György Ligeti, Horn Trio, "Hommage á  Brahms"

November 4, 2007

György Ligeti, 1923-2006

Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano, "Hommage à Brahms", 1982
György LigetiGyörgy Ligeti was born and raised in the Transylvania region of Romania of Jewish, Hungarian parents in what was then, because of historical and political boundary shuffling after WWI, a largely Hungarian area with a significant Jewish population. This was the same region in which Bartók found the compelling pentatonic folk melodies he and Kodály considered to be the oldest stratum of traditional Hungarian music. With early musical influences from his father and brother, Ligeti took up the piano in his teens and began studying at the conservatory in Cluj, Romania. In 1943, the Nazis sent a sixteen-year-old Ligeti to a labor camp and his parents to Auschwitz. He lost both his father and his brother during the war. Defecting from a labor gang in the midst of battle, he made his way to Budapest eventually studying at the Academy of Music where the generation of academics following Kodály and Bartók represented the modern school of Hungarian music with its strong emphasis on national, folk, and in particular, choral music. Ligeti undertook his own ethnomusicological research (in Romanian music) as well as eventually teaching at the Academy himself. His earliest compositions were strongly influenced by Bartók whom Ligeti then and always regarded as "the genius."

Ligeti's pursuit of contemporary musical developments throughout the rest of Europe was complicated by communist censorship within Hungary: although he had access to scores, Ligeti was actually unable to hear important (and by then old) music of Schoenberg, Webern and even some Bartók (e.g. the later quartets) until after the death of Stalin when Ligeti would have been over thirty. During the revolution of 1956, again precariously slipping through an open battlefield, Ligeti immigrated to Vienna where he eventually became a citizen. Finally, he was able to mingle with the avant-garde, variously associating with creative peers in Cologne and Darmstadt, eventually finding a teaching post in Hamburg. Ligeti's most well-known mature music dates from the late fifties through the seventies including several pieces used by Stanley Kubrick in multiple films (most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey) featuring Ligeti's own so-called micropolyphony, the almost static, cluster-oriented music of Atmospheres, Lux Aeterna and the Requiem. Though well versed in modern techniques and multiple schools of musical thought including electronic music, the fiercely intellectual and ever creative Ligeti remained an individual, searching, skeptical, ironic and ultimately post-post-modern. In his book on 20th century music, Norman Lebrecht aptly summarizes that "Ligeti had staked his territory on the fringe of modernism and prospected it continually for the oil of fluency that Mozart deemed to be the supreme musical virtue." Ligeti died in Vienna in 2006 at the age of eighty-three.

After composing his poly-influenced absurdist opera "Le Grand Macabre" in 1978, Ligeti seemed to encounter a compositional impasse, a crisis that left him unproductive for a number of years. Eventually finding new inspiration in the polyrhythmic music of Africa and the Caribbean, the intense polyphony of Colon Nancarrow's music for player piano, the more traditional music of both Schumann and Brahms as well as a commission for a new work featuring the horn, Ligeti broke his extended silence in 1982 with the compelling Horn Trio. With the subtitle "Hommage à Brahms", Ligeti makes reference to the older composer's own Horn Trio, the first and perhaps only other one of its kind within a precious chamber music repertoire with horn that is not exclusively for winds. Ligeti's trio evokes a variety of more traditional features typical of Brahms including a four-movement layout, motivic continuity, thematic development, a scherzo, a clear ternary form and even a passacaglia (a Baroque variation form that Brahms used as well) in the last movement. Additional linkages to Brahms might also be the prominent use of cross-rhythms, particularly in the second movement, and the final Adagio lament that suggests the bleak Adagio mesto in the Brahms trio. Nonetheless, Ligeti's is still an extraordinarily contemporary work where the composer delights in a variety of self-described ironies including distorted parodies of hunting motifs and the competitive tensions between the equal tempered piano, the naturally tempered horn and the hapless, adaptable violin caught in the middle. With his Horn Trio, Ligeti found a fresh path to a new style that was, in his words, neither a cliché of the reactionary nor the avant-garde.


It turns out there are more Horn Trios that I first imagined when writing this note. For additional works of this kind, see horn trio.

© Kai Christiansen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.