Five things to listen for in György Ligeti’s "Musica Ricercata"

Picture this: a daring composer who began his career behind a wall of Soviet censorship pushes the boundaries of classical music, exploring new sounds and techniques, and making a lasting impact on the 20th-century classical landscape. Enter György Ligeti, a Hungarian-born composer who is best known for his avant-garde and experimental compositions, which often exhibit intricate textures, innovative forms and a unique approach to harmony and rhythm.

Ligeti's journey began in Transylvania, Romania, and led him through Hungary and Austria, where he fled to gain freedoms and ultimately passed away in 2006. He gained international recognition in the 1960s, particularly for his "Atmosphères" (1961) and "Lux Aeterna" (1966). The former is an orchestral work known for its dense, complex textures and lack of traditional melody and harmony, while the latter is a choral work composed for 16 unaccompanied voices, notable for its unique harmonic language and ethereal, otherworldly atmosphere. Both of these pieces were featured in Stanley Kubrick's iconic film "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), which helped to popularize Ligeti's music among a wider audience not acquainted with 20th century classical music.

Black and white photo of György Ligeti taken in the 1960s
György Ligeti in the 1960s

In addition to orchestral and choral music, Ligeti also composed chamber music, piano works, electronic music and a single opera, "Le Grand Macabre" (1977), which he called an "anti-anti-opera” that combines absurdist humor, satire and a wide range of musical styles. His diverse and distinctive output continues to influence and inspire contemporary composers and musicians.

One of Ligeti's most compelling creations is "Musica Ricercata," a set of eleven piano pieces composed between 1951 and 1953 (and which was used in another Kubrick’s 1999 film, “Eyes Wide Shut”). This work stands out for its exploration of self-imposed musical constraints: each piece in "Musica Ricercata" is built around a specific set of pitch classes, gradually increasing in complexity.

(A pitch class is a set of all pitches that are a whole number of octaves apart; the pitch class C thus consists of the Cs in all octaves—eight on an 88-key piano.)

Critic Donald Gislason writes that the title “Musica Ricercata” has a double meaning: “it pays tribute to the compositional style of the ricercare [ed: an established contrapuntal style—meaning one with two or more melodic lines]…But ricercata also means ‘searched for’ or ‘sought after,' a reference to the Hungarian composer’s desire to construct his own personal compositional style from scratch—‘out of nothing,’ as he put it.”

The first movement only uses two pitch classes (A and D). The second movement uses three, the third uses four, and so on, until the final movement—structured as a loose ricercare—which uses all twelve pitch classes of the chromatic scale. This constraint-based approach showcases Ligeti's creativity and compositional skill as he explores a wide range of textures, dynamics and rhythmic ideas within these limitations.

In the 2017 American Pianists Awards, finalist Henry Kramer performed a selection of movements from "Musica Ricercata" as part of his Premiere Series concert:

III. Allegro con spirito:

  • This movement uses four pitch classes (C, E, E-flat, G) and is characterized by its fast tempo and lively, spirited character.
  • The rhythm is a driving force in this movement, creating excitement and unpredictability through offbeat accents and ever-changing rhythms.

VII. Cantabile molto legato:

  • This movement is based on eight pitch classes (A-flat, A, B-flat, C, D, E-flat, F, G) and showcases a more lyrical and expressive side of Ligeti's compositional style.
  • The title "Cantabile molto legato" suggests a smooth, singing quality, which you can hear in the flowing melodies and the connectedness of the notes.

VIII. Vivace. Energico

  • Utilizing nine pitch classes (A, B, C, C-sharp, D, E, F-sharp, G, G-sharp), this movement is marked by its rapid tempo and energetic character.
  • The music features intricate rhythmic patterns, including polyrhythms and changing meters, which create a sense of urgency and forward momentum.
  1. Vivace. Capriccioso
  • This lively and whimsical movement uses eleven pitch classes (A, A-sharp, B, C-sharp, D, D#, E, F, G-flat, G, G-sharp)
  • The playfulness is highlighted by the frequent changes in volume, smoothness and pitch, as well as the unexpected shifts in rhythm.

We invite you to explore the intricate world of Ligeti's "Musica Ricercata" as Henry Kramer navigates the shifting meters, dynamics and whimsical character with precision and expressiveness. The performance offers a fascinating journey into the mind of this innovative 20th century composer who greatly impacted the classical music landscape.

Here are 5 things to listen for:

  1. Pitch constraints: Notice how each piece in the set is based on a specific number of pitch classes, with each successive piece adding one more pitch class—can you hear the pitches multiply as we progress?
  2. Rhythmic variety: Despite (or due to) the pitch limitations, Ligeti creates a diverse array of rhythmic patterns and textural contrasts throughout the work. Listen for the different ways he manipulates rhythm, including irregular groupings, syncopation and polyrhythms.
  3. Dynamics and articulation: Ligeti uses a wide range of dynamics and articulations throughout "Musica Ricercata." Listen to the contrasts between loud and soft passages, as well as staccato (short, detached) and legato (smooth, connected) playing, which contribute to the expressiveness of the music.
  4. Textures: Ligeti's exploration of different textures is a key aspect of "Musica Ricercata." Listen to how he combines single lines, chords and intricate counterpoint to create a diverse sonic landscape. The textures may be sparse and singular in some sections, while dense and complex in others.
  5. Emotional expression: Despite its seemingly abstract nature, "Musica Ricercata" conveys a range of emotions and moods. As you listen, consider the emotional conveyance of each piece: how does the combination of pitch, rhythm, texture and dynamics create moods ranging from playful and energetic to introspective and somber?

We hope you enjoyed Henry Kramer’s performance of selections from György Ligeti's "Musica Ricercata" and appreciate the diverse musical character the composer was able to extract from a self-imposed exploration of musical constraints.

Do you have a favorite among Henry’s selections? Are you a fan of other movements in this piece? Please share your comments on social media at @apapianists and let us know if there is a piece you would like us to profile in the next 5 Things!


"5 Things to Listen For" is an occasional music appreciation series that highlights remarkable compositions performed in the American Pianists Awards. The Awards are held every two years and alternate between jazz and classical piano. Find more music on the jazz media and classical media sections of this site. Look for live performances by past winners on our calendar. And subscribe to our free monthly newsletter.


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