Hungarian Composers in Piano Music: from Liszt to Ligeti

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In the nineteenth century, German composers held an almost out-of-proportion importance in the classical music world. However, with the advent of nationalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, composers in non-German countries such as Russia, Norway, Spain, Bohemia, Poland, Hungary, England, and the United States began to compose works in many genres that emphasized the particular national or ethnic qualities of their own native music. This resulted in the production of many works that greatly expanded and enriched the repertoire for the piano, beginning as far back as the Mazurkas and Polonaises of Chopin and the Hungarian Rhapsodies of Liszt in the first half of the nineteenth century. With Liszt’s ethnic-inspired works written throughout his life, followed by the ethnomusicological promotion by Kodály and Bartók in the early twentieth century, Hungary, this small country in Europe, started to play an essential role in music history.

Liszt’s early virtuosic pieces changed the world’s approach to piano technique; moreover, his late innovations in harmonies and forms shed light on the path of modern techniques. Bartók was an innovator in developing a percussive approach to the piano, and he used folk elements in new ways that changed how later composers would write piano music. Ligeti’s exploration of textures, extreme dynamic contrasts, and hyper-complicated rhythmic and metrical design, established his unique role in music history. These composers altered profoundly the development of piano music in its technique and expression. I have sought to put these Hungarian composers in historical context, and show how their legacies passed on to the next generation.

What is Hungarian style? Generations of Hungarian composers tried to find their own answers through different resources. Liszt’s interest in Hungarian style lay in verbunkos music — the old recruiting dance of the army from the eighteenth century, which had long been in the repertoire of Gypsy bands.

Kodály and Bartók found their answers in peasant songs, and Bartók later developed his unique style that synthesized folk music and modernism. Dohnányi was another kind of interesting figure who insisted on German Romanticism when his colleagues tried to avoid the influence of European techniques.

Post-Bartók composers like Jenő Takács, Pál Kadosa, and Ferenc Farkas identified with the use of folk music, explored tunes from around the world, and strived to find new paths through modern techniques. Miklós Rózsa, best known as a film music composer, wrote piano music that reflects Hungarian folk elements.

György Ligeti was an influential composer of the late twentieth century who brought piano music to a new level of complexity and virtuosity with his piano etudes. His interest in extra-musical elements, combined with his knowledge of folk elements like aksak rhythm and others, helped him find his answer to the synthesis of folklorism and modernism.



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