György Ligeti – San Francisco Polyphony (1973-74)

Written for a normal symphony orchestra complement with an expanded triple woodwind section (including piccolos, alto flute, oboe d’amore, English horn, E flat clarinet, bass clarinet, and double-bassoon), this work was commissioned by San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

The piece opens with a dense texture made up of many individual melodic lines. In contrast to the Ligeti‘s early pieces, which used the shimmering moving clusters of what Ligeti calls “micropolyphony,” this composition uses much wider spacing and aims for “drier, sharper, and more graphic … melodic lines” that are more “translucent.” The piece is characterized by the subtle technique of timbre modulation achieved through the constant reorchestration of dynamic material.

At the beginning, certain melodies stand out from a group becuase they are played by several instruments in unison. The number of voices is very gradually reduced, producing an unusual ascending-pitch illusion which leaves only the higher woodwinds playing.

The winds continue to float, cycling in the air until interrupted by a wide-ranging, very quiet dissonant string chord. Out of that sustained mass, melodies again begin to emerge, slowly at first and then in an onrushing cacophony of strings (here the winds hold a sustained tone). The rushing tempo is gradually slowed down to a cycling pattern, which is taken up by the winds as the strings return to a sustained chord. Heroic and passionate melodic gestures arise first in the unison horns and then in the strings, as the other instruments re-create the dense atmospheric bed heard at the beginning.

All the players then begin different fixed cycling patterns. Once again the number of instruments playing is very gradually reduced, this time creating an illusion of depth change. A very mysterious timbre is left with very high strings, very low strings, and a high brittle piano trill. A shockingly loud bass drum shot occurs as the strings continue to hold. The percussion blast initates a high woodwind cluster (reminding one of Ligeti’s early orchestral work, Atmospheres). A second percussive shock comes from a gong which increases the intensity of the massed winds.
Underscored by low string drones, the winds begin trills like the calls of extraterrestial birds. These trills are gradually modified into quickly running patterns for a solo violin, which are spread to the piano and xylophone, then to winds and back to the string section — a wonderful instance of the very subtle shifting of timbres which characterizes much of this work. A slowly unfolding horn melody appears within these patterns, the melody being transferred to various winds and brass. This whirlwind continues unabated (as if all the melodies in the world have become one giant wave pattern), changing its orchestration, ebbing slightly at points, and then after approximately three minutes intensifying toward a loud and sudden conclusion.

Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Jonathan Nott.







ligeti

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