Viola Sonata (Ligeti)

György Ligeti composed his Viola Sonata between 1991 and 1994. It is a sonata for viola solo in six movements, and Ligeti composed it in various phases, parallel with his Violin Concerto, and his piano études. The composer was inspired to write a viola sonata after hearing Tabea Zimmermann playing on the radio, then began writing various movements. The second movement Loop, was premiered by Garth Knox (then violist of the Arditti Quartet), while Facsar was premiered in 1993 by Jürg Dahler. The two movements were conceived as part of a complete work and that became the second and third movements of Ligeti's Viola Sonata.[1]

Sonata for Viola
by György Ligeti
The composer in 1984
Composed1991 (1991)–94

The sonata is a departure from Ligeti's Cello Sonata, composed 40 years earlier and represents an important turning point, with the Viola Sonata embracing more of a pattern reminiscent in the Baroque sonata, which has many movements, a Lamento, and concludes with a chaconne, which follows Frescobaldi's sonatas that brought the passacaglia and chaconne. The first and third movements are variations on an ostinato, and alternate between the moto perpetuo movements that are the second and the fourth. In the first, fourth and fifth movement, one finds elements of Eastern European traditional music, while the influence of free rhythms and jazz and Latin harmonies intervene more in the second, third and sixth movement. Other characteristic features are the harmonies in the first and fourth movements and the repeated chords in the second and sixth.[2] Critic Blair Sanderson referred to the sonata as "one of the major viola works of the 20th century".[3]


1. Hora lungă

The first movement, Hora lungă takes influences of the Romanian folksong style of the same name. The title means "slow Hora", but in this case hora could be understood as the Romanian word for "dance".[4] The entire movement is played on the C string, and uses microtonal intervals that imitate mostly the harmonic Scale of F. Other examples of passages on a single string include the Aria from Ligeti's Violin Concerto (74 measures on the G string) and the third movement of the Viola Sonata, Facsar, which probably influenced the first movement, as Ligeti wrote the two movements in the same year.[5]

To indicate microtones, Ligeti uses the sonata three downward arrows for alterations of -49, -31 and -14 cents, respectively. The use of microtonal intervals is common in the works of Ligeti. In the Viola Sonata, their use follows the harmonic Scale on F. In this way, the harmonic construction, with -49 cents lower on B, -31 cents lower on E, and -14 cents lower on the A, the ear suggests the resonance of the imaginary "fifth" string F, which would lie a fifth below the viola's lowest C, which makes the movement in some aspects similar to spectral music.[6]

The movement consists of the theme introduced in mm. 1–2, with six repeated transformations (mm. 2–5, 5–8, 9–14, 16-19, 19–32, 32–37) and a sort of interlude (mm. 15–16) that employs an arpeggiated figuration of harmonics that ascends on the C string. The only break of the movement lasts one-sixteenth and the end of the interlude, providing a reference point for conceptual bisection of the movement.[7] The fifth transformation includes a large crescendo and climax, with the dynamic ffff in mm. 29. The last section consists entirely of natural harmonics, based on a second harmonic scale on C as opposed to the aforementioned harmonic scale on F.[8]

2. Loop

The second movement, Loop, employs similar diminutives procedures to Renaissance motets, which contrast with the augmentation employed in the previous movement. There is a clear jazz influence in the movement and there is an indication to play "with swing", perhaps due to the influence of the music of Stéphane Grappelli.[9] The entire work consists of 45 double stops that are looped, with a 3-bar introduction.[10] The technical difficulty is remarkable, the double stops are always played with open strings and have position jumps that are rather challenging for the left hand and turns the complex arc, which together with the growing rhythmic contraction leading to an interrupted finale.[9]

3. Facsar

The Facsar shows the emphasis on the rhythm of the second movement with the melodic and harmonic language, with a constant transformation of the thematic material in all ways possible. There is always a main theme (mm. 1–10) followed by constant transfigurations, which are always in the same duration, in contrast with the techniques augmentative and diminutive of the preceding movements. In this way, the frame is broken by a Più mosso section (mm. 60–64) and a coda of six closing bars (mm. 90–96).

