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György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination Hardcover – March 20, 2003
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There is a mass of biographical information, especially about the early years in Transylvania and in the whirling political confusion of WW2 and the immediate post-war years. Fascinating stuff, although this isn't a biography in the sense of trying to investigate all the ins and outs of Ligeti's psyche (and all the better for that!)
It has to be said that if, like me, you are not musically trained, then some of the analysis is pretty tough. There were places where I had no choice but to skip. Sometimes, as in the discussion of the piano etudes, the sheer density of the musicological argument is daunting.
But I've still given the book 5 stars. When the technicalities got too much I put down the book and listened to a recording of the music instead. Then I found that the ideas I could take from the discussion were stimulating a richer hearing. My ears were bigger! For example, I have never put "San Francisco Polyphony" that high in my favourites of Ligeti's work - but I need to reconsider that now I've read and re-listened. The turn in Ligeti's work with the Horn Trio is clearly established, as are other key turning points in Ligeti's oeuvre and this enables a crtitical, historical, approach to the music.
So I've been helped to sudy (by ear) Ligeti in greater depth. Richard Steinitz, founder of the wonderful and important Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in Britain, has already done so much for modern music - and this book is another invaluable contribution.
We can only hope that Ligeti has a late efflorescence (like Elliot Carter), and that this book becomes out-dated and needs to be updated regularly.
Steinitz's work alternates biographical details with analysis of Ligeti's works. One learns a lot more about Ligeti's life from this biography than from others, as Steinitz was fortunate enough to have several conversations with Ligeti. The analysis of Ligeti's music can occasionally get pretty technical, but even those with a passing knowledge of music theory can learn a lot from the book. The biography certainly expands one's appreciation of Ligeti's music, which is what one hopes for from a musical biography. After this you'll easily hear how "Lux Aeterna" (written, we're told, during an addiction to morphine) and "Lontano" are linked through a similar melody hidden in each. The inspirational basis of each Piano Etude is revealed, and "San Francisco Polyphony" stops seeming like a throwaway work and instead as a key part of Ligeti's maturation.
This is, in a way, "authorised biography". There is a lot of adoration of Ligeti, and Steinitz takes Ligeti's side in the coverage of polemic in the book, such as in Ligeti's opposition to Peter Sellar's staging of "Le Grand Macabre" and the composer's disappointment with the ensembles chosen to complete Sony's "Gyorgy Ligeti Edition" series. Since I am myself a faithful fan of Ligeti, I don't see this as a downside.Read more ›
The author explains that he set out to write a book of musical analysis informed by the circumstances of the composer's life, not a biography. I agree that he hasn't written much of a biography; he tends to talk around Ligeti's life rather than about it. I disagree, however, that he's written a book of musical analysis. The "analysis" here is all gloss (clumsy references to "letter B" in the score, and so on, notwithstanding), more or less the sort of thing you get in orchestral program notes or in record liner notes--except that orchestral program notes and record liner notes are usually better written. Despite the author's claim (made repeatedly and redundantly) to have interviewed Ligeti himself in depth, great swaths of this are taken directly, sometimes verbatim, sometimes awkwardly paraphrased, from "Ligeti in Conversation". Purple prose, buzz words, and grammatical solecisms abound. No, if you want to read an engaging account of Ligeti's life, read Richard Toop's biography. If you want analytical glosses, get them from the horse's mouth; read "Ligeti in Conversation". Ligeti is a much better speaker than Steinitz is a writer, an articulate, provocative, man of keen intellect.
The rest was fine except how some of the reviewers mentioned that the author made it out to be an analysis of Ligeti's music. Rather it is more like he's talking about the background of the piece while touching only the surface of the actual music.