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Singing Wolves and Dreaming Apples: The Cosmopolitan Imagination in Ligeti’s Weöres Songs

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Abstract

György Ligeti (1923-2006) had a special affinity for the poetry of his countryman Sándor Weöres (1913-1989). Early songs set Weöres’ iridescent symbolism within spiky arrangements whose imagery seems at odds with both the whose imagery seems at odds with both the “new nationalism” advocated by Bartók and the prevailing doctrines of Socialist Realism. Ligeti set Hungarian again only twice, returning to poems by Weöres in 1983 (the 16-voice Hungarian Etudes) and 2000 (Síppal, doppal, nádihegedűvel for mezzo-soprano and four percussionists). In these settings both poetry and music embody the “cosmopolitan imagination,” a condition of self-problematization promoting new relations between self, other and world. I argue that the free-floating exoticism of these works neither mimics nor merges the vernacular music that inspires it, but produces an authentic moment of aesthetic discovery. Weöres’s fantastic poems meet a similar sonic world to produce a singular event, a comic turn that grounds the universal in the concrete, whether the context be melancholy princesses, singing wolves, or dreaming apples.

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