The structure is very regular and schematic, but Ligeti uses the dynamics to try to hide structural divisions, avoiding the emphasis on the beginning of the episodes. In bars 40 and 41, he achieves this by adding more slurs, which anticipates measure 60's tempo and dynamics, while among the measure 70 and 72 achieves a crescendo that blurs the sense of division.[11] The indications of expression and dynamics are not the result of formal and structural considerations, have in fact been defined by Ligeti after different practical attempts, asking Garth Knox repeatedly try to play with different directions.[12]

4. Prestissimo with sordino

In the fourth movement, Ligeti employs combinations of accents, short joints, open strings, double stops and harmonics, that with the high speed required create a particular sound.[13] In the subsequent occurrences of the thematic material, the composer makes changes through addition or subtraction of notes, transforming individual notes in chords and vice versa, and consequently adapting accentuation and dynamics.[14]

5. Lamento

The fifth movement, Lamento, includes an idée fixe, that he also utilized in Automne à Varsovie (from his Piano Études), his violin and piano concerti, and in various other chamber works. But the theme originates from his Musica ricercata.[15]

The movement is related to the French baroque dance loure, that is usually in 6
, as the movement alternates between 5
and 7
, suggesting an asymmetric division of 12
. The Lamento motif consists of three phrases, which constitute the theme (mm. 1–7), followed by four transformations (mm. 12–18, 25–33, 41–49, 53–62), interspersed with interludes and followed by a coda (mm. 63–64).[16][13]

6. Chaconne chromatique

The Chaconne chromatique is related to the Renaissance and Baroque equivalent. This last movement takes up and amplifies the ternary form of the subject in the previous Lamento, with a theme (mm. 1–8) that is transformed repeatedly, altering the harmonic and chromatic identity from the second transformation into the other transformations. In particular, the fourth transformation is a progressive thickening of the musical texture, as the double stops are amplified to triple stops and quadruple stops, parallel to the intensification of the dynamics, similarly to what heard in Facsar.

The underlying idea is a chromatically descending cantus firmus, which is preserved in most of the repetitions, with minor alterations. The main alterations are the addition of a bar consisting of triple stops, and a crescendo in bar 57, delaying the start of the seventh transformation with one measure. The other alteration, is the addition of a 4
bar in bar 73, and the eighth transformation, is reduced to six strokes, reaching to an end in bar 79. In the latter section, the music intensifies and the climax is interrupted in bar 80 with the tempo marking Meno mosso, molto cantabile, ending quietly.[17]


  1. Dwyer 2011, p. 25.
  2. Bauer 2011, p. 195-196.
  3. Sanderson, Blair. "György Ligeti: Sonata for Viola - Geneviève Strosser". AllMusic. Retrieved December 28, 2018.
  4. Bauer 2011, p. 197.
  5. Dwyer 2011, p. 28.
  6. Dwyer 2011, p. 27-29.
  7. Dwyer 2011, p. 26.
  8. Dwyer 2011, p. 29.
  9. Dwyer 2011, p. 32.
  10. Stulz 2012, p. 18.
  11. Dwyer 2011, p. 33.
  12. Dwyer 2011, p. 36.
  13. Bauer 2011, p. 198.
  14. Dwyer 2011, p. 39.
  15. Dwyer 2011, p. 41.
  16. Dwyer 2011, p. 42.
  17. Dwyer 2011, p. 46-49.


  • Bauer, Amy Marie (2011). Ligeti's Laments: Nostalgia, exoticism and the Absolute. Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4094-0041-7.
  • Dwyer, Benjamin (2011). "Transformational Ostinati in Ligeti's Sonatas for Solo Cello and Solo Viola". In Duchesneau, Louise; Marx, Wolfgang (eds.). György Ligeti: Of Foreign Lands and Strange Sounds. Boydell & Brewer. ISBN 978-1-8438-3550-9.
  • Stulz, John (2012). Cool Memories: Notes on the Ligeti Viola Sonata (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on May 27, 2016.
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