As György Ligeti himself describes it, the impetus for “… composing highly virtuosic piano études … was, above all, my own inadequate piano technique”. Solo piano music is prominent in his output prior to his ‘escape’ to the West in 1956, notably the Musica ricercata cycle completed in 1953, but little emerged during his involvement with the European avant-garde over the next two decades. At the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, Ligeti rethought all aspects of his composing idiom, resulting in music which might be described as ‘post-tonal’ in its creative and unprejudiced approach to the ‘Classical’ tradition.
Among the first fruits of this reassessment was Book I of the piano Etudes, comprising six pieces and completed in 1985. A second book of eight pieces was composed between 1988 and 1994, while a third book was started in 1995.
Numerous influences are at work on these Etudes. The étude cycles of Chopin and Debussy, each vital to the evolution of the piano and its literature, are an inevitable presence, as are the keyboard techniques of Scarlatti and Schumann. Yet the rôle of sub-Saharan African culture is crucial in the often complex rhythmic polyphony that motivates Ligeti’s Etudes; indeed, polyrhythms and shifting pulses are essential to the sound and feel of the music at all times. Geometric patterns, especially the self-repetition of ‘fractals’, were a vital stimulus, as were the rhythmic and metric innovations of the maverick American composer Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) and the pianism of such jazz ‘greats’ as Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. Yet there is no sense of eclecticism in the music itself: to quote the composer again, “… it is neither ‘avant-garde’ nor ‘traditional’, neither tonal nor atonal. … These are … études in the pianistic and compositional sense. They proceed from a very simple core idea, and lead from simplicity to great complexity: they behave like growing organisms”.
The Etudes can be played complete, in Books, as a selection, or individually. Brief notes on each of the first fifteen follow below:
(Molto vivace, vigoroso, molto ritmico): a fast-flowing study in polyrhythmic velocity, moving upwards and almost off the top of the keyboard.
II. Cordes à vide
(Andantino con moto, molto tenero): chords of a Satie-esque simplicity become more complex as the prevailing rhythm gradually folds in on itself.
III. Touches bloquées
(Presto possibile, sempre molto ritmico): two main rhythmic patterns interlock with distinctly – and distinctively! – Bartókian results.
(Vivacissimo molto ritmico, con allegria e slancio): another polyrhythmic study, in which the melody and its accompaniment frequently ‘exchange’ rôles.
(Andante molto rubato, con eleganza, with swing): the most Debussy-ian study, rising and falling in arcs which aptly evoke the rainbow of the title.
VI. Automne à Varsovie
(Presto cantabile, molto ritmico e flessibile): the most descriptive study, involving continuous transformation of the initial descending idea, and mirroring the first study by finishing at the bottom of the keyboard.
VII. Galamb borong
(Vivacissimo luminoso, legato possibile): subtly shifting rhythmic patterns evoke the sound of the Balinese gamelan – hence the ‘nonsense Balinese’ of the title.
(Vivace risoluto, con vigore): from the Hungarian for ‘metal’, a tensile study in rhythmic continuity, with an unexpectedly poetic coda in which the underlying harmonic pattern is laid bare.
(Prestissimo sempre molto legato, sehr gleichmässig): the harmonic and spatial distance between the two hands is one of suitably ‘sheer’ proportions.
X. Der Zauberlehrling
(Prestissimo, staccatissimo, leggierissimo): the sorcerer’s apprentice, a lightly-tripping melodic line kept in perpetual rhythmic motion.
XI. En suspens
(Andante con moto, “avec l’élégance du swing”): in contrast, an ethereal web of harmony constantly on the verge of a tonal-sounding resolution.
(Vivacissimo molto ritmico, sempre legato, con delicatezza): a gentle criss-crossing of rhythmic patterns, increasing in dynamics as it traverses the keyboard from right to left.
XIII. L’escalier du diable
(Presto legato ma leggiero): the Devil’s Ladder, the longest of the studies to date, a driving toccata which zig-zags its way across the keyboard, with more than a touch of Lisztian diablerie at the centre.
XIV. Coloana infinitå
(Presto possibile, tempestoso con fuoco): inspired by a tall, columnar sculpture by Constantin Brancusi, harmony and rhythm are fused in this dense column of sound, as it powers beyond the top of the keyboard.
XIVa. Coloana fara sfârsit
(Presto possibile, tempestoso con fuoco): so absorbed was Ligeti by the rhythmic complexity possible with Nancarrow’s ‘player piano’ that he arranged several of the Etudes for the instrument. Etude XIVa is different in having been conceived directly for player piano – in the composer’s words: ” … since the desired Presto of this version is more likely to be realised on a mechanical piano …”. In this recording Idil Biret gives her personal interpretation, as she explains below, laying bare the rhythmic and metrical subtleties of the piece.
© Richard Whitehouse
© for Naxos / HNH
Interpreting the Ligeti Etudes:
Musical markings and time indications
György Ligeti has given very precise timing indications for all the Etudes together with the musical markings. For example, the timing indication for Etude no.12 is 2.56 minutes and Etude no.14a is 1.41 minutes. After consideration, I have decided to follow the musical markings rather than the strict timing indications of these works.
Metronomic marks and timing indications of composers have always been problematic for interpreters. Composers innerly hear the work they are creating, setting sometimes very fast tempos which are not always tested on the instrument. The performer who wants to deliver all the nuances, the accents and play the work as close as possible to the composer’s score and requirements often faces the dilemma whether to play according to the work’s musical indications or follow the timing marks. The latter choice may result in omitting some important musical signs which become practically impossible to render at high speeds. My preference where necessary has been for the musical markings. Ligeti himself seems to point in this direction when he writes in the notes to the 7th Etude that “the time signature only acts as a guideline”.
© Idil Biret
György Ligeti (* 1923)