Performing Ligeti’s Violin Concerto: a work for the present day

Roper, J. (2014) Performing Ligeti’s Violin Concerto: a work for the present day. In: György Ligeti and the Future of Maverick Modernity Conference, 14-15 July 2014, Maccagno, Italy. (Unpublished)


The demanding maverick qualities of Ligeti’s Violin Concerto engender very different responses in performers and listeners and yet it has gained a firm foothold in concert repertoire. It compels us to engage with the future of serious music, but also with Ligeti himself. Composed in later life, the concerto sums up his achievements and experiences. Simultaneously it reflects on issues faced by twentieth-century composers generally. Ligeti has devised a work easily identifiable within the concerto tradition, assigning a virtuosic role to a soloist in what on the surface is an autonomous, multi-movement composition. What is exciting is how he challenges the norms and projects his own identity and humour into the piece, whilst leaving considerable room for interpretation in performance. Ligeti creates a broad harmonic spectrum through the use of scordatura, natural harmonics and unorthodox instruments, such as the ocarina, thus inviting us to reassess the value of equal temperament. Together with the note to the first movement, indicating that the texture should convey the impression of fragility and danger, this seems to resonate with present-day environmental concerns: an over-refinement and over-packaging of goods has caused us to overlook the richness and beauty of commodities in their natural state. However, Ligeti does not encourage us to abandon the modern world, but quite the contrary: in the concerto we find echoes of globalisation in the wide range of instruments and the compositional techniques applied to them. Non-western and folk instruments are employed and the construction of material relies on his knowledge of African and East Asian musics. References to the modern age are also suggested by mechanical textures and indeed the broken machines that dominated so many of his earlier compositions. Using documentary evidence, recordings and interviews, this paper will assess the layers of meaning transmitted in Ligeti’s concerto, considering, in particular, how performers respond to the challenges of realising the work.

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