Ligeti Split—a Quick Birthday Greeting, with Consequences

Happy Birthday, György Ligeti! The great composer was born this day in 1923, and since his passing in 2006 his music has continued to inspire. The Library of Congress has a special relationship with one of Ligeti’s works in particular: Ramifications for string orchestra or twelve solo strings. Commissioned by the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress, Ramifications is a fascinating work in which Ligeti creates a unique sound world in a remarkably short span of time.

Scored for a bifurcated ensemble of twelve parts (six in each grouping for the solo-string version, and equitably balanced if performed by a string orchestra), Ramifications is not your typical string serenade. Ligeti split the ensemble into two groups not just physically, but tonally as well. The players in group one are instructed to play a quarter-tone higher than those in group two—actually, Ligeti specified a slightly greater than quarter-tone difference, in order to counteract the tendency of the musicians to meet in the middle.

Ramifications is a classic example of some aspects of Ligeti’s compositional techniques. His writing is hyper-specific—at times he really does indicate 8 against 7 against 5 against 3, and similar specifications—but only in so doing is he able to achieve such controlled washes of sound. Instead of sounding like two highly-differentiated groups, Ligeti’s tuning choices yield a unique super-instrument in which pockets of pitch feel like they have been expanded to meet the needs of the music. While on occasion Ligeti does feature one group or the other, their shared material and similar treatment yields an eerie collective that remains as stirring today as it must have been at its premiere in 1969.

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