As Ligeti’s Horn Trio ends, its principal motif seems to erase itself in front of our ears, disappearing into the void by a process of subtraction: one by one, each player lifts each finger off keys, strings, horn valves, the ensuing silence extended as if daring and denying the applause to come. This principal motif, an inverted version of the ‘farewell’ theme from Beethoven’s sonata Les Adieux, opens the entire work in relatively straightforward form; in the second movement, it’s given a tripping ‘Bulgarian’ rhythmic surge, rendered ostinato; and in this final movement, too, it serves as a passacaglia, a simple three-note figure, constantly descending, getting up, and rising again as the piano gets louder and louder, the horn gets lower and lower and the violin higher and higher. The descending figure with its conventional associations with falling tears; the ascending high pitch with its association with intense emotion, the scream or sob, rendered into structural elements, pulling apart. And then, as it all grand to a halt, instead of the ostinato, the incessant repetition in which no gap is permitted, we have silence: instead of reiteration, the impossibility of adequate iteration at all. Given that the majority of Ligeti’s family died in the Shoah, pianist Tamara Stefanovich suggested while introducing the piece, these subtracted notes assume the weight of the unsayable or unsaid. Ligeti himself likened it to “the photograph of a landscape which in the meantime has dissipated into nothingness”.
In that silence, sounds of the practice rooms elsewhere in the building filtering in, the inevitable sirens, the clunk of goods or people being transported, a bus or train. So too in the many pianissimo passages, silence and near-silences of Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments and 12 Microludes that we’d heard earlier on the programme Stefanovich curated for a free November concert at the Royal Academy of Music: silence that can’t be silence but can’t be eloquent either, perpetually interrupted, prologue to making sense of making an end, or making a beginning, that making and unmaking shakes assurance in the histories that tradition enshrines and erases. In the case of Ligeti’s trio, that tradition is late Beethoven, is Brahms, their works of farewell—Brahms’ own Horn Trio his elegy for his mother; Beethoven’s Adieux bidding farewell in the midst of wars, whether to a whole assembly or city or to an individual, its ambiguously poised programme. Both those works themselves play variants on the horn’s blaring forested aura: “as soon as he pronounced the word horn”, Ligeti remarked, “somewhere inside my head I heard the sound of a horn as if coming from a distant forest in a fairy tale, just as in a poem by Eichendorff”. And so it’s wanderlust and escape, nostalgia and regret—but too it’s Bruckner’s solemn hymns blaring out and besmirched in Bayreuthian Babylon, rendered window-dressing for an ideology of mass extermination.
In 1968, Ligeti identified the emergence of horns within the dense orchestral texture of Lontano (Distance) as providing a historical perspective: late Romanticism, the tutti of Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner, the coda to the slow movement of Bruckner’s Eighth itself a kind of recall of Schubert; the horns heard from long ago, already signifiers of the distant and the past. Hunting calls and farewells, last posts and ghosts. In the Trio, Ligeti bends that horn around, alters its timbre, emphasizing the quarter tones enabled by the horn’s natural tuning: those tones that, within the context of the western classical pitch system, come to sound precisely ‘off-pitch’, ‘unnatural’, and whose swooning, stomping quality are essentially to the woozy, unnerving character of the music as a whole. This ‘mistuned music’: the rhythms by concert standard off-kilter, the tones off-pitch. The music ‘non-atonal’, but neither conventionally tonal, as Kurtag’s Microludes too examine and dismantle each note of the chromatic scale in miniatures and gaps, off pitch-pitches, switches, open brackets, ellipses—for the whole is the false and in the shattered looking glass, down through the rabbit hole, history’s abyss. Earlier, we’d also heard Bartok’s Second String Quartet, its extended pauses and melodic fragments continuously passed around each of the quartet’s instruments. Watching each instrument pick up and drop those fragments, the way it’s always the cello that initiates from the depths or the first violin from the heights, there’s a social dimension going on: a kind of second-guessing, a quicksilver negotiation. Likewise, in the Ligeti trio, the melodic fragments of the work—the Beethoven theme, the individual components of each movement—are at once echoed and distorted, sounding as the cracked remnants which each player mirrors, as Stefanovic put it, as if in shattered glass. Each work comes to seem a comment on the next: perpetual dialogue, perpetual reflection, tradition’s accretion and destruction, links on the chain lurchingly dragging in the vast ship on which are laden history’s broken monuments. Messages, remembrances, cracks, silences. All that can’t be said.
