The Hungarian composer György Ligeti composed a cycle of 18 études for solo piano between 1985 and 2001. They are one of the major creative achievements of his last decades, and one of the most significant sets of piano studies of the 20th century, combining virtuoso technical problems with expressive content, following in the line of the études of Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Claude Debussy, and Alexander Scriabin but addressing new technical ideas as a compendium of the concepts Ligeti had worked out in his other works since the 1950s. Pianist Jeremy Denk wrote that they "are a crowning achievement of his career and of the piano literature; though still new, they are already classics."
Scope of the work
There are 18 études arranged in three books or Livres: six Études in Book 1 (1985), eight in Book 2 (1988–1994), four in Book 3 (1995–2001). Ligeti's original intention had been to compose only twelve Études, in two books of six each, on the model of the Debussy Études, but the scope of the work grew because he enjoyed writing the pieces so much. Though the four Études of Book 3 form a satisfying conclusion to the cycle, Book 3 is in fact unfinished, in that Ligeti certainly intended to add more, but was unable to do so in his last years, when his productivity was much reduced owing to illness. The Études of Book 3 are generally calmer, simpler and more refined in technique than those of Books 1 and 2.
The titles of the various études are a mixture of technical terms and poetic descriptions. Ligeti made lists of possible titles and the titles of the individual numbers were often changed between inception and publication. Often Ligeti did not assign any title until after the work was completed.
The 18 études
- No. 1: Désordre. Molto vivace, vigoroso, molto ritmico: A study in fast polyrhythms moving up and down the keyboard. The right hand plays only white keys while the left hand is restricted to the black keys. This separates the hands into two pitch-class fields; the right hand music is diatonic, the left hand music is pentatonic. This étude is dedicated to Pierre Boulez.
- No. 2: Cordes à vide. Andantino rubato, molto tenero: Simple, almost Satie-esque chords become increasingly complex. These chords are built primarily from fifths. This étude is also dedicated to Pierre Boulez.
- No. 3: Touches bloquées. Vivacissimo, sempre molto ritmico – Feroce, impetuoso, molto meno vivace – Feroce, estrepitoso – Tempo I: Two different rhythmic patterns interlock. One hand plays rapid, even successions of notes while the other hand 'blocks' some of the keys by holding them pressed down. This is the last étude Ligeti dedicated to Boulez.
- No. 4: Fanfares. Vivacissimo, molto ritmico, con alegria e slancio: Melody and accompaniment frequently exchange roles in this polyrhythmic study which features aksak-influenced rhythms and an ostinato in 8/8 time, dividing the bar of 8 eighth notes into 3 + 2 + 3. This étude is dedicated to Volker Banfield.
- No. 5: Arc-en-ciel. Andante con eleganza, with swing: The music rises and falls in arcs that seem to evoke a rainbow. This étude is dedicated to Louise Sibourd.
- No. 6: Automne à Varsovie. Presto cantabile, molto ritmico e flessibile: Its title, Autumn in Warsaw, refers to the Warsaw Autumn, an annual festival of contemporary music. It consists of a continuous transformation of the initial descending figure involving overlapping groups of 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, ending up at the bottom of the keyboard. This étude is dedicated to Ligeti's Polish friends.
- No. 7: Galamb Borong – The title sounds Javanese, reflecting the piece's inspiration in gamelan music, but in fact is a fake; both words are actually Hungarian and mean roughly "melancholic pigeon".
- No. 8: Fém – the title is the Hungarian word for metal. Based on chords of the open fifth, with short, irregular, asymmetrically grouped melodic fragments playing off one another.
- No. 9: Vertige – widely-separated hands use chromatic scales to create the effect of endless, falling movement
- No. 10: Der Zauberlehrling (The Sorcerer's Apprentice) – a dancing melodic line is kept in perpetual motion by irregularly dispersed staccato accents
- No. 11: En Suspens – six beats per bar in the right hand, four in the left hand, irregular phrase-lengths and accents in both, weave an ethereal and rather jazz-like web of harmony
- No. 12: Entrelacs – criss-crossing rhythmic patterns, increasing in dynamics as they traverse the keyboard from left to right, creating up to seven different metrical layers.
- No. 13: L'escalier du diable (The Devil's Staircase) – a hard-driving toccata that moves polymetrically up and down the keyboard and then turns into an impression of bells ringing in different registers and times
- No. 14: Coloana infinită (Infinite Column) is named for Constantin Brâncuși's sculpture of the same name, a repetitive series of expanding and contracting pyramidal shapes, and features loud, ascending chord-sequences that overlap giving the impression of constant upward motion. This piece is a revised version of the etude later published as No. 14A: Coloana fara sfârşit (see 'Related Works' below)
- No. 15: White on White – a white-key study except for the very end, beginning with a serene canon and with a whirling fast middle section
- No. 16: Pour Irina – another étude with a gentle beginning, becoming more and more frenetic due to the introduction of progressively shorter note-values and additional pitches
- No. 17: À bout de souffle (Out of Breath) – a manic two-part canon that abruptly ends with slow pianissimo chords
- No. 18: Canon – a short canon between the hands, played once vivace and then a second time presto impossibile, with a slow quiet chordal canon to finish with
Étude No. 14A: Coloana fara sfârşit (Column without End) was the first version of Etude 14 but was judged too difficult for a human player, so Ligeti recomposed it, changing the harmonic structure as he reduced the number of pitches in each hand. Subsequently the original form was arranged as a separate étude for player-piano by Jürgen Hocker, but some pianists have in fact played it. The single piano piece L'arrache-coeur (1994) was apparently originally intended to be Étude No. 11 but did not become part of the cycle.
- Denk, Jeremy (2012). Ligeti / Beethoven (booklet). Jeremy Denk. Nonesuch Records.
- Richard Steinitz, György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination (Faber, 2003), p. 277.
- Steinitz, p. 277.
- Steinitz, p. 279–80.
- György Ligeti (1986). Études pour piano. Schott Musik International.
- Steinitz, p. 310.
- Fredrik Ullén, notes to BIS-CD-1683/84.
- Tsong, Myron K. (2001). "Études Pour Piano, premier livre of Gyorgy Ligeti; Studies in Composition and Pianism" (PDF). Rice University. Retrieved August 2013. Check date values in: