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Performing Ligeti’s “Hungarian Rock” on a piano.



The undisputed musical value and great source for technical development within Gyorgy Ligeti’s pieces for harpsichord make them a great addition to the repertoire. These pieces were written for the French harpsichordist Elisabeth Chojnacka and have survived the test of time. To me, Ligeti’s harpsichord pieces can be performed on the modern piano with great success.

Hungarian Rock was composed in 1978. In this piece, Ligeti uses the old genre of Chaconne. Much like his Passacaglia, Ligeti emphasized nationalistic interpretation of Chaconne. Ligeti put the title of Chaconne in parentheses, just like Debussy did in his Preludes for piano. But unlike Debussy, Ligeti put this title in the beginning of the piece.

Connecting the musical ideas of Hungarian Rock and the genre of Chaconne is a difficult task for the performer in regard to interpretation. Specific Hungarian origin is felt in the theme of Chaconne with its tight chord structure and the correlation of diatonic and chromatic and sharp and flat chords that create unusual logic of musical thought, even to the modern ear.

The definition of Rock is challenging. On one hand, it represents an image of historical adversity of Hungarian people, their fight for freedom, and their protest against injustice, shown in the movie Hungarian Rhapsody by director Bela Balazs. But in this context, the word Rock also represents the genre of rock music that reached its peak in 1970s. Valery Menshikov, in his Encyclopedia of Progressive Rock, mentioned the historical connection between great rock musicians and composers such as Bach, Mussorgsky, and Tchaikovsky. We can now add Gyorgy Ligeti to this list of composers with his piece Hungarian Rock.

Through the principle of basso ostinato, the composer revealed the essence of unity and diversity. He used it to express one of the main ideas of his work – small in large and large in small, consonant, and with the phenomenon of fractality. Ligeti brilliantly demonstrates his interpretation of the Chaconne genre in his ability to extract enormous, expressive musical resources from the Chaconne’s theme.

The composer considered the original compositional experience of creating the Chaconne by G. Frescobaldi, and also relied on the historical origins of the Chaconne, which, like the dance of Sarabande, was originally a lively, temperamental dance. It is known that the Chaconne, before it became a polyphonic genre, was a live dance style widespread in Spain, typically accompanied by the playing of castanets. From the very beginning there was an element of gypsy music, with its inherent “fatal” nature of challenge, protest, and a sense of freedom.

The role of Gypsy culture is very important in Hungarian folk music as well as in Spanish folk music. This is clearly confirmed by the piano works of F. Liszt, specifically in his Hungarian Rhapsodies. Ligeti’s Chaconne also reveals some similarities with Liszt’s rhapsodies and Hungarian, Romanian, and Spanish influences.

When choosing a genre for the piece Hungarian Rock, Ligeti did not accidentally choose the genre of Chaconne because it is simpler than the Passacaglia. Ornamentation plays a large role in variational methods of development. In contrast to the classical samples of the Chaconne as a polyphonic form, written in a mournfully sublime and dramatic tone with a calm or slow tempo, Ligeti’s piece immediately stands out for its tempo indication Vivacissimo molto ritmiko, which is unusual for classical Chaconnes. Throughout this piece, one can clearly see the protest coming to life musically, which is the nature of rock.

While keeping with the tradition of the classical Chaconne where the theme usually emphasizes the second beat, Ligeti also emphasizes the weak beat, highlighting it metrically in his interpretation of the complex 9/8-time signature. The composer proposes the following breakdown of it: 2 + 2 + 3 + 2/8, realizing the beat hierarchy tradition in his own unique way.

The harmonic presentation of the theme is also unusual, in which one can see the continuity with J. S. Bach’s Chaconne in F. Busoni’s transcription. Ligeti, referring to the chaconne, was guided by the principle, the essence of which was expressed by V. Zuckerman: “The main role of the basso-ostinato theme is contrasting variation changes, creating a harmonic and metric base, linking variations into one inextricably developing whole.” Here is the theme of Ligeti’s Chaconne, which occupies a volume of four bars and contains powerful musical energy:

Performing Ligeti’s

The theme should be performed clearly, applying the portamento stroke in accordance with the instructions of the composer. The rhythmic ostinato of this theme poses certain difficulties in performance. It is necessary to avoid the well-known automatism, which is natural at the fast pace indicated by the composer: each measure = MM. 50.

The Chaconne’s theme is contrasted with the melodic line in the upper voice. The origin of this musical material is associated with the archaic but is also similar to the melodies of modern rock music with its graphically clear sense of relief. This is a classic example of the melodies from the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” by E. Lloyd Webber. This melody is also similar to the old Hungarian folk melodies that Bela Bartok used in his early piano pieces.

When examining the contrast between the theme of the Chaconne and the varying melody, it is necessary to pay attention to the ornamentation and register comparisons, which are separated by pauses:

Performing Ligeti’s

It is interesting to note the effect of the intrusion of thematic elements into variational development, which is vividly represented by a monophonic melody in the right hand, combining various types of melody; widely developed intonational formations of the instrumental type, melodic formations of the vocal type, recitatives, sustained sounds:

Performing Ligeti’s

Such a variety of melodic types makes it possible to search for various timbre-coloristic techniques and to reveal the hidden polyphony in the melodic line of the right-hand part.

