György Ligeti was born in 1923 to a Hungarian-speaking Jewish family living in the city of Dicsőszentmárton in the region of Transylvania. Musica ricercata, written between 1951 and 1953, is one of his earliest works, but so much had already happened in his 20-something years. His hometown had shifted from Romania to Hungary and back again, he was drafted into the army—placed in a forced-labor battalion for Jews—and then Germany invaded Hungary in 1944, after its government considered a secret truce with the Allies. Soon Russian forces advanced into the region, and in the ensuing chaos Ligeti escaped his work detail, evading capture by both Nazis and Soviets until he could blend back into the civilian population. He walked more than 300 miles home to find his family gone: he later learned his mother, father, and younger brother had been sent to Auschwitz and the two men murdered at subsequent camps. His mother survived the Holocaust, and they later reunited.
After the war, Ligeti enrolled at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, a city still in shambles, and where Ligeti—though he considered himself Hungarian—was an illegal resident, since the Romanian border had been redrawn with his hometown on the other side. He hoped to study with Béla Bartók—who word had it would soon return from America—but the eminent Hungarian composer died of leukemia in New York at age 66, never making it home.
Still, Bartók’s legacy lived strongly among younger Hungarian composers, in particular the high regard he held for folk music. But when the Soviets elevated folk music as an approved stylistic influence, and Ligeti saw his personal interest in this music turn into official doctrine, he began to look for other ways of writing.
Musica ricercata was a first step, written for his “bottom drawer”—that is, Ligeti knew it could not be performed in Hungary behind the Iron Curtain (it premiered in Sweden in 1969). But for him alone, it was a new beginning, built from the most basic musical elements. The first movement uses a single pitch—A—until it arrives at D for the final note. Instead of tonal variety, the movement is crafted around rhythm, dynamics, timbre, and contour. The following numbers add more and more pitches back in, as if rebuilding a musical language from scratch. The title harkens back to the early Baroque, when a ricercar was a contrapuntal style, ricerca meaning “a search” in Italian.
Just after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Ligeti fled to Vienna, hiding with his wife, Vera, under bags of mail on a train. Making a home in West Germany, Ligeti mixed with the avant-gardists while rejecting their polemics and eschewing their “-isms.” In 1968 several of his eerie, atmospheric works were used without permission in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, bringing him a degree of popular fame. In 1999 (this time with permission), Kubrick used the harrowing second movement of Musica ricercata in his last film, Eyes Wide Shut, where it plays under Tom Cruise and completes a curious journey from a bottom drawer in Cold War Hungary to the turn-of-millennium movie screen.