Ligeti: Sechs Bagatellen Program Notes

Many people are unknowingly familiar with the music of Hungarian composer György Ligeti (1923-2006) from the unsanctioned use of his Requiem (1963-5), Atmosphères (1961), and Lux Aeterna (1966) in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. His early compositional output was largely dictated by the constraints of Nazi and Stalinist regimes. During this time, he primarily produced choral works in a folk style for the public while privately composing pieces in a more complex style, including the Sechs Bagatellen for woodwind quintet (1953). His mature style, defined by static and atmospheric textures, did not develop until after he fled Budapest for Vienna and Cologne in 1956.

The Oxford Dictionary of Music defines a bagatelle as a “short unpretentious instrumental composition, especially for piano.” The earliest known bagatelles come from French composers Marin Marais and François Couperin. Perhaps the most popular bagatelle in the Western art music tradition is Beethoven’s Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor for solo piano, WoO 59, more commonly known as Für Elise. Ligeti derived the Sechs Bagatellen for woodwind quintet from an earlier set of eleven short movements for solo piano entitled Musica Ricercata (1951-53). The six movements from the original work that appear in the woodwind quintet transcription are: III, V, VII, VIII, IX, X.

Since the general characteristics of a bagatelle do not imply any sort of formal structure, the construction of these pieces relies on other musical components. In the case of this particular set of bagatelles, Ligeti relies on pitch class as the organizing principal. Ligeti limited each movement of the original Musica Ricercata to a specific number of pitch classes, and each subsequent movement contained one more pitch class than the previous. The resulting pitch class construction of the extracted movements transcribed for woodwind quintet is as follows:

I. Allegro con spirito (C, E, Eb, G)

II. Rubato. Lamentoso (Ab, B, C#, D, F, G)

III. Allegro grazioso (Ab, A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G)

IV. Presto ruvido (A, B, C, C#, D, E, F#, G, G#)

V. Adagio. Mesto (A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, F, F#, G#)

VI. Molto vivace. Capriccioso (A, A#, B, C#, D, D#, E, F, Gb, G, G#)

The following recordings are the original movements from Musica Ricercata (featuring Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano) that were subsequently transcribed for the Sechs Bagatellen.

Musica Ricercata, movement III

Musica Ricercata, movement V

Musica Ricercata, movement VII

Musica Ricercata, movement VIII

Musica Ricercata, movement IX

Musica Ricercata, movement X

There are certainly plenty of great recordings of the woodwind quintet transcription, but one of the most unique is this choreography-infused performance by the Danish ensemble CARION:

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