Ligeti's Requiem: The Genius Within



The following text is taken from a paper in which I write about Ligeti's Requiem. It is unlike any other Requiem. It is avant-garde, dark, written for a gigantic musical force, and (like much of Ligeti's music) evades labels and stereotypes. The full paper, with appendices, is available as a PDF in the "writings" section of this site. I find the use of Ligeti's music particularly powerful in film (see the Stanley Kubrick clip to the right). 

(Citations and notes are not clickable. Please see bottom of page for that information.)




One facet of the unique sound of György Ligeti (1923-2006) stems from his ability to combine tradition with modernism. This paper aims to highlight the events and philosophies that inspired Ligeti’s Requiem. It also investigates how the composer reinterpreted earlier practices in order to create a Requiem that has been described as “not remotely related to previous specimens of the mass for the dead genre”.[1] The reader may take an interest in how the craft of composers such as Ockeghem and Palestrina is hidden within the design of this avant-garde “black mass”.[2]


Ligeti’s Earlier Experiences: Foreshadowing the Requiem

Ligeti was born on May 28th, 1923 in modern-day Romania to Jewish Hungarian parents. Members of Ligeti’s extended family might be most responsible for his earliest exposure to the arts: his grandfather was a painter and his great-uncle was a celebrated violinist for whom many composers, including Tchaikovsky, composed works.[3] Due to anti-Semitic laws, Ligeti was not able to study music at local universities. Instead, his father arranged for him to attend the Cluj Conservatory, where he studied from 1941 to 1943.[4] He also received private training during the 1940s at the Budapest Academy of Music. During this time, it was Ligeti’s study of counterpoint that might best foreshadow the compositional techniques of Requiem.[5] The rest of Ligeti’s time in Eastern Europe was spent as an ethnomusicologist, as a teacher at the Budapest Academy, and writing pieces heavily inspired by the music of Bartók and Stravinsky.[6] In 1956, Ligeti became interested in the musical endeavors of his contemporaries in the West. This attraction, in addition to the violence of the Hungarian Revolution, led to an emigration to Austria.[7]

Following his arrival in Vienna, Ligeti made an effort to reinvent himself as a “radical contemporary composer” and rejected most of his compositions from the East.[8] Like other composers of this time period, Ligeti sought a style of composition that was partially systematic. The composer became interested in what Michael Searby refers to as “semi-automatic processes”. Inspired by Renaissance techniques, such as those of Ockeghem and Palestrina, Ligeti devised a system by which a dense, chromatic texture can be achieved through “internal polyphonic motion.”[9] Ligeti approached this technique from a canonic perspective. He specifically mentions Ockeghem’s “varietas” principle in which voices imitate one another with subtle differentiations in each melodic line. In a 1978 interview, Ligeti describes the effect that this technique produces:

You cannot actually hear the polyphony, the canon. You hear a kind of impenetrable texture, something like a very densely woven cobweb. I have retained melodic lines in the process of composition, they are governed by rules as strict as those of Palestrina’s or those of the Flemish school, but the rules of this polyphony are worked out by me. The polyphonic structure does not actually come through, you cannot hear it; it remains hidden in a microscopic, under-water world, to us inaudible. I call it micropolyphony (such a beautiful word!).[10]

Micropolyphony would be the tool by which Ligeti would reinvent himself in the West. Works like Atmosphéres (1961) also demonstrate Ligeti’s ability to create dense textures via linear processes, but from 1963 to 1965 he did so in combination with the Renaissance techniques found in Requiem.


Finding Traces of Renaissance Music in the Introitus

            The first movement of Ligeti’s four-movement Requiem possesses an introductory character. Phrases rarely expand beyond the range of a minor third and the dynamic range never exceeds piano.[11] The Introitus has been described as chiaroscuro due to the progressive introduction of low voices to high voices throughout the movement.[12]  Perhaps it is due to the composer’s own admission of Renaissance influence (see quote above) that some scholars have investigated the relationship between Requiem and music from the 15th and 16th centuries. Brad Cutcliffe explores this connection in his 2005 doctoral dissertation. He states, “Renaissance polyphony is noted for its systematic linear motion, as is Requiem.[13]  He found that consonant harmonic intervals govern the vertical expansion (and contraction) of certain choral phrases in the first movement. For example, the sequence of structural intervals in the opening choral phrase (mm. 3-9) may be analyzed as a minor second, opening to a major third (spelled as a diminished fourth), and then pinching down to a minor third at the end of the phrase. Figure 1 and Figure 2 demonstrate this relationship (see Appendix). The second choral phrase (mm. 11-14) contains structural intervals that follow the rules of Renaissance harmony even more closely, with thirds prevailing throughout (see Figure 3). Even in cases where the structural intervals are dissonant, Cutcliffe still manages to explain these moments through a Renaissance perspective. For example, the phrase involving the basses, tenors, and altos at rehearsal letter B (mm. 29-32) contains the following sequence of structural intervals: unison, major third, perfect fifth, minor seventh, perfect fifth (see Figure 4). Cutcliffe interprets the minor seventh (C to Bb) as merely a decoration of the more significant perfect fifth (Db to Ab).[14] To some readers, the theorist is seemingly forcing Ligeti’s music into a predetermined analytical box. The author, however, makes the following statement as a response to this criticism: “Admittedly, the idea of auxiliary pitches in a massive cluster sounds absurd. It is the frequent recurrence and emphasis of perfect intervals and the composer’s own admission of the influence of Renaissance polyphony that allows this course of reasoning to stand.”[15] 


