Ligeti Etude 13: The Devil’s Staircase

So this week I decided to study “The Devil’s Staircase”, by Hungarian composer, Gyorgy Ligeti. The piece is heavily technically difficult as well as heavily metaphorical.

This virtuosic piano piece is a unique combination of being both a hard-driving, technically ambitious toccata, and an expressive and “visual” (the piece is heavily based on images – in listening, one can easily imagine the devil running mischievously up and down a staircase between the mortal world and hell, being ever engaged in the task of inflicting controversy onto the mortal world) piece. This piece, interestingly, does not have bar lines, (other than some dotted bar lines that don’t appear to refer to the time signature) so for the purpose of this analysis, I will refer to the staves by which musical events occur.

For me, the images created within this piece, are generated by the use of the initial leaps of 2 octaves and a 6th – perfectly imitating the physically disjunctive motion of walking up the stairs. This teamed with a “Presto” tempo marking, along with the syncopation and the lightness of the initial bars, heavily establishes the imagery of running up and down stairs. By the last third of the first stave, the piece still moves polymetrically up and down the piano, but the intervals begin to narrow, and as a result, this subtly thickens the texture. This change gives the feeling of more urgency, and it’s by this stage that I’m wondering if, metaphorically speaking, this piece is more about a soul fleeing hell, rather than Satan himself, casually coming and going in between hell and Earth.

In stave 3, the bass takes on the role of being a percussive driving force. With this “force”, more and more inner parts are added, so that by stave 7, at any one time, there may be up to 5 intervals in the piano. The piece, thus far, seem to lean towards this point, and one might expect a climax, but in bar 18, the consistency of texture, and pitch material drop instantly – much the same as bar stave 3. Again, the imagery this conjures is that the journey begins again – the fleeing soul has made it half way, and has now been thwarted, and must again begin its journey.

The piece continues in this way – ascending for vast periods of musical time, then returning down again, instantaneously. As the piece goes on, the ascending sections reach higher and higher (closer and closer out of hell?), but still, there is not altogether much variation of this theme. This is until there is a sudden and unexpected mood change. The Piece ascends and ascends to the extreme upper pitches of the piano. The very consistent and constant pulse throughout the piece remains intact, as the highest notes are played at extreme dynamic levels, when, all of a sudden, this consistency is destroyed, with a sudden shift to a very long and slow bass chord played at the lower extreme of the instrumental range. It’s like the pianist has given up – the dexterity of this piece is too hard (or again, a metaphor for the fleeing soul) – it’s just a huge disparity from the previous and hyperactive musical content that it almost comes as a relief.

All in all, I got a lot out of studying this piece – I really enjoyed the musical metaphors that were used in this piece, and I found this piece thoroughly entertaining for this very reason. Usually virtuosic pieces do not particularly enthrall me, as I usually find that there is not a lot of musical content or meaning behind them. This just wasn’t one of those pieces. A great listen, I recommend.



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What’s It about?

This is a blog for staff and students in the Composition Program at Monash University. We intend to keep a record of our study, thinking and compositional projects to document our work, show the world outside what we do and invite comment. We hope that over time the blog will provide useful hints and ideas about the creative processes of composition.

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