The piece requires ten "performers", each responsible for ten of the hundred metronomes. The metronomes are set up on the performance platform, and they are all then wound to their maximum extent and set to different speeds. Once they are all fully wound there is a silence of two to six minutes, at the discretion of the conductor, then at the conductor's signal they are all started as simultaneously as possible. The performers then leave the stage. As the metronomes wind down one after another and stop, periodicity becomes noticeable in the sound, and individual metronomes can be more clearly distinguished. The piece typically ends with just one metronome ticking alone for a few beats, followed by silence, and then the performers return to the stage (Ligeti 1962).
The controversy over the first performance was sufficient to cause Dutch Television to cancel a planned broadcast recorded two days earlier at an official reception at Hilversum's City Hall on 13 September 1963 (Ligeti 1997, 7, 11; Morrison 2012). "Instead, they showed a soccer game" (Ligeti 1997, 12). Ligeti regarded this work as a critique of the contemporary musical situation, continuing:
but a special sort of critique, since the critique itself results from musical means. … The "verbal score" is only one aspect of this critique, and it is admittedly rather ironic. The other aspect is, however, the work itself. … What bothers me nowadays are above all ideologies (all ideologies, in that they are stubborn and intolerant towards others), and Poème Symphonique is directed above all against them. So I am in some measure proud that I could express criticism without any text, with music alone. It is no accident that Poème Symphonique was rejected as much by the petit-bourgeois (see the cancellation of the TV broadcast in the Netherlands) as by the seeming radicals.... Radicalism and petit-bourgeois attitudes are not so far from one another; both wear the blinkers of the narrow-minded. (Ligeti, cited in Nordwall 1971, 7–8)
The Poème symphonique was the last of Ligeti's event-scores, and marks the end of his brief relationship with Fluxus (Drott 2004, 222).
The piece has been recorded several times, but performed only occasionally due to the obvious difficulty of procuring such a large quantity of machines.
- Cone, Edward T. 1977. "One Hundred Metronomes". The American Scholar 46, no. 4 (Autumn): 443–59. Reprinted in Journal of Aesthetic Education 13, no. 1 (January 1979): 53-68. Also reprinted in Australian Journal of Music Education, no. 26 (April 1980): 19–24.
- Dibelius, Ulrich. 1980. "Maelzel, wenn er losgelassen". Hi-Fi Stereophonie 19:168–69.
- Drott, Eric Austin. 2004. "Ligeti in Fluxus". The Journal of Musicology 21 (Spring): 201–40.
- Ligeti, György. 1962. Poème Symphonique 1962 for 100 metronomes - score, translated by Eugene Hartzell. Fluxus Debris!@art/not art. (Accessed 18 August 2010)
- Ligeti, György. 1997. "Music-Making Machines", translated by Annelies McVoy and David Feurzeig. Booklet notes for Mechanical Music, 7–14. György Ligeti Edition 5. Sony Classical CD SK 62310. [New York]: Sony Classical.
- Ligeti, György. 1999. "Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes". Musical Opinion, no. 123 (Autumn): 56.
- Morrison, Chris. 2012. "Poème symphonique, for 100 Metronomes, 10 Performers & 1 Conductor: Review". Answers.com (Accessed 26 January 2012).
- Nordwall, Ove. 1971. György Ligeti: Eine Monographie. Mainz: Schott.