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Audible vs. Inaudible: Requiem by György Ligeti

    Despite not being religious himself and identifying as a non-practicing or unbaptized Jew, Ligeti chose to compose a composition that explores themes relevant to Jews, Catholics, and all those who disappeared in Hungary. This decision was influenced by his joining a group of militant Catholics. As a result, the requiem he created is not dedicated to a specific individual or event; instead, it serves as a funeral mass for all of humanity.

    The mass is composed of four movements: I. The Introitus, “Pain of Death”; II. The Kyrie, “Cry for Help”; III. The De die judicii sequentia, “Last Judgement”; IV. The Lacrimosa, “Eternal Light”. A common feature among these movements is the inherent difficulty in understanding the text, due to the complex polyphonic nature of the work. However, since Ligeti employed a pre-existing text, the comprehensibility of the text becomes less significant as the audience might already be familiar with the text. Eric Drott described, “Ligeti used simple vs. complex, static vs. dynamic, audible vs. inaudible, individual vs. mass as contrast in the Requiem."

    The requiem rises from the lower registers in the Introit and gradually ascends to the higher registers in the Lacrimosa. Similarly, the Introitus begins in the lower register and concludes in the higher register, succinctly encapsulating the entire requiem. The piece, approximately 27 minutes in length, premiered in March 1965 in Stockholm.

    An interesting note is that the climax of the Kyrie was featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey," as we discussed previously. It can also be found in Tim Burton’s "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory".



Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine

Et lux perpetua luceat eis

Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion

Et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem

Exaudi orationem meam

Ad te omnis care veniet

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine

Et lux perpetua luceat eis

    This movement incorporates the traditional text of the first part of the funeral mass. Through the independent movement of the four voices, a blend of vertical and horizontal clusters is achieved, making the text largely incomprehensible. Nonetheless, there are moments when the text becomes clear, particularly in measures 14 to 16 with the phrase "Domine," and in measures 45 to 46 with “Exaudi orationem meam”. The term “gut hörbar,” meaning “well audible,” indicates Ligeti’s intention for these phrases to stand out.


mm.14-16, “Domine”

mm.45-46, “Exaudi orationem meam”


    The dynamic levels range from pianissississimo to piano. The lack of a clear rhythmic pulse is attributed not just to the soft dynamics but also to the syllabic cluster text setting. When clusters are softly sung, they blur the range and any melodic contours, creating a unique sonic effect.

    The vocal part, in 4, 8, or 12 voice polyphonic textures with slow, gradual movements, is accompanied by orchestral drones.



Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison

    In this movement, Ligeti introduces a 5-part double fugue without traditional themes. Each part comprises 4 rhythmically independent voices, creating a cluster referred to as "bundles of voices" by Ligeti. These bundles are treated polyphonically, each encompassing the soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, tenor, and bass sections of the choir. He also mentioned that the contrapuntal structure and underlying concept of a “continuous polyphonic stream” in this section were influenced by Bach's motet ‘Singer dem Herrn ein neues Lied.’ 

    Ligeti employs a technique of dense micropolyphony in which he simultaneously presents the phrases 'Kyrie eleison' and 'Christe eleison.' Both phrases are quasi-canonically set, utilizing the same pitches but with varying rhythms. However, there are a few distinctions between the two. The Kyrie canon is based on 2nd intervals, while the Christe canon incorporates more diverse combinations of intervals. Additionally, at the beginning, the Kyrie theme is expressed in pianissimo espressivo, whereas the Christe theme is rendered in pianissississimo non espressivo.



mm.1-6, quasi-canonic texture


    The melodies in both the Kyrie and Christe sections are expansions based on two distinct underlying twelve-tone rows. These rows are introduced and subsequently responded to in their retrograde form, creating a palindrome, specifically in measures 29 to 41 in the bass. Furthermore, the initial pitch classes of the first twelve vocal entries in the movement form a twelve-tone row for both the Kyrie and Christe texts.

