Music György Ligeti
Amy Bauer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0271


György Sándor Ligeti (b. 1923–d. 2006) is arguably the most influential composer of the late 20th century. Over the course of six decades, he produced solo Chamber Works, choral compositions, Fluxus experiments, analog Electronic pieces, orchestral compositions, and works of music theatre. Ligeti was born in Transylvania of Hungarian-Jewish parents, where he first studied music at the Kolozsvár Conservatory. Although he lost his father and brother to the wartime concentration camps, Ligeti escaped a Nazi work camp and entered the Liszt Academy in 1945. He joined the Academy faculty on graduation, just as Communist dictates began to affect Budapest’s cultural and political life. Under the constraints of socialist realism, Ligeti embarked on a compositional career divided between acceptable works and more dissonant compositions “for the desk drawer.” During the 1956 Hungarian revolution Ligeti escaped to Vienna, and in 1957 worked at the electronic studio of West German radio in Cologne. His early Orchestral Works Apparitions (1958–1959) and Atmosphères (1961) cemented Ligeti’s reputation with the European avant-garde. Rejecting the dogmatism of the Darmstadt school, Ligeti embraced influences from early music, art, literature, science, and folk music, producing complex but often remarkably accessible works known for their eccentric humor and dark wit. In the 1970s Ligeti continued to refine and expand his style, producing everything from intimate solo works for harpsichord to the suitably grand opera Le Grand Macabre (1974–1977, revised in 1996). His music from the 1980s onward incorporated influences from African and other non-Western music, the canonic music of Conlon Nancarrow, and fractal geometry, but remained rooted in his native language and conservatory training. The championing of his music by leading performers, and numerous awards that followed his 70th birthday in 1993 contributed to the growing influence of Ligeti’s music in the last decades of the 20th century, by which time his students had established careers on several continents. Ligeti’s music is widely lauded for uniting intellectual sophistication with a respect for the sensual attributes of his materials, a perception supported by Interviews and theoretical writings that span his career. The publication of György Ligeti: Eine Monographie (Mainz, Germany: Schott, 1971) and Das musikalische Material und seine Behandlung in den Werken “Apparitions,” “Atmosphères” und “Requiem” von György Ligeti (Regensburg, Germany: G. Bosse, 1969) presaged an intense scholarly interest in Ligeti’s works which only intensified as his oeuvre expanded and he embraced new compositional challenges. Much of the scholarship on Ligeti thus revolves around the categories of musical technique and influences, not surprisingly given the composer’s focus in his own theoretical writings and lectures.

Reference Works

Reference works include a now somewhat outdated bio-bibliography (Richart 1990) and the fulsome catalogue of the Ligeti Sammlung at the Paul Sacher Foundation (Diendorf and Zimmermann 2016). Several Biographies and General Studies have comprehensive bibliographies, discographies, filmographies and work lists (see especially Beffa 2016, as well as Floros 2014 and Steinitz 2003, both cited under Biographies). Online links to Ligeti’s publishers are also included here.

  • Diendorf, Evelyne, and Heidy Zimmermann, eds. Sammlung György Ligeti: Musikmanuskripte. Mainz, Germany: Schott, 2016.

    A comprehensive overview of the vast Ligeti Collection in the Paul Sacher Foundation, Basel, overseen with expert care by Zimmermann. Sections cover individual works, sketchbooks, practices and studies, analyses, and various miscellanea. Not included are the many videos, audio recordings, and works of scholarly literature on Ligeti held by the PSS. Recent updates to the holdings, as well as research articles in Mitteilungen der Paul Sacher Stiftung are listed online.

  • Ligeti, György. In Composers. Edition Peters.

    Six works from the 1960s are included in the list of works published with Peters (Aventures, the Cello Concerto, Lux Aeterna, Nouvelles Aventures, the Requiem, and the organ work Volumina).

  • Ligeti, György. In Schott Music.

    Schott’s online catalogue includes most of Ligeti’s published works, as well as a frequently updated list of performances.

  • Richart, Robert. György Ligeti: A Bio-Bibliography. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

    A brief biographical text introduces a thorough, annotated survey of the secondary literature on Ligeti to date, as well as a discography and work list.

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