Friday, August 10, 2007

Lives of the Great Composers: György Ligeti

Apropos of the Conlon Nancarrow conversations going on at The Overgrown Path and Sequenza 21, I'm going to steal an anecdote from Ligeti's student Martin Bresnick.

LIGETI: "Martin, who would you say is the greatest living composer?" BRESNICK: "The greatest living composer? Er--other than yourself, of course--" LIGETI: "--yes, of course, other than myself."

Ligeti was fond of such questions; he had a Top Three for the twentieth century, for instance, that went something like

1. Bartók, 2. Janáček, 3. Stravinsky.

And sure enough, Ligeti had his own answer all ready: the greatest living composer, in his opinion, was Conlon Nancarrow.

BRESNICK: "Conlon Nancarrow?" LIGETI: "Conlon Nancarrow. I really think he is the greatest living composer." BRESNICK [polite, but still dubious]: "Nancarrow? I mean, yes, the player-piano studies are great. They represent quite an achievement--but such a narrow achievement! If I had to choose between Schumann and Chopin, for instance, it would be difficult, but I would still choose Schumann every time. For while Schumann offers a great cello concerto, great symphonies, a body of indispensible songs, Chopin's highest masterpieces are limited almost exclusively to a narrow body of work, his pieces for solo piano--and Nancarrow's body of work is narrower still, limited to player piano!" LIGETI [thoughtfully]: "Hmm. Maybe, maybe he is not the greatest living composer."

(NOTE: Be sure and read the comments below to see how I completely screwed this story up when I first posted it. Christ, I do the same thing at parties, too.)


martinbresnick said...

Hi Dan,

Yikes, this quote is all twisted around!

Ligeti asked me who was the world's greatest LIVING composer. I said, after Ligeti? - yes, he said. He then said, Conlon Nancarrow. Then I told the Schumann-Chopin story, but ended it by saying I thought SCHUMANN was more important because of the variety of his work - making the comparison with Nancarrow as you tell it.

Ligeti's favorites of the earlier 20th century were Bartok, Janacek and Stravinsky...Funny how these things get turned around!

With best wishes,
Martin Bresnick

Anonymous said...

Alas, poor Babbitt is forgotten yet again. And what of Boulez, Johnston, and Carter? Is there no justice in this world?

Anonymous said...

Oh, and who can forget Stockhausen!

Dan Johnson said...

Wow! I'm floored & flattered that you actually dropped by. Yeah, I totally screwed this story up, didn't I? I meant to say "Schumann," I swear. I'll fix it this instant.

Also, nice try, Aaron--er, I mean, "anonymous." If you want to know what Ligeti thinks of Boulez, there happens to be a very readable summary of his Structures Ia analysis in this book I'm reading, Richard Steinitz's György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination. Ligeti addresses the "problems" of integral serialism in a satisfying and sophisticated way, I think.

Babbitt is not mentioned.

Judd said...

What's interesting for me, here, is how hard it is for me to read Ligeti's voice in this story. When Martin says "except Ligeti", and Ligeti says "yes, except Ligeti", does Ligeti mean that? Or is it a kind of charming, student-teacher repartee? And then when Martin makes the point about Schumann and Chopin, and Ligeti seems to "back down" from his position, I take that as somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But is that how it went down? Hard for me to tell.

Dan Johnson said...

I heard it as totally, totally charming and tongue-in-cheek. Maybe if you could try reading it aloud, with a Hungarian accent...? Or maybe I just suck at telling this story.

Anonymous said...

Dan, calm down. You told it just fine. There was a minor misquote but it's OK now. Try to give yourself some credit.