mm.29-41, basses. Christe eleison row and its retrograde














twelve-tone analysis of Christe eleison phrases

    Contrary to the Introitus, the Kyrie is quite dynamic and active. The text remains generally incomprehensible by “rush speaking, excessive elongation of individual words and syllables… simultaneous presentation of different voices, splitting words, and distributing them to different voices.” The orchestra’s role also changes, reinforcing the choir by doubling their parts in both pitch and rhythm, enhancing the sonic effect of the clusters.

mm.67-69, orchestra doubling the voice


The De die judicii sequentia (Dies Irae)

Dies irae, dies illa

Solvet saeclum in favilla

Teste David cum Sibylla


Quantus tremor est futurus

Quando Judex est venturus

Cuncta stricte discussurus!


    Ligeti expressed his views on this movement in a letter to Ode Nordwall as follows: “I think – but of course I may be wrong – that the Requiem and especially the Dies irae is my best composition to date. That might not seem at the first hearing. Rather, it may be that many people are disappointed and may say, I was not “avant-garde” anymore, because Dies irae may appear more conservative than my other pieces, because of the type of dramatics and expression and because of use of very strict polyphonic compositional technique. I would say: I don’t care... I only care to compose the music that I have in mind ... Like Stravinsky, I'm unconcerned about the category of "modernity”. I don’t care about the fashion.”

    In contrast to the uninterrupted continuity of the Kyrie, this movement exhibits an interrupted form, where each of the five musical events in the 5-part counterpoint is fragmented into individual segments. The treatment of clusters also changes, emphasizing maximum rhythmic divisions to create clusters that rapidly change timbres. The orchestra supports the vocal part, characterized by fast and rhythmically complex interval leaps, with pronounced accents. This movement features even more leaps in the melody, ranging from minor 3rd to major 9th intervals, with major and minor 7th and 9th intervals occurring most frequently.


mm.1-3, rhythmically complex interval leaps





mm.3-4 voice, woodwinds, brass, interval leaps with strong accents in the orchestra


    Ligeti further explained on voice leading in another letter to Erkki Salmenhaara, discussing aspects such as harmony, pitch use, leap rules for soloists and chorus, and the “proportional distribution of intervals in each voice.” He also touched upon the concept of a ‘twelve-tone economy’ in this section, emphasizing the need for an even distribution of all twelve tones, ensuring no particular tone is heard more frequently than others.

    From m.94, there is a reminiscence of the micropolyphony, characterized by its uninterrupted and flowing continuity, previously found in the Kyrie section.





mm.93-98, soprano, mezzo, and alto subdividing into four parts



Lacrimosa dies illa

Qua resurget ex favilla

Judicandus homo reus


Lacrimosa dies illa

Qua resurget ex favilla

Judicandus homo reus


Huic ergo parce Deus

Pie Jesu, Jesu Domine


Dona eis requiem

Dona eis requiem



    Ligeti referred to this movement as an "Epilogue," which may explain its comparatively simpler structure featuring a 2-voice texture. Despite its simplicity, this movement adheres to equally intricate rules of voice leading. The accompanying orchestra is scaled down, with fewer notes and only 3-4 pitches sounding simultaneously, allowing for a clear view of the interval relationships between the voices.

    The individual intervals, the second, the tritone, the fifths and octaves are the core elements of expressions without conforming strictly to tonal or atonal principles. “Their voices are selected by laws that only seemingly have connections to the principles of traditional music... The seconds or tritones in Lacrimosa are not dissonances, and the prime, fifth and octaves are not consonances. They act as intervals that have a certain character of expression in their environment, in their specific musical context… In the Lacrimosa, the material itself is the expression. The melodic line of the both voice solos is musical material and at the same time conveys the expressive content. Form and material are merged.”

    The text remains incomprehensible, not due to phonetic or semantic disarray of the words, but primarily as a result of the extremely dense musical structure employed.

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