“Neither Tonal nor Atonal”?: Harmony and Harmonic Syntax in György Ligeti’s Late Triadic Works Kris Shaffer, 2011 (download PDF)


A number of works from the latter part of György Ligeti’s career are saturated by major and minor triads and other tertian harmonies. Chief among them are Hungarian Rock (1978), Passacaglia ungherese (1978), “Fanfares” (Étude no. 4 for piano, 1985), and the last three movements of Sippal, dobbal, nádihegedűvel (2000). Ligeti claims that his triadic structures are “neither ‘avant-garde’ nor ‘traditional,’ neither tonal nor atonal,” and analysts commonly characterize these pieces as making use of the “vocabulary” but not the “syntax” of tonal music. The most prolific of these analysts refers to Ligeti’s triads as “context-free atonal harmony . . . without a sense of harmonic function or a sense of history.” However, to date, no detailed analysis of Ligeti’s triadic sequences has been presented in support of these claims. This dissertation seeks to provide such an analysis in evaluation of these claims.

This dissertation takes as its analytical starting point a definition of harmonic syntax based largely on the writings of Leonard Meyer and Aniruddh D. Patel: harmonic syntax involves principles or norms governing the combination of chords into successions with those chords, or the kinds of progressions between them, being categorized into at least two categories of stability and instability. With this definition in mind, this dissertation explores the six movements named above, seeking to answer two primary research questions: 1) do these works present what we might call harmonic syntactic structures?; and 2) to what extent are those syntactic structures based in tonal procedures?

Chapter 2 presents a statistical analysis of the triadic structures of the six most heavily triadic works from the latter part of Ligeti’s career, comparing the results to analyses of two tonal corpora. This analysis provides evidence of meaningful, non-random structure to the ordering of Ligeti’s harmonic successions in these movements, as well as significant relationships between the structures of these movements and the representative tonal works. Specifically, Ligeti’s late triadic pieces evidence guiding principles for the ordering of chords into successions, and there is reason to believe that these principles may have their foundation—at least in part—in tonal harmonic practice. Further analysis is required to find categories of stability and instability, or to establish a link of more than correlation between Ligeti’s structures and those of tonal practice. The results of this study also raise specific questions about the harmonic structures of individual movements, to be explored in subsequent analysis.

Chapters 3–5 explores these questions and other features of the harmonic structures of these six movements through direct analysis of the scores of these movements and, where appropriate and available, the precompositional sketches preserved for these movements. The analyses of Chapters 3–5 confirm the conclusion of Chapter 2 that there are meaningful syntactic structures in these movements. Both principles for the ordering of chords into successions and categories of stability and instability can be found in these movements, though these principles and categories may not be the same for each movement.

In sum, we can say with confidence that in these six movements, Ligeti composed meaningful harmonic successions, that those successions can be said to be syntactic, that the structures of those successions and the properties of those syntaxes have a strong relationship with some fundamental aspects of the successions and syntax of common-practice tonal music, that Ligeti was aware of that relationship, that Ligeti intended that relationship, and that understanding that relationship is fundamental to understanding the harmonic and formal structures of these works.

Chapter 6 explores the conflict between this conclusion and Ligeti’s pronouncement that his triadic music is “neither tonal nor atonal.” Ligeti’s use of both tonal and atonal elements in his late music can be seen in large part as a response to problems about form and syntax that arose within the serialist tradition, which Ligeti has been addressing in his compositions and articles since the late 1950s. In the latter part of his career, in spite of the fact that he continues to write music in line with his earlier writings on form and syntax, Ligeti desires to be seen as a “late” composer—both in terms of his own career, and in terms of the broader history of music. Thus, while composing music that draws heavily on both tonal and atonal musics of the past, he shifts his rhetoric and states that his music is “neither tonal nor atonal.” The tension between these two strains in his output is fundamental to a complete, nuanced understanding of Ligeti’s music and aesthetic ideology.