Ewa Schreiber

Memory and autobiography in György Ligeti’s notes on his works


György Ligeti spent most of his creative life in Austria and Germany, but his life „adventures” left an indelible mark on him. The composer constantly kept returning to them, not only in interviews, but also in the descriptions of his compositions.
The commentaries to works preceding his escape from Hungary in 1956 were written from a more distant time perspective, during the 1980s, 1990s, and even post-2000. However, the commentaries to compositions from the end of the 1950s or 60s were written concurrently. Ligeti conducts a discourse on two planes, musical and verbal. References to childhood and youth, but also to synaeasthesia, dreams or imaginings, allow him to create his own, idiomatic narrative. They also supply handy metaphors and fulfill a different function at each stage of his creative journey.

The theories and models of creative process, the methodology:

The essential cooperation pursued by creative artists with institutions and with a whole network of social mediators means that in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, verbal discourse about music has gained considerable influential power. This problem was addressed by Charles Wilson, Julia Heimerdinger and Ian Pace among others. In my paper I will focus on the role of the verbal element in the transmission of creative work, especially on its metaphorical and narrative dimension. I will also refer to the cognitive theory of metaphor.

The goals:

The aim of the paper is to explore the role played by references to childhood and youth in the composer’s commentaries to his works. This role changed over the years, and for this reason the chronology of the works commented on will be reversed. We shall look first at the notes produced by the composer at the same time as the works, and then at the ones written from a longer time perspective.

The data and sources:

The primary sources are the composer’s commentaries to his works and his scores. The secondary sources are books and articles on the work of Ligeti (written by Amy Bauer, Benjamin R. Levy, Rachel Beckles Willson, Wolfgang Marx and Charles Wilson among others) as well as on more general topics (e.g. Francesco Spampinato on musical metaphors).

The results:

At the beginning of his creative path in Western Europe, Ligeti purposely creates analytical and interpretive categories of his works, to which he will consistently keep returning later. While at the turn of the 1950s and 60s Ligeti’s retrospections served to support his image as a distinct and autonomous artist, the notes written during the 1980s and later had a different aim. They were to supplement the image which previously functioned only fragmentarily, and in this way to create a bridge between the “true” Ligeti, who had already built his career, and the “prehistoric” Ligeti whose many aspects still remained unknown. It is worth emphasising that this is also a time of intense transformations in his compositional style, with Ligeti turning to elements he had abandoned earlier: traditional forms, expressive melody and triadic harmony. In the composer’s later works childhood reminiscences function as a distant literary construct, accompanied by references to absurdity and utopia, and the composer no longer builds cohesive narratives around them.


Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland

Is a musicologist and music critic, Assistant Professor at the Department of Musicology of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan!(Poland). She graduated in musicology and philosophy at Adam Mickiewicz University in 2005 and defended her PhD in musicology in 2011. Her main scientific interests are: the aesthetics of music and the musical thought of contemporary composers. She is also interested in the creative output of young generation in Poland. In 2012 she published her book Muzyka i metafora. Koncepcje kompozytorskie Pierre’a Schaeffera, Raymonda Murraya Schafera i Ge!rarda Griseya (The National Centre for Culture, Warsaw).