petak, 31. siječnja 2014.

György Kurtág - Signs, Games and Messages; Kafka Fragments

Beckett klasične muzike. Intenziviranje najmanjih komadića vremena i čovjeka.

Watch this.

A couple in their mid-80s, married for 65 years, play the piano. Their hands – the skin of which is smooth, shiny and unwrinkled, as if washed clean rather than marked by the decades – don't so much play the keyboard as conjure sounds from it. Their playing dissolves the difference between them and the instrument, and between each other. Their arms criss-cross, as if their four hands make a single composite player; their gestures, their open-mouthed wonder at and commitment to the music (a sequence of pieces by the husband, and transcriptions of Bach), and their smiles to each other, are touchingly similar. They even look alike, with their glasses and short grey hair, their posture at the piano. What you're seeing is private, intimate music-making raised to the level of a joyous miracle. It's one of the treasures of 20th- and 21st-century music.
Hungarian composer, pianist, and teacher György Kurtág and his wife Marta have been playing Kurtág's Jatekok (Games) for the past 40 years, and that ever-expanding set of pieces is just one of the laboratories in which Kurtág has conducted his experiments in the search for musical truth. It's a compositional journey that has often involved reducing music to the level of the fragment, the moment, with individual pieces or movements lasting mere seconds, or a minute, perhaps two. In fact, Kurtág builds whole cycles of pieces from these small shards, like his blistering Kafka-Fragments for violin and soprano, a 40-movement song-cycle of unflinching emotional and existential rawness, or the 12 Microludes for String Quartet, each a shred of pure musical extremity: violence or stasis, complexity or simplicity. Kurtág's apparent obsession with this smallness of time-scale isn't some kind of post-Webernian quest to split the musical atom or to find the structural essence of music. Far from a "reduction", Kurtág's fragments are about musical and, above all, expressive intensification: maximising the effect and impact of every note, every gesture. Listen to any of the Kafka-Fragments to hear what I mean.
Despite their brevity, these tiny pieces are not incomplete as experiences. Take, for example, the seven notes of Flowers We Are, Mere Flowers … ( … embracing sounds) – whose title takes almost as long to read as the piece does to hear – part of the 8th book of Jatekok. (You hear it from 4'10'' into the Kurtágs' performance.) Kurtág precedes the piece with a prelude of nine tolling B flats; the seven notes of Flowers We Are … follow. What you hear are the notes of the C major scale turned into a meditation for four hands. There is nothing more familiar than these elements, but nothing stranger than what happens to them throughout this performance. Paradoxically, precisely because of its conciseness, the piece becomes static and timeless; and those notes, far from meaning anything like "C major" or "tonality" are unmoored from conventional function and allowed to resound and shimmer in a much larger musical space. Hearing Flowers We Are … is like opening a trapdoor in your floor and dropping for a moment into the infinity of the cosmos.
That kind of intensity is something that Kurtág is always looking to create. Often, that's about an expressive or expressionistic violence (hear The Saying of Peter Bornemisza for soprano and piano, or the Messages of the Late Miss RV Troussova for soprano and ensemble to experience some of Kurtág's most emotionally shattering music), but it's just as often about wresting images of beauty and solace from a world of darkness. Some of Kurtág's most beautiful pieces are the ones he has composed as memorials for friends or musicians. They are often pieces that use that paradoxical power of the fragment to suggest a timelessness or spaciousness, for example In Memoriam Andras Mihaly, another of the Jatekok.
The detail of Kurtág's compositional imagination is matched by the inspirational and sometimes forbidding fastidiousness of his teaching of the whole repertoire of classical chamber music and his coaching of his own music. His near-perennial state of dissatisfaction with performers is the stuff of legend among musicians, but so too is the brilliance of his insight and wisdom. And any frustration with his interpreters is matched by a much deeper and more lacerating strain of self-criticism: "I never hear my ideas properly ... No one can hear it … There's nothing to be done … I felt I couldn't go on, I mustn't go on …" – just some of the Beckettian aphorisms that stud his interviews with Balint Andras Varga. (A mirror image can be found in his unconditional admiration for the music of his friend György Ligeti, whom he first met in 1945: "I … love this music from the bottom of my heart, which resounds in Atmosphères as if it welled up inside me, which shakes me so in the Dies Irae [of Ligeti's Requiem], which lifts me on high in the violin concerto.")
Kurtág's music for orchestra has embraced a larger scale in pieces such as Stele, composed for the Berlin Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado, and … concertante … for violin, viola, and orchestra. The three-movement Stele is memorial music that is nonetheless filled with a strange luminescence: the reverberating chordal repetitions in the final movement sound like the tolling of funeral bells (or perhaps the breathing of alien life forms). The first movement is an adagio, an implacable lament that ends with a homage to Bruckner in a passage for four Wagner tubas. But the second movement has the most scintillating moment of all. In the middle of the music's desperate violence, there is a sudden image of strange stillness, a sound made by six flutes, a tuba, and a piano. Kurtág said he wanted the effect to be like "the scene in Tolstoy's War and Peace where Prince Andrei is wounded at Austerlitz for the first time: all of a sudden, he no longer hears the battle but discovers the blue sky above him. That is what the music conjures up." He continues, lamenting that, "I keep telling this story and no one responds." But they do, György! If you are open to it, the devastating poetry of Stele can sear itself on your soul.
This can only give you a small slice of Kurtág's world. Ever since the piece he thinks of as his opus 1, a string quartet written in 1959 after a year of psychoanalytic soul-searching in Paris, Kurtág has composed a huge catalogue that resonates with the music of the past he loves most – Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven, Bartók, Webern. It also speaks with a fearless directness that bypasses musical tradition and becomes its own idiom. When you hear it in a performance such as the Kurtágs' own, his work creates a world of apparently unmediated feeling. It is full of the joys and despairs of life, which you can see, etched in the faces of György and Marta as they play. - Tom Service

