Each and every composition is a document of its time. In the case of Apparitions and Atmosphères, the two orchestral works that represent the oeuvre of György Ligeti in the catalogue of Universal Edition, this statement is especially valid.
Apparitions (1958/1959) and Atmosphères (1961) document the composer’s preoccupations after his flight from Hungary, the first steps (apart from some electronic pieces such as Artikulation) in the direction which was to make him one of the leading lights of the international avant-garde within a short space of time.
Furthermore, Apparitions and Atmosphères are also milestones in the history of music following World War II. They have lost none of their stringency half a century after they were written.
At the same time, both works are documents of the originality and the sheer joy of experimenting of a musician living behind the “Iron Curtain”: Ligeti envisaged them in Budapest, the vision of the music occurred to him on nightly walks in Buda Castle (the title of the first version of Apparitions was “Víziók”). He may well have regarded the chances of their realisation as Utopian.
Ligeti’s name is also linked in the UE catalogue to that of his great paragon, Béla Bartók (“I was a Bartók epigon” – he admitted freely in discussing his early music), as author of a foreword to the latter’s String Quartet No 5. Ligeti had an analytical mind. If he had not become a composer, he would surely have made a successful scientist. All his life, he retained his natural curiosity for the latest developments in fractal geometry and other disciplines. Some of his closest friends were scientists, and it is no coincidence that one of the artists he admired most was Maurits Escher.
György Ligeti was a political man. As a survivor of the Holocaust (he lost his father and his brother and escaped death by a hairbreadth), he was an uncompromising opponent of dictatorships of any colour. Before his emigration, he lived through Stalinism in Hungary and experienced the way he was robbed of his artistic freedom. Once in the West, he became a father figure for his colleagues who had stayed behind: they sent him their scores for his comments and held his advice in high esteem.
György Ligeti died in 2006. His music has been experiencing none of the transitional ebb that so many creators are victims of after their death: his works continue to be programmed as a matter of course – as is due a true master.