Ligeti was born in the Transylvania region of Romania to a Hungarian-speaking Jewish family. He moved to Cluj with his family when he was six and received there his initial musical training in the conservatory. In 1943 his education was interrupted when, as a Jew, he was sent to a forced labor brigade by the Horthy regime. His brother was deported to the Mauthausen concentration camp; his parents were both sent to Auschwitz. His mother was the only other survivor of the immediate family.
Following the war, Ligeti returned to his studies in Budapest, Hungary, graduating in 1949. He studied under Pál Kadosa, Ferenc Farkas, Zoltán Kodály and Sándor Veress. He went on to do ethnomusicological work on Romanian folk music, but after a year returned to his old school in Budapest, this time as a teacher of harmony, counterpoint and musical analysis. In December 1956, two months after the Hungarian revolution, he fled first to Vienna and eventually took Austrian citizenship.
In Cologne he was able to meet several key avant-garde figures and to learn the more contemporary musical styles and methods. These included the composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gottfried Michael Koenig, both then working on groundbreaking electronic music. Ligeti worked in the same Cologne studio, and was inspired by the sounds he heard there. However, he produced little electronic music of his own, instead concentrating on instrumental works which often contain electronic-sounding textures.
From this time, Ligeti’s work became better known and respected, and his best known work might be said to span the period from Apparitions (1958-9) to Lontano (1967), although his later opera, Le Grand Macabre (1978) is also fairly well-known. In more recent years, his three books of Études for piano have become more well-known thanks to recordings made by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Fredrik Ullén, and others.
Ligeti took a teaching post at the Hamburg Hochschule für Musik und Theater in 1973, retiring in 1989. In the early 1980s, he tried to find a new stylistic position (closer to “tonality”), leading to an absence from the musical scene for several years until he reappeared with the Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano (1982). From then on, his output was plentiful through the 1980s and 1990s. However, health problems became severe after the turn of the millennium, and no further vocal pieces appeared after the song cycle Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel (“With Pipes, Drums, Fiddles”, 2000). Ligeti’s last original work to be completed is the eighteenth piano etude of 2001, “Canon.” This title and the form of the etude recalls the musical language of Ligeti’s central European homeland.
Ligeti died in Vienna on June 12, 2006.