Thursday, June 25, 2020

A 30-Something Composer Looks at his Roots: Ligéti & his 1st String Quartet

“For this week’s dose of great music I chose a brilliant and perhaps somewhat challenging String Quartet No. 1 by György Ligéti. This richly nuanced score offers a vast range of sonorities, far beyond typical string quartet repertoire. It was jokingly called “Bartók’s 7th quartet” because of its stylistic connection to Bartók’s masterpieces. That said, it is a deeply authentic work from a musical giant in his own right. The Rolston String Quartet, winner of the 2018 Cleveland Quartet Award, gave us an extraordinary performance of this incredibly virtuosic work. Enjoy!” – Peter Sirotin, Artistic Director of Market Square Concerts.

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The concert a month before this one, marked the return of the Pacifica Quartet, when I wrote about the “classical music Cycle of Life,” how those new, young quartets appearing side-by-side with the Great Quartets of one generation may eventually become the Established Quartets of the Present who might, with any luck, become a Great Quartet of the Future. And then along comes another new, young quartet.

It is now the Rolston Quartet's shot at the brass ring (pardon the merry-go-round analogy but sometimes the music business is like that), having won the 2018 Cleveland Quartet Award. At the time of our concert, they were on their prize's tour, bringing them to eight different chamber music presenters, along with Carnegie Hall, around the country, including Buffalo, Detroit, Washington DC, Kansas City, Urbana (IL) and Austin (TX) as well as Harrisburg.

In 2016, they also won first prize at the prestigious Banff International String Quartet Competition. What does that mean for a young quartet? Well, it's more than just a trophy for their practice room and bragging rights: it comes with a three-year career development program worth $150,000, a recording, and $25,000 in cash.

On their April program to close Market Square Concerts' 2018-2019 Season (that may seem like so long ago, now...), they performed the 1st String Quartet by György Ligéti which he titled Metamorphoses nocturnes. Rather than a standard three- or four-movement format of alternating tempos and moods, Ligéti's quartet is a series of short dream-like fragments interlocked by often evolving motives. While you could follow the program to figure out which segment you're currently listening to, usually by the time you'd figure it out (if you haven't lost your place, one way or another), we're on to the next segment.

(again, due to space limitations on the blog format, if you want to view the performance at “full screen,” click on the box-like image in the lower right corner when you hover the cursor over the video.) - All videos from Market Square Church are filmed by their audio technician, Newman Stare.
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György Ligéti was a Hungarian composer, born in what was once part of Hungary but is now part of Romania, the same region where Bela Bartók was born. His 1st String Quartet, heavily influenced by Bartók's style, was completed in 1954 after he'd started teaching at the conservatory in Budapest, two years before the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution after which he fled to Vienna. Between 1973 and 1989, he taught at the famous music school in Hamburg, Germany, and died in Vienna in 2006.

Music that is “new” – and Ligéti's quartet from 66 years ago is hardly “new” anymore – is often difficult for some listeners unfamiliar with its style. Yes, it's “dissonant” in the sense its harmonies are not the traditional major and minor triads we're most familiar with; yes, it appears “shapeless” if you're listening for recognizable structures like the Sonata Form (frankly, if a contemporary of Haydn's came back 66 years later and heard Liszt and Wagner, they would've thought the same thing); and it might even “lack melody” since it's not based on 19th Century ideals of what makes a memorable tune (something that also might come to mind listening to a Renaissance mass).

But a convincing performance can make up for a lot of misconceptions about “modern” music. I've pointed out many times that if we heard a group play Beethoven without conviction or understanding of its inner workings, we'd think “well, they didn't play that very well!” And then, on the same program, they played a new and unfamiliar piece we'd never heard before, maybe a world premiere that no one has ever heard before, and played it with the same lack of conviction and understanding, we'd blame it on the composer.

You're in for a very convincing performance of Ligéti's Metamorphoses nocturnes from the Rolston Quartet, full of conviction and an understanding of what makes it “tick.”

And while “dissonance” is more “an unexpectedness requiring some form of resolution” rather than just “something unpleasant sounding,” that typical cadence of Classical Tonality which shows up so unexpectedly at 7:10 is truly one of the most dissonant major chords I've ever heard!

György Ligéti in 1984
More people have heard his music – mostly through the use of his Atmospheres and Lux Aeterna in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” – without knowing who he is, much less how to pronounce his name. Despite its looking like an Italian name – Ligeti with an accent on the second syllable – it's Hungarian, accented on the first syllable, regardless of the accent-looking thing on the 'e' (in Hungarian, that's not a stress accent)! His first name, György, is often mispronounced Gyór-ghee but in Hungarian, the “y” softens the “g,” so it's actually “zhorzh” (and those two dots are not a German umlaut).

