Composer Gyorgy Ligeti, who fled Hungary after the 1956 revolution and gained fame for his opera “Le Grand Macabre” and his work on the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” died Monday. He was 83.
Ligeti, celebrated as one of the world’s leading 20th-century musical pioneers, died in Vienna after a long illness, said Christiane Krauscheid, a spokeswoman for his publisher, Germany-based Schott Music. Details were unavailable, but Austrian media said he spent the last three years in a wheelchair.
Ligeti (pronounced lig’-ih-tee) was born in 1923 to Hungarian parents in the predominantly ethnic Hungarian part of Romania’s Transylvania region. His father and brother later were murdered by the Nazis. He took Austrian citizenship after fleeing his ex-communist homeland and became known for “Macabre,” which he wrote in 1978.
He began studying music under Ferenc Farkas at the conservatory in Cluj, Romania, in 1941, and continued his studies in Budapest. But in 1943, he was arrested as a Jew and sentenced to forced labor for the rest of World War II.
After the war, Ligeti resumed his studies with Farkas and Sandor Veress at Budapest’s Franz Liszt Academy. After graduation in 1949, he did research on Romanian folk music before returning to the academy as an instructor in harmony, counterpoint and formal analysis.
Ligeti’s early work was heavily censored by Hungary’s repressive regime, but his arrival in Vienna in 1956 opened up new possibilities. In the Austrian capital, he met key players in Western Europe’s avant-garde music movement such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gottfried Michael Koenig and Herbert Eimert, who invited him to join an electronic music studio at West Germany’s state radio in Cologne in 1957.
He won early critical acclaim for his 1958 electronic composition “Artikulation” and the orchestral “Apparitions.” He gained notoriety for a technique he called “micropolyphony,” which wove together musical color and texture in ways that transcended the traditional borders of melody, harmony and rhythm.
Ligeti spoke at least six languages, including his native Hungarian, German, French, and English, said Stephen Ferguson, who worked as his assistant and editor at Schott Music from 1992-96.
“He was one of the few avant-garde composers who found his way into the modern program,” Ferguson said. “He was fascinated by patters, but at the same time created wonderful atmospheres, such as in ’2001: A Space Odyssey,’ or in ’Clocks and Clouds.’
“He reintroduced techniques of polyphony out of the tradition of Bach and Palestrina with a playful and innovative sense of sound. He developed a new sound — cluster sound — which fascinated Kubrick and propelled Legiti to the top of the great composers of the second half of the 20th century.”
An excerpt from his 1966 work “Lux Aeterna” was used on the bestselling soundtrack for Kubrick’s “Space Odyssey,” winning Ligeti a global audience.
Kubrick returned to Ligeti in 1999, using the composer’s Musica Ricercata II (Mesto, rigido e cerimoniale), as the theme for what turned out to be his final film, “Eyes Wide Shut.”