György Ligeti: “Lux Aeterna” (1966)

If you’re looking for frightening music to play while kids come around to your door tonight trick-or-treating, you couldn’t do better than raiding the canon of 20th Century classical music. So much of this music is built on challenging and subverting our normal assumptions about harmony, rhythm and timbre that it can’t help sounding alien and foreboding.

"Lux Aeterna" is a good example. Ligeti’s piece for a 16-voice choir, written in 1966, is a canon, a musical form that dates back to the Renaissance. In its most basic form, such as in Pachelbel’s quite famous canon in D, it consists of a melody, followed by a repetition (or a variation) that starts at a different time, so that you wind up with multiple versions of the same melody playing in different rhythms and creating counterpoint. It’s basic polyphony—you may have done it with “Row Row Row Your Boat” in grade school.

So how does Ligeti get it to sound so otherwordly? Well, for starters, he’s not using tertian harmony, which is what we’re used to—this is where a basic chord is made of intervals of thirds, ie C, E and G (a C major chord). He’s using tone clusters, where the notes sounding simultaneously might be C, C# and D, for one example. So you get these dissonant smears—the term for it is micropolyphony, where sustained dissonant chords slowly shift over time.

What Ligeti was primarily interested in anyway was timbre—he wanted to explore the particular tones and textures of the voices. They are actually singing these words: “Lux aeterna luceat eis / Domine, cum sanctis tuis in aeternum / quia pius es / Requiem aeternum dona eis / Domine / et lux perpetua luceat eis.” But you don’t really notice the words unless you’re listening for them. What you do notice is the disorienting effect of sixteen voices singing independent lines, many of them in extreme falsetto.

Kubrick famously used it in 2001: A Space Odyssey (without consent from the composer) specifically because of its alien quality (he also used Ligeti’s micropolyphonic “Requiem”). Ligeti’s creative restlessness and embrace of bleak, alien texture may stem somewhat from his rough early life: a Hungarian Jew born in Romanian Transylvania, he was sent to a forced labor camp by the Horthy regime when Hungary took Transylvania from Romania in 1943 (he was 21), during World War II. He lost much of his close family to the camps. After the war, he lived in Budapest and escaped to Vienna in 1956 after the Soviets crushed the Hungarian Revolution.

Ligeti was forced to re-evaluate his world more than once, and I speculate that this may have been among the factors that allowed him to so thoroughly re-think what music should sound like.

This version of “Lux Aeterna” was performed by the Schola Cantorum Stuttgart, conducted by Clytus Gottwald. I don’t know the year.

Hidden Track:

If you’d like to know what this sounds like played on string instruments, check out Ligeti’s “Ramifications for String Orchestra,” which uses a very similar approach but is scored for strings.

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