There was a quick handshake and a matter-of-fact "good day." Then we came straight to the point. No warm up or getting used to the piano. I played just three notes at the start of lesson number one, and there was a loud exclamation: "No no no no no no no no!" Students of György Kurtág were subjected to some of the most critical listening they are likely to experience: every single note has a reason, and the player must understand it.
At the start of each lesson, this Hungarian teacher-composer shifts from an austere, withdrawn quietness to leaping, intense, spontaneous and joyous activity, playing the piano, gesticulating enthusiastically and singing. "I understand music only when I teach," he says. "Even if I listen to it or play it myself, it's not the same as working on it and trying to understand it for others. I just love music."
Too soon, the lesson ended, the music stopped, he returned to courteous but dry formalities and there was a long, slow walk down three flights of stairs at Budapest's Liszt Academy - in complete silence.
Words are used sparingly, because they are a matter of seriousness and import to Kurtág, whose music appeared in five concerts at last year's Edinburgh International Festival. With a monastic seclusion and an uncompromising search for bare, Spartan truth, he is seldom persuaded to speak about himself in public.
Yet his relationship to words is very strong. Already speaking Romanian, Hungarian, German, French and English, he learned Russian to read Dostoevsky in the original and has recently added ancient Greek to his repertoire. He draws on these languages to set the texts of a range of great poets including Blok, Sappho, Hölderlin and, most characteristically, Kafka.
Like Bartók, he has never taught composition, but has coached chamber music and piano with an almost unparalleled energy throughout his life. His teaching of chamber music is legendary in Hungary and abroad. His pupils at the Liszt Academy included András Schiff and Zoltán Kocsis, for whom Kurtág's approach provoked a complete revision of what he had understood about music and performance.
Economy of language
Kurtág's need to say only the most fundamental, and his determination to say it in as few words as possible emerges in his works too. "I keep coming back to the realisation that one note is almost enough," he once said - one note to sum up the essence of a sensation, a happening, a shriek, a sob, a gesture. And even one instrument may be enough - many of his works ("Signs" op 5 for viola is one example) limit themselves to a single voice or instrument.
"One can make music out of almost nothing," says Kurtág. That "nothing" rejuetcs rigid system and arbitrary complexity; it also rejects musical or political manifesto. He has been a figure of unrivalled integrity in the eyes of younger composers through his unswaying quest for a true, individual means of expression and his complete dissociation for political pressures.
Kurtág was shut off from democracy and the twentieth century's musical developments for a large part of his life. Born in 1926 in the village of Lugoj (Hungarian name, Lugos) in Romanian Transylvania, a region acquired from Hungary by Romania in the partitioning following World War I, he spent a quiet childhood enjoying playing piano duets with his mother and was especially fond of tangos and foxtrots.
When, aged 13, he heard Schubert's Unfinished Symphony on the radio, he decided he wanted to be a composer. Piano and composition lessons in the larger town of Temesvár (Timisşoara in Romanian) led him in search of Bartók and, with some difficulty, he crossed the border into Hungary in the hope of gaining piano lessons from the great Hungarian composer, whose return from America was expected. This was the autumn of 1945, and alongside the devastation in Budapest brought about by the war, Kurtág was confronted on arrival with the black flag flying on the Liszt Academy building. Bartók had just died in New York.