With further variational development of the melodic material, the composer demonstrates brilliant skills by actively using rich possibilities of ornamentation, which give the music a certain archaism. These moments of stylization of ancient lute music create a special musical flavor and require matching timbre colors and a skillful combination of a variable voice with an ostinato harmonic base.

Comparison of motives and phrases in the upper and middle registers and their repetition in different octaves should be timbre colored and varied in touch. With the transition of melodic development to the middle register, it is possible to use a denser sound, while the phrasing remains unchanged. This swift passage must be performed masterly:

Performing Ligeti’s

In melodiously sinuous figurations, it is necessary to achieve plasticity and roundness, and be sure that the strokes are performed in accordance with the composer’s instructions:

Performing Ligeti’s

Contrasting juxtapositions of melodic formations in different registers are also have expressive value in the Chaconne. Sometimes they alternate with chordal elements of the theme, which can be interpreted here as tutti sections, and melodic formations can be associated with solo sections in ancient instrumental concerts:

Performing Ligeti’s

In the process of development, the chordal layer becomes more and more tangible and further displaces the melodic line, thereby dynamizing musical development and forming a kind of culmination wave. The tempo slows down, which allows the performer to add some variety to the sound and show the emergence of new thematic material more vividly:

Performing Ligeti’s

The author’s instructions of accelerando and _ _ _ al Tempo I indicate the final phase of development and the transition to the coda. It is necessary to slow down the pace once again at this time, following the composer’s remark:

Performing Ligeti’s

The climactic ascension should be performed majestically, significantly, and on a grand scale. The achieved sound – the major triad on the pedals in the bass and the melting cluster – require an organic dissolution of melodic fragments. The closing measures are to be performed freely and expressively. It is as though the Chaconne says goodbye to the listener, leaving an indelible mark in the mind and causing a sensation of incompleteness. Since the last chord of this piece is a chord in second inversion, we can infer this to be a symbol of non-finite, infinity and eternity.

This contradictory nature of this harmony, which was so beloved by romantics and especially by E. Grieg, contains the secret of the romantic aura. The choral progression of the coda – the emotional state of enlightenment and the expansion of the topic – is aimed at increasing the figurative significance of the piece’s conclusion. In general, this piece is dominated by the dynamics of continuous movement and the impulse of indomitable energy. In the coda, movement seems to freeze and rest comes to replace vanity. Hungarian Rock, with its rhythmic ostinato and free development of a variable component, contains some elements of jazz improvisation.

This piece presents certain difficulties, as all the features of Ligeti’s piano technique are present. This includes dense chord complexes in the left hand part that require precise execution and invariable rhythmic formula that creates the effect of monolithic character. Another challenge is to achieve independence of both hands in performance, where the monodic nature and linearity of the musical material of the right hand is opposed to the harmonious complex of the Chaconne theme in the left hand.

A gradual layering of voices and an increase in density of the right hand part require the performer to have developed polyphonic, melodic and timbre pitch hearing. The composer uniquely expressed the instrumental drama of his work in conjunction of two stylistic layers: harmonic (ostinato – Chaconne’s theme) and melodic (variationally developing motives). Ligeti carefully preserved the harmonic plan and hierarchical structure of the piece. Within the bounds of the strict limitations that he obliged himself with, Ligeti achieved a richness of imagination and a virtuoso mastery of all expressive means, which ranked this piece a special place in the list of composer’s clavier works.

Undoubtedly, the organic cohesion and the solidity of the Chaconne‘s form deserves admiration, as well as its purely clavier nature, emotional impact, and jazz drive. The variational principles underlying the play are consistently applied in the ornamental coloring of melodic musical material. Working on this composition contributes to the multifaceted disclosure of the musician’s performing abilities.

Summarizing our analytical observations of the clavier pieces of Ligeti, it is necessary to note both their figurative variety and the variety of used expressive means, the ingenuity of texture. It is important to keep in mind that the works are intended for the harpsichord, which has a dual-manual nature. When playing them on the piano, where the left- and right-hand parts in harpsichord presentation duplicate each other on different manuals in order to dynamically enhance the power of sonority and for dramatic purposes, octave duplication is possible. This can be done by playing the part of the other hand an octave higher or lower, in context previous and subsequent statements. Another way to perform this piece on a modern piano is to leave the part of any one hand as a pause for the period of a given episode.

Studying arrangements and transcriptions of harpsichord compositions by outstanding pianists such as L. Godowsky, F. Busoni, V. Landovska, L. Brassen, and others can be helpful when working on this piece. The treatise of the great French harpsichordist Francois Couperin, which talks about the essence instrument, says: “If it is impossible to amplify the sound on the harpsichord and if the repetition of the same sound is not very suitable for it, it has other advantages – accuracy, clarity, brilliance, range.” There is no doubt that Ligeti relied on these advantages of the instrument when composing this piece.

Performing harpsichord pieces on the piano provides creative freedom and imagination and the search for new expressive means aimed at revealing rich, imaginative content. György Ligeti, as a master of modern clavier art, presents performers with interesting material. The study of this material is necessary in regard to enriching the pedagogy and expanding the performance repertoire of modern pianists.

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