“To hold on to time, to suspend its disappearance, to confine it in the present moment, this is my primary goal in composition”.
Ligeti began the Horn Trio the year that his mother, the sole other family member beside himself to survive the camps, had died, and, as well as the Beethovenian ‘Adieux / Lebewohl’ theme, the work makes use of the ‘lamento motif’ or ‘lament-ostinato’ present in his early and throughout his late work. Ligeti first experimented with this motif in a student piece from the early 1950s, where it began as an adapted Frescobaldi ricercare” “a chromatic theme which functions as the melodic fundamental of the whole piece. I did the same thing in the last movement of my Horn trio”. Elsewhere he links it to “the melodic type of Romanian laments, the bocet”, and in turn to the “Baroque lament-bass”. The lament-motif might suggest the Berliozian idee fixe, the Wagnerian leitmotif: that fixity of character that guides through narrative, the hammering of fate, inevitably, obsession. Yet its character is almost diametrically opposed, operating by coincidences or cracked mirrors, echoes and over-layerings. These are other kinds of history, a halting, incremental, incorrect history that obsessively stutters its way into being, the same basic core varied and vanished, transmuted through bagatelles, etudes, concerti; as nucleus, ghost, coded shadow, “the riddle of this non-manifest musical language”.
“The lamento motif consists of three phrases, the second and third longer than the one preceding them. The phrases descend in stepwise motion most often in whole tone or semitone movement, but occasionally with ascending leaps”. The lament gives a rhythm to the entire work, its talea, constantly repeating. Probably the most prominent use of the motif occurs in Ligeti’s Automne à Varsovie from the first book of piano Etudes that appeared five years after the Horn Trio. The title doesn’t refer to the Warsaw ghetto or the other historical sufferings of that city but to a festival of contemporary music. It continually transforms the lament motif in overlapping figures, descending gradually down the keyboard. In the end it has to stop: it’s reached the final note, the edge beyond which it has nowhere else to go.
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As Amy Bauer notes in her work on Ligeti and Lament, Ligeti linked Les Adieux to the process that would reach its apogee in integral serialism: “the sign of the totally static”. And for Bauer, as the lament, in its inter-textual dialogue with Beethoven and Montiverdi, with folk song, with conventional representations of grief, so “the repetitive strains of both passacaglia and lament retain an aloof, object-like quality, which suggests that emotions that concern the kernel of our being can be approached only as an impersonal play with the object”. Ligeti’s earlier tendency to ‘clocks’ and ‘clouds’—regular, ticking, rhythmic figures, “recalcitrant machinery, unmanageable automata”, taken to its excess in the ‘Poeme Symphonique’ for massed metronomes, on the one hand, and dense, clustered, textural explorations on the other, those for which he remains best known: Atmospheres, Apparitions, Lontano, distance and space, that which evades fixed form or capture.
In the Etudes, the next major work to be written following the Horn Trio, Ligeti, as he put it, tried to write as if there were several musicians playing at once, several tempi at once, like machines, Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano playing impossibly what the human performer could not; automation, pushing the dream of super-human virtuosity to its mechanical limit. The concert piano, index of freedom from labour, of bourgeois leisure, the concert hall or the salon or the living room, becomes itself a kind of factory, its dozens of hammers repeatedly striking, the performers’ fingers and hands multi-tasking, doubled, extending. Ligeti, himself a forced labourer during the second world war, deserting and walking to freedom, links that walk to his desire as a composer for freedom from labelling, but the Etudes also suggest how dreams of freedom and conditions of labour constantly bend in on themselves. I think of the five thousand fingers of Dr Seuss’ Dr T, under whose mendacious tutelage a child imagines piano lessons as a kind of factory torture predicated on child labour. Yet Ligeti’s Etudes are also the joy of complexity, over-extension, polyrhythmic complexity as teeming social life. As he put it to Benoît Delbecq: “This need to feel the resistance of the keys under the pulp of fingers”; “speak[ing] metaphorically about music, using the image of a body that has an organic way to develop”; “just like free jazz, indeed”.
