"[My Drei Phantasien nach Friedrich Hölderlin] are emotional, 'onomatopoetic', overwrought, 16-voiced pieces (not micropolyphonic!)." -- György Ligeti
Ligeti's terse description is priceless, a perfect and perfectly characteristic poker-face of a comment, in that each of his four terms manages to undermine the others. First, these three 16-voice choral pieces are really "16-voiced": they rarely combine the individual singers into octaves or unisons, but instead manage to create an almost impossible heterogeneity of sound; the blistering differentiation of the texture and harmony make them some of the most outlandishly difficult pieces in the entire repertoire. And yes, they're extremely "onomatopoetic" as well: when the poet Hölderlin writes "in the wind," the voices follow suit with a fluttering polyphonic flow; "O woe is me" gets a whooping shriek from the whole ensemble; they rise wildly with "up there into the light" and collapse into obscurity when "it grows dark and lonesome...."
But you begin to get into trouble when you start to consider how these pieces are "emotional" and "overwrought." In fact, it would seem that the more onomatopoetic something is -- that is, the more explicitly artificial and imitative in its expressive resources -- the less emotional (that is, "direct" and "heartfelt") it often feels. And indeed, these "Fantasies" manage to sound at once terribly emotional -- because of such extreme onomatopoetics -- and also not quite believable -- perhaps because they're "overwrought." And they're overwrought perhaps because they're so aggressively "sixteen-voiced." But they're so 16-voiced because they're so onomatopoetic....
Welcome to the Ligetian labyrinth, where every path offered can get you lost, and every line of thought can knot itself into a maddening paradox. In these three chorale fantasies on fragments of verses from the early nineteenth-century poet Friedrich Hölderlin, Ligeti reinvents one of his fascinating labyrinths, in which opposites somehow melt into one another: the sincerely heartfelt poems and the individual vocal lines seem to bear real pathos, but in their expressive extremeness, they become estranged from their own intentions; the hot and ardent becomes chill and brittle. Likewise, each voice has a tremendous intricacy to its construction, in terms of pitch, gesture, and expressive markings; but somehow, in its integration to the entire group, each voice often becomes tragically lost, or submerged, or asphyxiated. But again in each case, contradiction does not resolve into a single side: through all the overwhelming fatigue, one still feels a boiling emotionalism, perhaps even more so because it is so assaulted. And even as the separate, highly mobile lines melt into the chromatic ooze of a single harmonic wave, still they stick out, with the desperate relief of one drowning. The image of the old Hölderlin -- insane, walled up in a Tübingen tower -- singing to himself in an indecipherable language, but with "an overwhelming pathos," surely affected Ligeti when composing these disconcerting, ambivalent fantasies. Set with love, yet they feel like the words of a madman defended against his own intentions, the way only a madman deserves to be.