Understanding Ligeti’s Piano Concerto: Its Style and Key Influences

György Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, first conceived in the late 1970s but written in earnest during the years 1985–1988, is one of the composer’s most overwhelming and, if I can enter a highly subjective claim, entertaining works. Consisting of five short movements totaling about 23 minutes, the piece never stops surprising and disorienting the listener with layer upon layer of highly organized yet unpredictable material.

This concerto is a quintessential example of what the composer referred to in 1978 as his “wildly gesticulating, hectic style.”¹ While this tendency is more associated with Ligeti’s later works, a partition running through his output was perceptible from the middle 1960s onward, with the completion of his absurdist music-theatre pieces Aventures in 1962 and Nouvelles Aventures in 1965. In 1969, Ligeti explained it as follows:

“My earlier works, that is from the second half of the 1950s onwards, were characterized by two opposing types of form or motion, or let us say, musical types. On the one hand, there were the completely static forms. An example of this is Atmosphères, where the musical form is very long drawn-out and extremely delicate internal changes determine the formal structure; that is to say, the music does not develop but becomes ‘stationary.’ Then there is the type which contrasts with that: music that is totally broken up and splintered … Here there is no development either, these are ‘stationary’ as well, but each ‘state’ is very short-lived.”²

The Piano Concerto, finished almost two decades later, represents a convergence of this “splintered” approach with rhythmic influences that preoccupied Ligeti in the late 1970s and 1980s: American minimalism and sub-Saharan African music. A fact which will be returned to below is that American minimalism itself, particularly Steve Reich, was shaped by west African influences.

The elements of the former stylistic tendency (the “splintered” and “wildly gesticulating” one) are readily perceptible to even lay listeners. The Piano Concerto illustrates well what Ligeti meant by frequent jolts from one “stationary” environment to another.

Consider, for example, the shocking moment at the end of measure 40 in the second movement (7:54 in the above video) at which a slow contrapuntal section using the extreme registers of the piano is suddenly overtaken by the strike of a whip and a shrill, sustained major second interval held by the piccolo and clarinet. For the proceeding minute and a half, these two instruments and the oboe play a shrieking counterpoint with a background texture of tremelos on harmonics in the strings and regular interventions by the glockenspiel.

While the high woodwinds do gradually expand their field of pitch material as the passage goes on, they repeatedly return to the same central pitches and the same dissonant intervals used early on. There is no sense of advancement toward a certain endpoint, no forward-driving melodic or harmonic contour, and therefore no feeling of development internal to the passage.

This is the “stationary” quality Ligeti speaks of. It is not that there is no motion within each texture and each passage; new sounds are introduced and then subside, and cells of pitch and rhythmic material expand and contract in various ways, rather then being repeated verbatim again and again. Rather, it is the lack of tension and release, or buildup, climax, and denouement, or any other teleological constructs that gives the sensation of stasis.

Ligeti explains his artistic credo in the following, somewhat mystifying passage that closes his composer’s note about the Piano Concerto:

“I prefer musical forms which have a more object-like than processual character. Music as ‘frozen’ time, as an object in imaginary space evoked by music in our imagination, as a creation which really develops in time, but in imagination it exists simultaneously in all its moments. The spell of time, the enduring its passing by, closing it in a moment of the present is my main intention as a composer.”³

Make of that what you will, but the sensation of musical objects “frozen in time” is readily perceptible. The simultaneity of musical objects in Ligeti’s universe is suggested to be metaphorical or at least metaphysical in the above quote, but a straightforward interpretation of how it manifests concretely in the Piano Concerto may be that it’s reflected in the piece’s complex layering of rhythmic devices.

The Piano Concerto’s fast movements are veritable orgies of polyrhythm and polymeter. Stephen Andrew Taylor explains how while complex layered tuplet rhythms were a staple of Ligeti’s atmospheric works in the late 1950s and 1960s, their use in the Piano Concerto and other later works was fundamentally different in effect.⁴

Works in the former category used polyrhythms in service of Ligeti’s “micropolyphony”—textures with so many unique voices, often harmonically clustered and moving at slightly different subdivisions of the beat, that each voice becomes indistinct and the listener hears a sound mass that is at once static and teeming with motion. In service of micropolyphony, Ligeti’s earlier polyrhythms functioned more as notational devices than actual musical experiences for the listener.

Works in the latter category, including the Piano Concerto, invert the function of the pulse. Rather than being the macro-unit divided into a million tiny pieces, the pulse becomes the lowest common denominator—the basic rhythmic unit that is then grouped in myriad ways. The polyrhythms may cross the pulse, but they do not have the effect of obscuring it. Rather, the listeners hears all the contrasting rhythms in relation to a single pulse.

The first movement of the Piano Concerto, loosely based on Ligeti’s 1985 piano etude “Désordre” (“Disorder”), superimposes isorhythmic structures (taleae, or repeating long rhythmic patterns) of unequal length.⁵ With one taleae finishing a half-measure before the first but immediately repeating, it advances out of sync with the other.

This etude shares a similar approach to rhythm with the first movement of the Piano Concerto.

This is an analogue to the phasing technique that plays a central role in Steve Reich’s music, which Ligeti professed having been influenced by. While Reich’s phasing often takes place on a more microscopic level, with performers crossing beat boundaries gradually to move out of and back into sync, it sometimes did restrict itself to displacement of rhythmic patterns one full beat at a time, as in Clapping Music (1972).

Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music” has one performer moving ahead of the other one eighth note at a time, clapping the same rhythmic pattern.

With the unit of displacement in the opening of the Piano Concerto being a half-bar rather than just an eighth note, Ligeti’s superimposition of taleae of unequal length simply occurs on a larger scale.

The two taleae that open the first movement of the Piano Concerto are not only different in length and in the pattern of beat groupings, but even in meter; one is in 12/8 while the other is in 4/4. The dotted quarter in the first time signature is equivalent to the quarter in the second. A constant hemiola results.

Ligeti’s use of polymeter is not just in the sound of the music; it’s built into the notation. At the outset of the concerto, the winds and strings are notated in 4/4 while the percussion and piano are notated in 12/8. Ligeti could have, of course, notated everything in 4/4 and used triplets to imply the 12/8, but whether for purely practical reasons or conceptual ones, he commits to the polymeter at the level of notation as well.

The fifth movement doesn’t vertically stack different time signatures assigned to their respective instruments, but it does make the polymeter explicit, noting in its tempo marking the three different salient divisions of the bar. The denominators of these meters are nonstandard. They are notated as note values with music notation rather than numerals, but the numerical translations of the three interlocking meters would be 2/1.33, 6/4, and 8/5.33.

The tempo marking at the top of the Piano Concerto’s fifth movement.

Another notational quirk, which is far from being unique to Ligeti but still worth noting, is the crossing of bar lines with beams. It is not simply that Ligeti uses beams to show phrasing rather than metric information (a 20th-century habit that has fallen out of favor in modern engraving). More precisely, Ligeti’s beaming respects the rhythmic structure of the music, abolishing the sanctitude of bar lines.

At multiple points in the Piano Concerto, Ligeti exhorts performers not to “accentuate” measures. In other words, bars and bar lines in the indicated passages are merely a practical notational necessity, and do not convey significant information about the music itself.

Ligeti’s desire to move away from the European reliance on the measure as a rhythmic unit represents another central African influence. Taylor notes that “African rhythms are cyclical and repeating, but the lack of bar accentuation, as well as their speed and complexity, distinguish them from European rhythms.”⁶

The constant streams of kaleidoscopic rhythmic information, not often punctuated by moments at which the competing rhythmic schema “come together,” create a suspended feeling of propulsion without relief. This is perhaps another resolution to the paradox of Ligeti’s active, sometimes even chaotic textures being “stationary.” Just as melody and harmony are not teleological in the Piano Concerto, neither is rhythm.

The influence of Reich on Ligeti, the African influence on Ligeti, and the African influence on Reich are exceedingly difficult to disentangle, and the rewards of doing so would probably not warrant the effort. This is despite the fact that Reich’s influences were more west African while Ligeti’s were more central African. But the interesting fact is that the two composers had similar ways of thinking about their engagement with African music.

Ligeti and Reich did not wish to imitate the sound of African music. Rather, they imported African elements of structure and modes of musical thinking into their own home turf, applied to Western instruments and crafted through Western notation.

Reich wrote that the type of influence which sought to imitate foreign sounds was the “least interesting form” and leads to “exotic music; what used to be called ‘Chinoisirie.’”⁷ Reich’s own African-influenced works take basic elements of Ghanaian drumming, like a Ghanaian bell pattern and the metric ambiguity of 12/8 and 6/4, as starting points for thoroughly un-African artistic products.

Likewise, Ligeti’s Piano Concerto never sounds remotely “African.” It is rather the abstract concepts Ligeti gleaned from African music that show up in this work and others.⁸

The same may even be said of Ligeti’s engagement with Reich and the other minimalists. Not a moment in the Piano Concerto could be confused for a Reich or Terry Riley piece. Even Ligeti’s most overtly minimalism-inspired work—his Three Pieces for Two Pianos, also known as “Self-Portrait with Reich and Riley (and Chopin’s in there too)”—is fairly distinct from any of the composers referenced, with its elusive and unstable-sounding pulse.

Ligeti’s Piano Concerto is a musical crossroads at which several of the composer’s important influences and stylistic tendencies meet. It showcases Ligeti’s keyboard writing at its best; the composer was deeply invested in mining the piano for all its worth at this point in his career, as he worked on his first book of outstanding piano etudes. While far from being the last great work of his career—he followed it with an equally compelling violin concerto—the Piano Concerto is undeniably a highlight of the composer’s later period.

¹Ligeti, György, Péter Várnai, Josef Häusler, and Claude Samuel. Ligeti in Conversation. London: Eulenberg Books, 1983. 36.

²Ibid, 106.

³Ligeti, György. Konzert für Klavier und Orchester. Schott Music. Accesed May 18, 2021. https://en.schott-music.com/shop/konzert-no153614.html.

⁴Taylor, Stephen Andrew. “Ligeti, Africa and Polyrhythm.” The World of Music 45, no. 2 (2003): 86–87.

⁵Cuciurean, John Daniel. A Theory of Pitch, Rhythm, and Intertextual Allusion for the Late Music of György Ligeti. PhD dissertation, State University of New York at Buffalo. August 2000. 51–56.

⁶Taylor, 87.

⁷Reich, Steve. Writings on Music, 1965–2000. Oxford University Press, 2002. 70.

⁸Taylor, 91.

I’m a writer, musician, and theatre artist from the US, currently located in Norway.