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Though Stefanovich mentioned the Shoah from the stage, she didn’t mention Ligeti’s use of Central African drum musics, the Black Atlantic lineages in the jazz the Trio’s fast second movement evokes. But these histories intersect. The African colonies where the techniques that characterises the Shoah were first practiced, honed; the first concentration camps, mass exterminations, drawing and re-drawing of borders and boundaries like a tightening garrotte. Holocausts the legacy of whiteness, in whatever continent. These roots are hidden in plain sight: the concealment of mass extermination, the refusal to make the links. But music pursues connection by other means, partly by intention, partly by chance, and there are other kinds of both serendipitous echo and cross-cultural influences spread on the trade routes of Atlantic from West Africa to Latin America to North America and back again to Europe. Ligeti told Delbecq:
I discovered African music quite late. In 1985, when I wrote the Etudes, I already had a good knowledge of those traditions. But, in 1982, for the Horn Trio, I used the same kind of ostinato: Even then I knew all this in a non-perfect way, through the folkloric or commercial musics from Brazil, Cuba or Puerto Rico. Samba, especially, I liked a lot, without knowing Africa at all. [...] The varied rhythmic figures are fast and short, and inside them, hidden rhythms and melodies appear by chance. I discovered this intuitively: it was not at all based on a precise knowledge of African or Latin American music.Instead, Ligeti imagined an encounter between Latin American and Balkan music, or, “a very quick polymetric dance inspired by the various folk music of non-existing peoples, as if Hungary, Romania, and the entire Balkan region were situated somewhere between African and the Caribbean”. Or again, Ligeti remarks: “I was fascinated by a music that didn’t have an initial melody, but in developing would create subterranean melodies: hidden, interior, always ambiguous. They appear, disappear, return.”
Music, with its oscillation between precise, mathematical structures and the amorphous—between clocks and clouds—is here poised between geographies imaginary and real: and I think too of how Ligeti retunes and retones the French horn, with its connotations of Alpine forests, its Bayreuthian blares, as part of a complex grappling with tradition; and of how the horn re-emerges, played by Julius Watkins, on Pharoah Sanders’ Karma alongside Leon Thomas’ yodelling, inspired by field recordings of the Mbuti and Ba-Benzele pygymies of the central African forests; or in the work of Brother Ahh, who recorded Sound Awareness with Max Roach and the M’Boom percussion ensemble after seven years of study in Ghana, Kenya, and Tanzania.
So the music spreads, partly through experimentation and determined study and party, as Ishmael Reed has it, like a virus, a resistant, coded, underground thing that rises to supersede the dominant cultural matrix: those African influences that come through Latin America, through North America. Or again, what Ligeti calls the ‘gypsy music’ of Central Europe—the travellers without nation who also in brutally suffered lebensraum’s expanded homeland. Writing about his experience of the Shoah, Ligeti remarked:
I was born in 1923 in Transylvania as a Rumanian citizen. As a child, though, I didn’t speak Rumanian, nor were my parents Transylvanians... My mother tongue is Hungarian, but I'm not really a true Hungarian, as I’m a Jew. Yet I’m not a member of a Jewish congregation, therefore I’m an assimilated Jew. I’m not completely assimilated, however, because I’m not baptized. Today, as an adult, I live in Austria and Germany and have been an Austrian citizen for a long time. But I’m not a real Austrian either, only an immigrant, and my German will always have a Hungarian accent.From out of Europe—within it but never at home in it—this music unhomed that remakes the world in its crossed routes, its Atlantic surges, its serendipitous echoes and cultural echoes, solidarities, alliances: that constructs a home in sound of joyous rhythmic complexity, all the notes that squeeze through the tempered scale; and that, at the same time, constructs a home in symmetrically matched lament.
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On the way home, the clouds muted, grey against black; all the clocks in the station glowing red. And Ligeti’s last echoes, “as if it were filtering through atmospheric crystallisation”, on the edge of hearing but refusing to totally fade away; like the half-dying, half-rising light of the tunnel half-light on all day, all night.
(Ligeti’s Horn Trio was performed by Preston Yeo (violin), Zoë Tweed (horn), and Tamara Stefanovich (piano) at the Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, November 10th 2021. Also on the programme were selections from Gyorgy Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments, performed by Clara Orif (soprano) and Małgorzata Zwierzchowska (violin), the 12 Microludes for String Quartet, performed by Michelle Dierx, Sydney Mariano (violin) Rachel Spence (viola) Simon Guemy (cello), and Beka Bartok’s String Quartet No.2, performed by Bridget O’Donnell, David López Ibáñez (violin), Julia Doukakis (viola) and Ben Michaels (cello)).