The structure of thought. On the writings of György Ligeti


The aim of this text is to identify and characterise the key thematic areas in Ligeti’s writings, and to demonstrate their role in the shaping and expanding of our picture of the composer and his works. The analysis concentrates largely on the writings which may appear far removed from Ligeti’s compositions and his compositional techniques. These writings include reminiscences, articles devoted to other composers, and reflections on the status of music. They present a number of issues which are significant in relation to all of Ligeti’s works. The first issue concerns the status of the composer, whose attitude and activities are suggestive of those of a scholar. They reveal Ligeti’s fascination with science, and his belief in the autonomy of music. Another important thread is the historical placing of Ligeti’s work. When discussing the works of others the composer seems to be very aware of the influences to which he was subject himself. A privileged position is given in Ligeti’s writings to his direct historical predecessors, such as Béla Bartók or Anton Webern, but also to Claude Debussy, Gustav Mahler, Charles Ives or Igor Stravinsky. The third element of significance are the references to autobiographical themes, which go far beyond being anecdotal. On the whole they correspond perfectly to the image of Ligeti’s compositions and later inspirations. Recalling images from childhood also affects the composer’s special way of describing music. Usually it is grounded in the inaccessible, difficult to capture sphere of memory or imagination, yet at the same time it is always music being heard, taking place in time. This special, metaphorised way of describing music defines the fourth thematic area. The composer most often uses visual and spatial metaphors, especially the metaphor of labyrinth, fabric, web, surface or mirror image. Ligeti finds a special, “personal” justification for his metaphors in the form of synaesthesia. The metaphors are also strikingly multifunctional. A detailed discussion of all these issues leads to the conclusion that for Ligeti writing was simply essential. It served as a toolbox of vocabulary and representations which defined his compositions in a unique way. It became a means of defining his self-identity, of working out his own intellectual stance and of constructing an individual vision of the history of music which focuses on those aspects most precious to him. Writing was probably also a way of working through his emotions, of cleansing, of nurturing memories and doing justice to past events. While Ligeti is an individual case, the phenomena and strategies discussed here may turn out to be symptomatic for the whole body of contemporary composer-writers.

Kirjoittajan esittely

Ewa Schreiber, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań
Assistant professor at the Department of Musicology
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