Kyrie: The Fugal Design and Ligeti’s Systematic Writing

            Ligeti refers to the compositional process of the Kyrie as like “weaving a carpet”.[16] This analogy might best describe the complexity of the contrapuntal design and the systematic approach that Ligeti used in the second movement of Requiem. The composer states that he devised a set of rules for the compositional process “almost as strict as those of Palestrina”.[17]  This complex system, paired with his micropolyphony, results in a sound so busy and complex that the music becomes static and we simply hear a block of textural density.[18] Ligeti’s description of micropolyphony as an inaudible polyphonic structure “hidden in a microscopic, under-water world” becomes increasingly appropriate as this movement progressively thickens.[19]

            The Kyrie movement is essentially a fugue, involving a twenty-voice texture resulting from dividing each of the five choir sections (SMATB) into 4 parts. Cutcliffe describes the design as “bi-leveled”:

The Kyrie movement is a five-part bi-leveled canonic structure, with each choral section (soprano, mezzo, alto, tenor, and bass) functioning as one part of the fugue. Its bi-leveled canonic structure stems from the counterpoint between the five choral sections and the four-part canons occurring within each section. Essentially, it is a five-part fugue where each part is further divided into four-part canons.[20]

            In this multidimensional canonic design, the Kyrie is the subject and the Christe is the countersubject. While the Kyrie is characterized by stepwise motion and mostly quiet dynamics, the Christe contains several disjunct leaps and reaches a significantly higher dynamic level. Theorists have found an elaborate system of rules that Ligeti may have followed in the construction and mutation of these complex and sometimes palindromic melodies.[21]  Figure 5 in the Appendix shows how the Christe melody evolves throughout the piece as it becomes increasingly important. Cutcliffe’s dissertation discusses this growth in greater detail.[22]

Further relationships between Requiem and Renaissance music can be found in the Kyrie. Ligeti designs the fugal entrance scheme with a systematic approach similar to that of Ockeghem’s Missa Prolationum. While Ockeghem’s mensuration canons enter according to a sequential intervallic scheme of a unison, second, third, etc., Ligeti’s Kyrie and Christe canons enter according to a similar plan: a unison, minor second, major second, etc. This pattern continues until all 12 simple intervals are used as intervals of imitation (with the exception of the perfect fifth).[23] Figure 6 demonstrates how Ligeti accomplishes this design through a “wedge-like” approach, with each point of imitation expanding the wedge by one semitone.[24]


Day of Judgment and Scenes of Death

            The third movement, “De Die Judicii” (henceforth referred to as the Dies irae), is a musical depiction of the Last Judgment. Scenes of hell, torment, and death were a lifelong fascination of György Ligeti. Even as a boy he displayed an interest in these ideas. Figure 7 shows young Ligeti’s drawing in which Archangel Michael is weighing souls on a butcher’s scale. He mentions the “fear and grotesque humor” found in the paintings of Pieter Brueghel and Hieronymus Bosch and also in Kafka’s work as further inspiration.[25] One might go so far as to say that these ideas were solely responsible for the creation of Requiem. In his own words, he describes the importance of the Dies irae sequence:

During my first years at school, I hardly noticed the real world. I transformed clouds into huge mountains, giving them all names. Going to school I always imagined that I was flying in an aeroplane [sic] over my imaginary kingdom; stones along the kerb [sic] were the skyscrapers seen from above. I lived in an imaginary world. That is probably why Thomas of Celano’s Sequence for the Dead caught my fancy later in my teens. I always thought I should write a Requiem Mass just for the Dies irae.[26]  

