Ligeti’s solo cello sonata: “To the edge of virtuosity”

Soo Bae

I looked at the date yesterday and realized with a bit of a shock that the festival starts in less than two months. We finally have our “refrigerator calendar” ready so you’ll be able to track NCMF events in and around town in August.  It will also available HERE as a downloadable pdf.

As part of the Hungarian flavor this summer, I’ve programmed the Ligeti solo cello sonata; I’ve been wanting to feature it for years. However, while short, it is also ferociously difficult, and a big ask. Fortunately, Soo Bae accepted the challenge, and now we’ll all get to hear it live. Below are program notes that musicologist Andrew Goldstein generously has allowed me to reprint.

David Yang

György Ligeti (1923 – 2006)

Hungarian composer György Ligeti was born into a Jewish family in 1923 and grew up under the vile reigns of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes. He began his musical training at the age of fourteen, but the anti-Jewish laws prevented him from attending university, so he enrolled at the Cluj Conservatory in 1941. His study was interrupted when he was called to work in the Jewish labor corps, where his battalion unloaded munitions trains near Russian bombardment sites in 1944–1945. After World War II, he resumed study at the National Academy of Music in Budapest, familiarizing himself with the work of Bartók and Kodály, both of whom, in addition to forging a strong Hungarian musical tradition, had made significant contributions to the unaccompanied string repertoire.

Friends and colleagues: Bartók and Kodály

In 1948, one year prior to his graduation from the conservatory, Ligeti became enamored with a young cello student named Annus Viràny but never revealed his affection for her. He nonchalantly presented her with his new composition for unaccompanied cello: a single movement Dialogo, a tender, lyrical work capturing his innermost feelings for her. To Ligeti’s surprise, Viràny did not understand the nature of the dedication and the piece remained unperformed. Ligeti graduated in 1949 and one year later returned as a professor of harmony and counterpoint.

Gheorghe Dima Național Music Academy
in Cluj-Napoca, Romania

In 1953, another cellist, Vera Dénes, presented him with a request for a solo cello piece. Ligeti composed a fast movement to complement the lyrical, pensive nature of the Dialogo and labeled it Capriccio, in reference to Nicolò Paganini’s virtuosic Caprices for Solo Violin. He was prepared to present his two-movement sonata to the public, but the Hungarian Composers Union, known for their strict evaluation of work in the early 1950s, denied performance and publication rights for the Sonata for Solo Cello because it was seen as too modern. The work was allowed only a single radio performance by Dénes, which was actually never broadcast. The sonata did not receive a concert performance until 1983 and was published and recorded in 1990.

Close friends Kurtág and Ligeti

Written five years apart, the two movements are very different in character. The Dialogo, with its flowing lyricism and rhapsodic phrases,treats the cello with delicacy. The arpeggiated chords in the lower register coupled with brooding sixteenth-note melodies in the upper register are reminiscent of Kodály’s Cello Sonata. Ligeti describes this movement as “a dialog. Because it’s like two people, a man and a woman, conversing...I had been writing much more ‘modern’ music in 1946 and 1947, and then in ’48 I began to feel that I should try to be more ‘popular’...I attempted in this piece to write a beautiful melody, with a typical Hungarian profile, but not a folk song...or only half, like in Bartók or in Kodály—actually, closer to Kodály.”

I just love this photo of Ligeti at work

In contrast, the second movement Capriccio is energetic and impassioned. A rapid tempo, feverish triple time, and a barrage of sixteenth-note passages make this movement an exuberant and demanding conclusion to the work. Ligeti describes the movement as “a virtuoso piece in my later style that is closer to Bartók. I was thirty years old when I wrote it. I loved virtuosity and took the playing to the edge of virtuosity, much like Paganini.”

Program notes reproduced with the generous permission of Andrew Goldstein

Link to Ligeti Cello Sonata on youtube
Ligeti sonata
Download File

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