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Composed: 1971
Length: c. 13 minutes
Orchestration: flute (= piccolo), oboe (= oboe d’amore), clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (crotales, glockenspiel, vibraphone, and xylophone), piano (= celesta), and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 13, 1972, Zubin Mehta conducting

Melodien was a transitional piece for Ligeti, composed in 1971 on commission from the city of Nuremburg for its celebrations for the 500th anniversary of Albrecht Dürer’s birth. Ligeti was beginning to loosen his previously more sharply sequestered dichotomies of “clocks” (fast and highly energized musical machines) and “clouds” (slowly evolving – even static – soundscapes). His “micropolyphony” made use of motivic canons, but in such a way that the individual lines were seldom aurally identifiable. The titular melodies of Melodien are more “macro” in that sense: though the textures are still richly and intricately interlaced, unique lines emerge strongly, often linking contrasting sections. In effect, the piece is a series of “clocks” laid over a background of “clouds.” (Clocks and Clouds would be the title of a piece for female voices and orchestra that he salvaged from an aborted opera project the following year.) Melodien grows organically, but it is formally rounded, with something very like a recapitulation – or summation, at least – before fading away with a last, eerie wisp of “cloud.”

 “I tried to soften the dense ‘micropolyphony’ of my musical language, to make it less severe, more transparent,” Ligeti wrote (in Eric Wilson’s translation). “Basically, I remained true to my earlier style: the musical form unfolds like a spread-out web in time that is continually flowing on – but the individual voices no longer merge (as in my earlier music), but rather in their overlapping and interlacing you can discern them individually. The voices become individual melodies, with their own characteristic style, their own tempo, rhythm, and intervallic structure. If you hear the music for the first time, it appears to be a chaos of discrepant melodies – but if you know the music better, you can catch on to the internal connections and the hidden harmonic skeleton of the form.”

— John Henken