Ligeti’s words also reveal an important aspect of his theological approach (or lack thereof). He was not inspired by religion. Rather, he was inspired by a deep desire to depict the images that reside within his vivid imagination.[27]

            One property of the Dies irae that greatly differs from previous versions of the Requiem is the length. By superimposing lines of the text and by employing a quick, parlando style of singing, Ligeti is able to set almost all of the text from Thomas of Celano’s 57-line sequence in around nine minutes. Figure 8 compares the structure of Verdi’s ten-movement setting of the Dies irae text to Ligeti’s bipartite form.[28] It was not merely for reasons of proportion that Ligeti chose to do this. The rapid vocalizations also resulted in effective text painting. He describes the Dies irae text as a “colorful picture-book, with new images conjured up all the time.”[29] Richard Steinitz describes the movement as a “wild, gesticulating sequence of kaleidoscopic images”.[30] The use of two choirs in the Dies irae results in moments of deafening choral proclamation. The movement concludes with one final cluster that thins, slows down, and points towards the barren landscape of the Lacrimosa.[31]


The Barren Lacrimosa

            Although the final movement dramatically contrasts the previous three, subtle comparisons can be found. The opening drone of the Lacrimosa hearkens back to the drone at the beginning of the piece, however this drone (on a very low C#) possesses a convincing purity unlike the sustained diad at the beginning of the Introitus. The melodies in the Lacrismoa can be traced to a mutated combination of the Kyrie and Christe melodies from the Kyrie.[32] As in the Dies irae, text painting is used effectively. The texture of the Lacrimosa, however, is completely different. We hear very thin versions of micropolyphony in four duets that are sung between the soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists. At the final word “requiem”, these two voices trigger a final dark shimmer in the orchestra that is paired with the low drone from the beginning of the movement. Some theorists have written on the appearance of the Golden Section in the Lacrimosa (and earlier movements). Cutcliffe’s dissertation contains some exploration into these possibilities.[33] It appears that each movement of Requiem is heavily infused with the composer’s intricate design.


Aesthetic Questions and “Dirty Patches”

            Some might question the value of Ligeti’s tedious, systematic approach. Could the nine months it took to write the Kyrie have been spent more wisely? Why devise a set of rules as strict as those of Palestrina when the result is a seemingly random, chaotic texture? As Steinitz asks, “Why compose with such precision that can’t be heard?”[34] The music of composers associated with New Complexity might face this question as well. One possible answer lies in the fact that the attention to detail on the surface is equal to that of each individual part. Steinitz puts forth a justification in regards Ligeti’s complete organization: “Judged as art, it could be that means and ends are linked: the effort required intensifies the sense of supplication, the integrity of each anonymous strand authenticates the whole.”[35] In the Kyrie, Ligeti’s linear, systematic writing–as opposed to aleatoric techniques–assigns a certain duty to each performer. This results in a texture of collective wailing and agony. The fact that this sound is achieved in such a communally accountable way is art in itself. Furthermore, Ligeti’s compositional techniques make his music more accessible. Music is an art form that is enjoyed both aurally and intellectually. Not only do audience members, both literate and illiterate, enjoy the uniqueness of Requiem, but theorists, historians, and other scholars have spent much time studying its design. The various ways in which people access this music is another justification for the composer’s tedious methods in his early masterpiece.

            An additional concern lies in the complexities of Ligeti’s notation, particularly in the Kyrie. Ligeti juxtaposes triplet and quintuplet figures and assigns dense, chromatic clusters to the choir. During rehearsals for the premiere, these complexities created some difficulties. The conductor, Eric Ericson, sent the following telegram to Ligeti: “Please come at once to Stockholm: we can’t learn your piece!”[36] After arriving in Stockholm, the composer decided to allow the choir to break free from rhythmic precision and perfect intonation. He would later refer to these imperfections as “dirty patches” and believed that the appearance of microtones and other “mistakes” would actually improve the sound of the Kyrie. Ligeti would return to his score and add lines above the measures where these deviations are allowed to occur.[37] These lines permeate the score of the Kyrie.[38]


Final Remarks

            Requiem became increasingly popular throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. This was helped in part by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although Kubrick and MGM didn’t compensate Ligeti for his music, the film would bring significant public attention to Ligeti’s work. Eventually, Requiem would be played on British airwaves, including John Peel’s eclectic radio program, and future films.[39]

Perhaps one of the most attractive qualities of this composer is not simply the sound of his music, but how he achieves his sound: by combing tradition and trends from music history with a yearning to create something different. This paper has exemplified how music that might be labeled as conventional or antiquated can inspire groundbreaking new works. Students studying composition at universities and conservatories should keep in mind that music, like every art form, is constructed with techniques and methods that can be broadly applied to many different genres and styles. It is the responsibility of the composer to absorb these methods and reinvent them in order to express his or her artistic message. In the case of Ligeti, his approach was the refocusing of Renaissance techniques through a 20th century lens. His skill was in the ability to create something new out of something old. This is the genius that lies within the darkness of Requiem.





