Léonie Sonning Awards 1990

György Ligeti

The Hungarian composer György Ligeti received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize of DKK 200,000 at the final concert of the NUMUS Festival at 8pm on 29 April 1990 in Musikhuset in Århus.

The prize was presented by the head of music programmes at Danmarks Radio, Mogens Andersen, who mentioned in his speech that Ligeti had not been asked or paid any money when his music was used in the film A Journey into Space 2001, and he said: "That says something about the conditions of creative musicians in the age of mass-produced culture. But perhaps the prize being awarded now – which admittedly comes from a completely different source – can be considered as an instalment on an outstanding account from the cultural community."

The programme

György Ligeti Clocks and Clouds (1972-73). For 12-voice female choir and orchestra
  Concerto for piano and orchestra (1985-1988)
  Concerto for cello and orchestra (1966)
  San Francisco Polyphony (1973-74)


Erling Bløndal Bengtsson, cello
Volker Banfield, piano

Aarhus Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Elgar Howarth


The Léonie Sonning Music Prize is hereby awarded to the composer György Ligeti in recognition of the fact that his constant renewal of forms of musical expression have had a crucial influence on the development of music. His works have also to an unusually high degree inspired performing musicians and through their elementary power of expression evoked a response from a growing number of listeners.

György Ligeti and Denmark

Ligeti had a strong connection with Denmark prior to receiving the music prize. He had been in Denmark in 1965, when Århus Symphony Orchestra played his then new pieces for orchestra Apparitions and Atmospheres – the composer himself introduced the music back then. Furthermore, György Ligeti had taken part in a Danish TV production of the piece Aventures for three singers and instrumental septet; he had lectured at the music academies in Århus and Copenhagen in 1979; and in 1989 he had given a lively introduction to his own piano concerto at a radio concert in which Volker Banfield played the concerto – twice in fact, since it was completely new and the audience was to be given a chance. In addition, the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra had made a gramophone recording of excerpts from Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre. Most of Ligeti’s works were also regularly played at Danish concerts.

The day before the prize-giving concert, there were several other Ligeti concerts: the Polish harpsichord player Elisabeth Chojnacka played Ligeti’s Continuum, Passacaglia Ungherese and Hungarian Rock. The same evening Frans Rasmussen conducted thee Esbjerg Ensemble in Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto, Melody and Aventures as well as Nouvelles Aventures. Ligeti was enthusiastic about what he heard – especially about Frans Rasmussen’s conducting, so he later invited him to come to Berlin to conduct. The final ‘warming-up concert’ was with the German pianist Volker Banfield, who played Ligeti’s piano études nos. 1-8.

The daily press

wrote, among other things:

"This year’s NUMUS ended ‘on a high note’ at any rate: an orchestral concert with the Sonning Prize ceremony, a radio transmission, excellent soloists and a large audience for the prize-winner György Ligeti and his lovely and inventive, but absolutely not easy music [...]

[...] And there are no figures in Ligeti’s musical landscapes, no motifs with clear identities one can hold onto. The interest is in textures, consistencies of sound, harmony, melody, in the motoric and the rhythmical – the centre of gravity shifts through this series in the course of Ligeti’s economical production. The whispering cello concerto was the evening’s example of his earliest stage, but the dimensions are often interwoven as in Clocks and Clouds [...] where gently vibrating clouds of sound and ticking clocks flow into each other in dreamlike transformations. The endlessly flexible sound, which is highly successful here, is modelled with a brilliant instrumental coup around a core of woodwinds and a choir of female voices."

(Jan Jacoby, Politiken, 1 May 1990)

"Sound is the adhesive in Ligiti’s chamber concerto [...] It consists of hundreds of melodies, layer upon layer upon layer of melodies all of which write over each other – but which combined give the music its own almost gleaming surface – a fertilised monotony. Roughly the same technique is used in San Francisco Polyphony and in Clocks And Clouds, which were played at the actual prize-giving ceremony.

[...] In Clocks and Clouds the musicians and the 12 female singers sat in two concentric semicircles with the conductor Elgar Howath at the centre – and they ignited the same tonal mystery. One felt like an insect on its way over an expensive carpet, with a clear sense of threads and colours – and a vague feeling of being in a large, unchanging landscape."

 (Peter Juel Henningsen, Weekendavisen, 4 May 1990)

"[...] And then Ligeti, who had stayed for a while in Stockholm twenty years ago, spoke in Swedish, expressing his thanks for the prize and talking about the act of composition. Ligeti had neither himself, the musicians or the audience in mind when he composed. He was too deeply absorbed in the musical material for that. His speech also gave the audience a way into his works, which seek new boundaries and new forms of expression. And at the prize-giving concert one also experienced how what is extremely complex can nevertheless appear to be something simple and spontaneous [...]"

 (John Christiansen, Jyllands-Posten, 1 May 1990)