Born Gyorgy Sandor Ligeti, May 28, 1923, in Tir-naveni, Hungary; died after a long illness, June 12, 2006, in Vienna, Austria. Composer. Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti (pronounced Jurge LIG-ih-tee) created some of the most daring soundscapes to emerge from modern classical music in the latter half of the twentieth century. A Jew who lost his brother and father to the Holocaust, Ligeti was a slave laborer during World War II, and a decade later was forced to flee a repressive Communist regime under tremendous peril. He lived in Germany and Austria for the remainder of his life, and "loathed all forms of sentimentality," wrote Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed. "He reflected his tragic relationship with Hungary mostly through his surreal sensibility and ear for bizarre and unforgettable sonorities and textures."
Born in 1923, Ligeti spent his early years in Transylvania, a part of Romania, and in a city called Tirnaveni that was home to many ethnic Hungarians like the Ligetis. As a young man, Ligeti went to Cluj, the cultural capital of Transylvania, to start his studies at the conservatory there, but two years later was conscripted for military service; by this time Hungary had become an ally of Nazi Germany and taken over a large swath of Transylvania. Jews were banned from serving in the armed forces, however, and so Ligeti was sent to a slave labor camp near the front lines where the detainees handled dangerous explosives. As the war neared an end, he escaped and walked back to Cluj, which took two weeks. There he discovered his family's home occupied by others, and learned that his parents and brother had been deported to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland; only his mother returned.
Ligeti moved to Budapest to continue his musical education, and graduated from its Franz Liszt Academy in 1949. For the next seven years he taught music and worked on his own compositions, but Hungary's pre-war dalliance with fascism resulted in a drastic shift to the left, and there was now a hardline Communist regime in place and firmly backed by Soviet masters. As a composer, he was expected to follow strict guidelines that forced most cultural works into a politically correct template that stifled creativity. Because of this, he kept the more daring of his compositions private while toeing the line with published works that were free from the taint of more decadent Western cultural trends. He also married twice during this period; the first was to a woman from Cluj, but it ended in divorce. The second was to a psychiatrist, Vera Spitz, in 1952, whom he wed to keep her from being deported because of her family's bourgeois background. They were divorced two years later, but remained friends.
Hungary exploded into political turmoil in 1956 when a democratic uprising was brutally quashed by the Soviet military. Ligeti fled with Spitz on a mail train, a risky journey in which they were required to hide under sacks of mail at one point. In Cologne, Germany, the avant-garde German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen helped Ligeti secure a job writing music for West German Radio, and Ligeti also began writing his first electronic compositions, influenced by Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. These marked a drastic departure from the folk-melody-based music he wrote as a state-supported Hungarian artist. Two orchestral works from this period, Apparitions (1959) and Atmospheres (1961), helped firmly establish his reputation as a new European composer on the scene.
Another work, his Requiem for voices and orchestra, was hailed as a masterpiece when it debuted in Stockholm in 1965. Three years later, it was used by filmmaker Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey , along with Atmospheres and a third work for an unaccompanied chorus, Lux Aeterna . All three were, noted Paul Griffiths of the New York Times , "characterized by dense texture and very slow change … used in the film to suggest the desolation of the moon and the discovery there of a mysterious monolith." Ligeti had not been contacted by Kubrick or anyone else involved with the film, and only learned that his music had been used when the movie was released in theaters. 2001 quickly emerged as a cult favorite with young adults for its symbolic commentary on the supposed mastery of humankind's environment via science, and those progressive younger minds became Ligeti's newest generation of devotees. Hailed as a pioneer of psychedelic music, he began to spend more time in the United States and even served as a composer in residence at Stanford University in the early 1970s.
Ligeti settled in Hamburg, Germany, after 1973 and taught for a number of years at its Music Academy. He wrote dozens of other works in various formats, but critics cite the comic opera Le Grand Macabre as one of his best. It was first performed in Sweden in 1978 and has been described by the Los Angeles Times's Swed as "an illicit parody that can so thrill and terrify that an audience hardly knows whether to laugh or cry." The studio that released Kubrick's film eventually paid Ligeti a small fee, and the filmmaker went through the appropriate channels when he wanted to use other compositions for The Shining , released in 1980, and Eyes Wide Shut , Kubrick's final film. In the latter, the unsettling tones of Ligeti's "Musica Ricercata" return frequently to heighten the feeling of tension in the narrative.
Ligeti died at the age of 83 in Vienna, Austria, on June 12, 2006. Survivors include his wife and their son, Lukas, a composer and percussionist. Of his career, he realized his unique position in twentieth century music as a composer schooled in traditional forms who began his career while the rubble of war was still being cleared and went on to create daring new sounds. "I am in a prison," he once said, according to the New York Times . "One wall is the avant-garde, the other is the past. I want to escape."
Chicago Tribune , June 13, 2006, sec. 2, p. 9; Los Angeles Times , June 13, 2006, p. B10; New York Times , June 13, 2006, p. C13; June 14, 2006, p. A2; Times (London), June 13, 2006, p. 55; Washington Post , June 13, 2006, p. B7.