Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet

Composer: György Ligeti (b. 1923 - d. 2006)
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Composer: György Ligeti (b. 1923 - d. 2006)

Performance date: 28/06/2022

Venue: St. Brendan’s Church

Composition Year: 1953

Duration: 00:12:32

Recording Engineer: Simon Cullen, Ergodos

Instrumentation: fl, ob, cl, bn, hn

Instrumentation Category:Wind Quintet

Artists: Orsino Ensemble (Adam Walker [flute], Emmanuel Laville [oboe], Matt Hunt [clarinet], Alec Frank-Gemmill [horn] Bram van Sambeek [bassoon]) - [Wind Quintet]

György Ligeti [1923-2006]

Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet [1953]

  1. Allegro con spirito

2.   Rubato – Lamentoso

3.   Allegro grazioso

4.   Presto ruvido

5.   Adagio – Mesto

6.   Molto vivace – Capriccioso

Ligeti was lucky to survive the Second World War. When the Nazis discovered that Hungary was secretly negotiating with the Allies, they immediately took over the country and set about eliminating the Jewish population. All of Ligeti’s family died in the concentration camps, only his mother surviving, as she had been useful as a doctor. Ligeti himself was captured several times by the Russians and escaped by a series of extraordinary accidents in the chaos of attack and counter-attack. Eventually he managed to recommence his studies in the Spartan surroundings of post-war Budapest, where his teachers were Veress, Farkas and Kodály while Kurtág was a fellow-student. 

One of his early works at the beginning of the fifties was a work for solo piano, Musica ricercata. Hungary was now under Russian control so the infamous Zhadanov Decree, that had banned performances of works by Shostakovich and Prokofiev, also ruled musical life in Eastern Europe. So this work was written for Ligeti’s secretive bottom drawer with no thought of pleasing anyone. His aim was to derive the maximum result from the minimum of material, how well can one survive on almost nothing? Thus the first piece consists entirely of just one note (A) plus its octave resolutions, before a final resolution on to D in the last four bars. Each of the following ten pieces contained one more pitch culminating in all twelve semitones in the final piece. This work had to wait until 1969 for its premiere, long after Ligeti had fled to the West in 1956. But as soon as he finished it, he began arranging some of the set for wind quintet.

The composer is very amusing about their first performance in the Socialist Realist Hungary of 1956, where he describes the audience of musicians and intellectuals as being unsure whether they were permitted to enjoy the music. Only five Bagatelles were played on this occasion as dissonances and chromaticism were still considered cosmopolitan and hostile to the people and No.6 contained far too many minor seconds and had to be left out. In the years since, the Bagatelles have become a corner stone of the twentieth-century wind repertoire and one of the most frequently performed and unequivocally enjoyable works by any contemporary composer.

Each movement is very short, the longest is barely three minutes. The con spiritu of the opening Allegro is important as the instruments chatter vivaciously amongst themselves, the wisp of a theme is impossible to forget when it is delivered with such panache. The composer describes the next three pieces as pseudo-folkloristic. The second is full of strident outcries that you can imagine echoing in the mountains. The Allegro grazioso heard on its own would never be associated with someone with as fierce a reputation as Ligeti. It is a gentle cantilena with a delightful witty accompaniment. The limping dance music of No. 4 is from the Balkans and the mesto fifth movement is in memory of Bartók. And the directions for the final movement also sum it up, capricious and full of life with just a hint of galloping hooves. Do not miss the ironic postscript. 

Francis Humphrys