Brussels Philharmonic | Programmatoelichting




Béla Bartók Dance Suite, Sz. 77, BB 86a (1923)
György Ligeti
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1988)
Béla Bartók
Concerto for Orchestra, Sz. 116, BB 123 (1943)

[discover also: Ligeti Deconstructed]
[all programme notes]


26.04.2024 FLAGEY
27.04.2024 DE BIJLOKE GENT

After narrowly escaping the devastating wave of anti-Semitism in the Second World War, György Ligeti (1923-2006) returned to Budapest in 1945 to resume his composition studies. There he hoped to meet Béla Bartók (1881-1945), one of the great figureheads of Hungarian music. But he was too late; Bartók had died in September of that year. The many interviews Ligeti gave show how important Hungarian and Romanian folk music and the compositions of his compatriot were at the beginning of his career. Once in Western Europe, however, a new world opened up to him: composers such as Schönberg, Debussy and Stravinsky, whom he had only heard speak of or whose music he had heard sporadically on the radio, suddenly became part of his own artistic field. From here he broke with tradition and explored new paths, mainly guided by his imagination and intuition.

Rooted in folk music

When the city council of Budapest planned a grand celebration in November 1923 in honour of the fiftieth anniversary of the reunification of the cities of Buda and Pest, it was only logical that Bartók was one of the composers who received a commission to compose some music. He delivered a five-part dance suite for orchestra, ‘the result of my research and love of folk music’. That research was not limited to Hungary: armed with a phonograph, Bartók had been travelling through Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and Algeria since 1905, in search of the roots of Hungarian music. He collected thousands of traditional folk tunes. Bartók incorporated all these different traditions and styles in his Dance Suite, as an ode to the many communities of his native country:

‘Number 1 is partly and number 4 entirely oriental in character; the ritornello and number 2 are Hungarian; in number 3, Hungarian, Romanian and even Arab influences alternate; and the theme of number 5 is so rudimentary that you can only describe it as having a primitive peasant character, and so be forced to give up any classification by nationality.’

Twenty years after his Dance Suite, Bartók found himself far from his roots. He had fled the Nazi violence in 1940 and was hoping for a better life in the United States. The American public was not immediately enthusiastic about his music, but that changed on 1 December 1944 when they heard his Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky, the chief conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The title is no mistake: Bartók treats the various sections in the orchestra as soloists conversing with each other. Despite his very poor health and nostalgia for his homeland, Bartók managed to create a hopeful and virtuoso masterpiece. This rediscovered energy is particularly noticeable in the finale as an extended fugue.

Frozen in time

Ligeti worked on his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra for no less than eight years. In 1977, the first ideas swirled into his head, and in 1980 he penned some twenty sketches for the beginning of the concerto. They all ended up in the trash, except for the twenty-first attempt. In 1985, he expanded this into a three-part work that premiered in October of the following year. But after two performances, Ligeti sat down at the desk again; he felt the urge to add a sequel.

And so in 1988 he completed the fourth and fifth movements of his Piano Concerto – or his ‘artistic credo’, as he called it:

'In the piano concerto, I demonstrate my independence from both the criteria of the traditional avantgarde and the fashionable postmodernism.’

It is an impressive and virtuoso composition that is full of complex and contradictory time signatures and rhythms. Each of the five movements presents a unique soundscape. In the opening part, metric disharmony is an asset: two groups in the orchestra play in different time signatures; one in 4/4, the other in 12/8. In the second and only slow part, Ligeti models an alienating soundscape by testing the boundaries of registers – the piccolo plays extremely low or the bassoon very high – and adding unusual timbres such as those of an ocarina or slide whistle.

Tricking the ear

The third movements builds on Ligeti's fascination with polyrhythms and African music. On top of a rhythmic layer, accents in the melody are constantly shifted, creating inherent musical patterns: ‘If this movement is played at the right speed and with very clear accentuation, it seems as if new rhythmic-melodical figures appear. These figures are not played directly; they are not in the score, but exist only in our perception, as a result of the interaction between the different voices.’

They are musical illusions, which Ligeti is only too happy to play with. In the fourth movement, too, he puts the listener on the wrong track. Inspired by chaos theory and fractal geometry, he mimics a similar phenomenon on the basis of small melodic motifs that barely differ from each other, ‘like pebbles in a kaleidoscope’. Sound clouds flow into each other and the driving rhythm makes it seem as if everything is being sucked into a large and increasingly fast-spinning vortex.

All the preceding elements come together in the fifth movement, as a pinnacle of complexity. It takes a huge concentration of performers to perform this piano concerto, and even as a listener you could be scared off. But Ligeti is reassuring: ‘Although polyrhythmic and harmonic combinations reach their greatest density, this part is remarkably airy, illuminated with very bright colours. At first it seems chaotic, but after listening a few times it is easy to understand the content: they are many autonomous but similar figures that intersect.’