Inon Barnatan’s late-night recital on August 13, as a part of the Mostly Mozart Festival, includes the final two movements of György Ligeti’s eleven-part opus, Musica ricercata. Composed according to a mathematical recipe, the piece is an intriguing puzzle for music scholars; uninitiated listeners, however, are often left simply puzzled. Yet when we dig into its history, a tale of oppression, defiance, and the fight for artistic freedom emerges, placing the work in an entirely different light.
Written in Hungary between 1951 and 1953, Musica ricercata was not premiered until 1969 in Stockholm. Soviet authorities had prohibited performances of the work, its compositional technique and experimental sound considered too subversive. The system of the piece is as such: The first movement contains only one note (A) played in different octaves and patterns, ending on a singular D. Each subsequent movement contains one more note than the last until all twelve tones are present in the eleventh movement.
It was a novel compositional plan, and the piece is significant because it was not meant to be anything more than that. Rigidly formulaic, Ricercata was not written to be a concert hit, but as an item of musical pedagogy. It represented a sharp turn away from the Romantic music of Debussy and other impressionists just a couple of generations before.
Ligeti’s process in Ricercata was relatively innocent compared to some of the twelve-tone serial music of the time, which was about thirty years into a movement started by Arnold Schoenberg with his systematic tone rows. During this time in his career, Ligeti, like his contemporaries, took a scientific approach to writing music, dissecting tonal harmony to examine how notes progress from one to the next, and questioning why for hundreds of years Western composers mostly confined themselves to major and minor key centers. The resulting product not only changed the way music sounded, but how it was discussed. Academic music journals began publishing articles on these composers’ methods, with esoteric discussions of mathematical patterns, graphs of frequency ratios, and numerical series, making these publications look more like physics textbooks than musical essays.
But this unsettling music and the scholarly attitude around it did not simply arise out of a sudden fad of atonality. Its ascent was inextricably linked to the violence and censorship of European society throughout the 1930s, World War II, and Cold War that essentially thwarted the creative processes of these progressive musicians.
With their absolute control over culture, leaders of the Third Reich denounced the modernist music of the ’20s and ’30s. Referring to the genre founded by the Austrian-Jewish Schoenberg, Nazi scholars claimed that “the twelve-tone system in music is equivalent to Jewish levelling down in all other matters of life… This represents a complete destruction of the natural order of notes in the tonal principle of our classical music.” And beyond deeming it bad music, it was seen as politically corruptive: “artistic bolshevism,” as one party official put it.
Their criticism probably had little to do with the actual content of the music and more to do with the composers’ Judaism, as even the mainstream harmonies of Mendelssohn and Mahler were labeled entartete musik (“degenerate music”). Regardless of the censors’ motivation, none of this atonal music would reach a major European stage while Hitler was in power.
When Ligeti composed Musica ricercata in 1951, he claimed no direct inspiration from Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system, although there were surface similarities in both sound and process. Even if he did not create the suite with Schoenberg in mind, he certainly wrote it to reclaim the freedom to compose experimental music that had been crushed during the previous decade. As a Hungarian Jew and an artist, Ligeti experienced the Nazi oppression firsthand: His father died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen; his 17-year-old brother was executed in Mauthausen; and his aunt and uncle, with whom Ligeti was close, were killed in Auschwitz. His mother, also sent to Auschwitz, survived, as did Ligeti who spent the final years of the war in a forced labor camp.
When the Nazi (and later, Soviet) grasp on life and artistic creation was finally released, the music of Ligeti and his peers proliferated as a reflex. How could they not pick up the torch from where it was dropped years before? The postwar revival of atonal music, led by the likes of Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Milton Babbitt, resumed the intriguing “destruction of the natural order,” abandoning the idea that a key signature had to dictate the direction of melody.
Stockhausen’s first four Klavierstücke divided the twelve notes into two “hexachords,” groups of six notes set in a specific order, and played them in permutations that ignored the rules of traditional chord progression. Later on, Ligeti experimented with electronic sounds and magnetic tape, composing Artikulation in 1958 as part of the rising movement of musique concrète. Other composers also contributed greatly to this genre, with works such as Pierre Boulez’s Symphonie Mécanique. These ideas and techniques even filtered down into popular music. “Revolution 9,” the penultimate song on the Beatles’ White Album, is an eight-minute tape-mangling extravaganza, clearly inspired by Stockhausen’s work.
Only as the sting of war began to lift did the aforementioned erudite journal articles and university discussions began to appear. But before it became a scholarly obsession, this music stood as a defiant gesture to the oppression that the composers and their loved ones had endured. They didn’t write this music to be enjoyed like one might a pop tune or traditional classical fare. They wrote it to foster free thinking—which they knew too well could not be taken for granted—and in the process, opened listeners’ minds to how versatile sound can be.
A member of Lincoln Center's editorial team, Gabe Mizrachi is a pianist, violinist, and guitarist who recently graduated from Bates College with a degree in music composition.
Griffiths, Paul. György Ligeti. London: Robson Books, 1997.
Steinitz, Richard. György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003.