Bauer, Amy Marie. “Compositional Process and Parody in the Music of György Ligeti.”                PhD diss., Yale University, 1997.

Cutcliffe, Brad. ”An Analysis of Ligeti’s Requiem with Comparisons to Stravinsky’s Requiem         Canticles.” PhD diss., University of California, 2005.

Ligeti, György, Péter Varnai, Josef Ha, Claude Samuel. Ligeti in Conversation with Péter               Várnai, Josef Häusler, Claude Samuel and Himself. London: Eulenburg, 1983.

Ligeti, György. Liner notes to Requiem; Apparitions; San Francisco Polyphony, Barbara Hannigan             (soprano), Susan Parry (mezzo-soprano), DR Rundfunkchor Köln, SWR Vokalensemble                  Stuttgart, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, conducted by Péter Eötvös, recorded in 2008.                Budapest Music Center Records, BMC CD 166, 2011.

Ligeti, György. Requiem for Soprano and Mezzo-soprano solo, 2 mixed choruses and orchestra.               Frankfurt: H. Litolff’s Verlag; New York: C.F. Peters, 1956.

Ross, Alex. The Rest is Noise. London: Fourth Estate, 2008.

Searby, Michael. Ligeti’s Stylistic Crisis. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2010.

Steinitz, Richard. György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination. Boston: Northeastern University          Press, 2003.

Taruskin, Richard. The Oxford History of Western Music. New York: Oxford University Press,                2005.







                     1. György Ligeti, Liner notes to Requiem; Apparitions; San Francisco Polyphony, Barbara Hannigan (soprano), Susan Parry (mezzo-soprano), DR Rundfunkchor Köln, SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, conducted by Péter Eötvös, recorded in 2008, Budapest Music Center Records, BMC CD 166, 2011.

                2. Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 468.

                3. Richard Steinitz, György Ligeti: Music of the Imagination (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003), 3.

                4. Michael Searby, Ligeti’s Stylistic Crisis (Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 2010), 3.

                5. “My counterpoint studies under Veress and Farkas certainly played an important role in working out impenetrable textures of sound, as did studying with Jeppesen, which Kodály made de rigueur for would-be composers.” Ligeti, Ligeti in Conversation, 26.

               6.  György Ligeti, Péter Varnai, Josef Ha, Claude Samuel, Ligeti in Conversation with Péter Várnai, Josef Häusler, Claude Samuel and Himself (London: Eulenburg, 1983), 7.

                7. Steinitz, 66-71.

                8. Searby, 4.

                9. Ibid., 5.

                10. Ligeti, Ligeti in Conversation, 14-15.

                11. Brad Cutcliffe, ”An Analysis of Ligeti’s Requiem with Comparisons to Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles” (PhD diss., University of California, 2005), 7.

                12. Ligeti, Requiem; Apparitions; San Francisco Polyphony, Liner Notes.

                13. Cutcliffe, 49.

                14. Ibid., 31-32.

                15. Ibid., 32.

                16. Cutcliffe, 16.

                17. Ligeti, Ligeti in Conversation, 49-50.

                18. Ibid.

                19. Ibid., 14-15.

                20. Cutcliffe, 17.

                21. Cutcliffe, 17-29.

                22. Ibid., 22-25.

                23. Amy Marie Bauer, “Compositional Process and Parody in the Music of György Ligeti” (PhD diss., Yale University, 1997), 58-59.

                24. Cutcliffe, 8-9.

                25. Ligeti, Ligeti in Conversation, 46.

                26. Ibid., 47.

                27. Ibid., 46.

                28. Cutcliffe, 10-11.

                29. Ligeti, Ligeti in Conversation, 49.

                30. Steinitz, 145.

                31. Ibid., 148.

                32. Steinitz, 148.

                33. Cutcliffe, 14.

                34. Steinitz, 148.

                35. Ibid., 149.

                36. Steinitz, 143.

                37. Ibid., 144.

                38. György Ligeti, Requiem for Soprano and Mezzo-soprano solo, 2 mixed choruses and orchestra (Frankfurt: H. Litolff’s Verlag; New York: C.F. Peters, 1956), Musical Score.

                39. Steinitz, 162-63.