned the first eight etudes. Ligeti's manuscript is almost impossible to read; notes are scrunched together in a way that can defy deciphering, sometimes running off the edge of the staff and into the margins. But seeing his manuscript gives the performer a real sense of the structure of the music and a glimpse into the mind of this marvelously inventive musician. Book 1 is still available in the facsimile edition for those intrepid pianists who want to learn the works from Liget i's own manuscript.

The Ligeti etudes are a must for any music library and should be a must for any performing pianist. Liszt's Transcendental Etudes were once considered unplayable by anyone other than Liszt and a few of his students. I hope that in the not too distant future, Ligeti's etudes, which seem so formidable at present, will actually become part of every performing pianist's repertory.
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