In 1944, Hungarian composer György Ligeti was 21 years old and embarking on a career in music. He was studying in Cluj, now located inside of Romanian borders, during the school year, and returning to Budapest in the summers to learn from folkloric composer Pál Kadosa. Then his entire family was arrested. His parents were sent to Auschwitz, his brother to Mauthausen. György himself escaped the concentration camps only by being conscripted instead into a military labour corps for Jews, supporting front-line Axis troops. But when Germany invaded Hungary, despite its already being aligned with the Axis, Ligeti took the opportunity that the chaos presented to escape. After a nearly 500 kilometer journey on foot, evading both the Nazis and the Soviets, he returned home to learn that his entire family, save his mother, was dead.
After the war, he returned to school in Budapest-- as an illegal migrant, since the post-war redrawn borders meant that his hometown was newly Romanian and he therefore had no right to attend school in Hungary as a resident. But in the shambles of Budapest, still overrun by soldiers, he found that he could not go back to life or art as it existed before the war. Romanticism-- the triumph of feeling over reason, the nationalistic character and German roots of sturm und Drang-- was dead. But Ligeti was in the wrong place at the wrong time to freely explore the avant-garde. His country turned from one regime to another, and by the time he had graduated from Budapest’s Liszt academy and accepted a teaching position there, Hungary was firmly in the grip of Stalinism.
As in the USSR, the artistic environment in Hungary permitted only music that was acceptable within the political climate of the Soviet bloc. Cheerful, optimistic, and folkloric music was the order of the day. Ligeti, fortunately, was well-suited and not necessarily opposed to that style: his original intention in returning to Budapest had been to study with Béla Bartók, master of the Hungarian folkloric style. But Bartók had died of leukemia in 1945, never making it back to his homeland; and Ligeti had little interest in producing only music intended to be co-opted by totalitarian politics. He yearned for music that existed in realms beyond those he was allowed to inhabit, so he wrote in private.
One such private composition was the Musica Ricercata, a piano suite from which Ligeti would later pull six movements to form the Bagatelles for wind quintet. Musica Ricercata can be viewed as a very literal attempt by the composer to reconstruct his shattered sense of identity from nothing: it consists of eleven movements, with the first movement using only two pitches (A and D), and each movement adding a single pitch into the set used to craft the music. With melody and harmony restricted, Ligeti is forced to rely on contrast in rhythm, dynamics, and contour. The result is a singularly arresting suite of pieces, to the point that Stanley Kubrick chose the second movement, consisting only of the pitches E♯, F♯, G, as a recurring motif in his 1999 psychosexual mystery Eyes Wide Shut.
Ligeti mounted the second daring escape of his life after the failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution: he and his wife (ex-wife at the time, though they later remarried) huddled together underneath sacks of mail on a train headed to Vienna. In West Germany, the music that he had consigned to the bottom drawer of his desk in Budapest could finally emerge. Musica Ricercata saw the light, as well as the arrangement of six movement of it for wind quintet, which was premiered in 1969 in Sweden. In the Bagatelles the third, fifth, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth movements of Musica Ricercata acquire yet another aspect of musicality to work with in the absence of melodic freedom: timbre. In fact, the music makes such engaging and surprising use of its five instruments that anyone who has heard only the Bagatelles might find it difficult to believe that it would be possible to play this music on a piano; each instrument becomes not just a tone but a player on a stage, demonstrating the full range of both its capabilities and its limitations.