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Revisiting Ligeti’s witty music for wind quintet

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Last night’s Woodwind Chamber Music recital presented by students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) provided a delightful opportunity to revisit one of György Ligeti’s wittiest compositions. His six bagatelles for wind quintet may also enjoy the honor of being one of the most successful “side effects” in the history of music. Their creation was almost accidental, making the story of how they came to be composed worth telling.

Between 1951 and 1953 Ligeti worked on a collection of eleven pieces for solo piano entitled Musica Ricercata. The “research” behind this work involved a study of just how much musical expressiveness could emerge from a limited number of pitch classes. Thus, the first piece in the set consists of only the single pitch class A, expressed through a fair amount of rhythmic diversity and an increasing number of octave leaps. At the very end, a single D provides the “perfect cadence” of the conclusion. For each successive piece, Ligeti increases the number of pitch classes by one but varies the selection of actual pitch classes. For example, the second piece is based on E-sharp and F-sharp with G providing the “cadence.”

While Ligeti completed the full collection in 1953, it did not receive its premiere until November 18, 1969. However, in 1953 the Jeney Quintet asked Ligeti to compose a piece for them. As a result he arranged six of the Musica Ricercata movements (III, V, VII, VIII, IX, and X) for wind quintet, calling the pieces “bagatelles.” As one can see from the numbers, his selection was biased towards the movements with larger numbers of pitch classes; and, as a result, only in the first of the bagatelles can one recognize that he is working with a limited number of those pitch classes. Nevertheless, even in the last of the bagatelles, one can appreciate how he is playing games with the concept of a cadence.

While there are some traces of seriousness in the wind quintet version (one movement Lamentoso and another Mesto, the latter a memorial for Béla Bartók) the overall rhetoric is one of playfulness. Last night’s SFCM students had no trouble appreciating and expressing Ligeti’s sense of play and were definitely not shy of letting that play get raucous. Indeed, they displayed a stronger grasp of the composer’s capacity for hyperbole than I have previously encountered in both the wind and piano versions of this music. It was delightful to experience this music again and to see that it has established itself in the SFCM repertoire for wind students.

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