Regardless, the name often strikes fear in the hearts of unsuspecting concert-goers, hearing he is one of the most innovative of avant-garde composers in the second half of the 20th Century. And true, much of his music can be dizzyingly dissonant, bringing to it an edge and excitement that makes him one of the more identifiable voices in modern music. But everybody has their roots somewhere, and the 1st String Quartet is evidence of his.

The first of two published quartets, this is what the composer himself called “The Pre-historic Ligéti.” It is in one movement but consists of a series of no less than seventeen miniature “nocturnes” (in the sense of night-dreams which can often be nightmarish, rather than in the reflective sense of Chopin) interconnected by various motives but often relying on stark and very sudden contrasts (as can happen in dreams). So the technical “metamorphosis” of these motives and the emotional “nocturnal” imagery lend the work its subtitle, “Metamorphoses nocturnes.” No sunrise and chatty birds, here.

While the program lists all seventeen tempo indications as if they're individual movements, you would do better just to listen to the piece as it evolves rather than try to follow where you are on this list. Some of them will have obvious divisions; sometimes the obvious “waltz-like nature” of one (a bit woozy, perhaps) will erupt into a Bartók dance-frenzy as if you'd tripped over a dime – and you may just miss the shock of it if you're trying to count which nocturne's coming up next. To be honest, since they're not marked in the score and none of them are given programmatic names, several of them don't seem to have beginnings or endings – again, very much like your dreams.

If you're familiar with Ligeti's more famous and cosmically colorful orchestral work Atmospheres from 1961, which one critic described as “a study in orchestration waiting for a piece to happen,” pay attention to the constantly shifting variety of colors he manages to get from just four string players – particularly near the end!

Being a Hungarian composer studying in Budapest – one of his teachers was Bartók's friend, Zoltan Kodály – the influence of Bela Bartók will be a given. And with Kodály's influence, so will the interest in folk music, though less so in this piece than in many of his later works.

The opening of the quartet is pure Bartók – crawling scale-wise passages often a half-step apart – and as the rest of it unfolds, it would be easier to point out parts that are not inspired, directly or indirectly, by Bartók. Considering the piece was composed only eight years after Bartók's death, perhaps this shouldn't be so surprising. And then, too, Ligeti was still a relatively young man, given how some composers develop. Yes, Beethoven produced his “Early Quartets” around the time he was pushing 30; if Ligéti'd lived only as long as Schubert, this would be about all we'd have of his music and we'd probably have never heard of him.

Ligeti in the mid-1950s
Let's consider a bit of biography which might help explain the composer's psychological development. As Lucy Murray mentions in her program notes – always recommended, whether you read them before or after but not during the concert – critic and author Alex Ross describes Ligeti's work as “artwork that answers horror by rejecting it or transcending it.”

Consider that Ligeti, a Hungarian Jew born in what is now the Romanian part of Transylvania, was called up for military service in 1944 by Hungary's Stalinist regime toward the end of World War II when he was 21. Shortly afterward, his 16-year-old brother was sent off to a Nazi concentration camp; both his parents were deported to Auschwitz. Only his mother survived.

After the war, Ligeti resumed his studies in Budapest and began this quartet around the time he turned 30. Knowing it would be banned, he wrote it, as composers who write for themselves rather than popular appeal often say, “for the desk drawer.” It would not be performed until 1958, by which time he had fled the failure of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 which the Soviet government put down with fierce brutality. From there, he settled in Vienna and eventually became an Austrian citizen.

(A colleague of mine at UConn described what that time was like: a college student supporting the Revolution, he was warned by friends the police were at his home, waiting to arrest him. So without anything more than what he had on his back or in his pockets, without saying good-bye to friends and family, he set out on foot in the middle of the night for the Austrian border and eventually made it to Vienna and freedom.)

Since anything that happens beyond these events will post-date the string quartet on the program, there's no need, here, to go into further detail. But if you have a chance, I highly recommend acquainting yourself with at least these two piano pieces that represent Ligeti's later style – where, in a sense, this “pre-historic” voice went. Again, they might be considering “nocturnal” in the sense of dream-like ambiguity and the pounding fear of nightmares. These links will take you to two of his etudes, subtitled “Autumn in Warsaw” (1985) and “The Devil's Staircase” (1993) which, frankly, could serve as an anthem for 2020... (but I digress).

– Dick Strawser

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