Writing behind the Curtain
Only from 1955 were Hungarians able too hear a little Schoenberg, middle-period and late Stravinksy and even the most "modern" works of Bartók were banned by the communist party between 1949 and 1953. Radios were permanently jammed and only in 1955-56 were cheap West German record players imported. Kurtág concentrated mainly on his piano studies until about 1954. Following the uprising in 1956, he was able to spend one year studying in Paris. Here, while attending courses of Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen, he worked with the art psychologist Marianne Stein.
He was able to examine his musical equipment and decide how much of it was really needed: a process necessary, perhaps, who had suffered a dictatorship's indoctrination with extravagant, vacuous, rhetorical slogans. Kurtág's works up to this point included two "mass songs," some smaller instrumental works, a Korean Cantata (expressing partisanship with the Koreans at war with the US) and a Viola Concerto modelled on Bartók. The methods learned from Stein, working with very small units of music, gave Kurtág the technical means with which to realise his ideas of simplicity and honesty.
That simplicity allows for direct, personal expression. For Kurtág is anything but the cool academic that his linguistic and literary brilliance might imply: of all composer this century, he must be the one most dedicated to the subjective, human side of music. Inspired by Goethe, his works are full of homages and dedications. The pieces themselves may portray one aspect of the dedicatee, may be in memory of a deceased acquaintance, or may even contain a secret message.
For Kurtág, composition has sometimes provided a means of working through happenings in his life. "Single events, banalities, led to reactions that I could translate into music more easily than into words," he has said. His reluctance to commit himself to words leads him to communicate with friends and colleagues in a unique way: he sends messages through pieces of music rather than in words. Signs, Games and Messages for string trio is a musical diary of personal moods and responses to events.
Space and surprise
Personal experiences have also led to innovations with music: one stimulation to write Gravestone for Stephan, which has instruments surrounding the audience, was an event which happened to him at home. His wife and son had arrived home not realising that he was already there. Sitting at the piano, he began to play Beethoven's Piano Sonata op 110.
Kurtág and his wife at the ivories
They were startled and moved to hear music coming from such an unexpected place: Kurtág realised the power of space and surprise. A sense of theatre id apparent in his Beckett settings too: ...pas a pas - nulle part op 36, is an implicit, secret pantomime and shows a hidden, humorous side to Kurtág.
The profound seriousness, however, the determination to learn and to understand everything possible in his life, remains Kurtág's strongest characteristic. Despite enormous success as a composer, he remains humble and in awe of artistic creation. "Every composition has its own rules aside from what the composer wants," he says. "The more precisely I knew what I was going to write, the less the piece wanted to go. The child decides when it wants to be born, not its mother."
His retreat into silence, or into only the most profound of texts, becomes understandable in the constant quest for truth. As Kafka wrote, in a fragment set for soprano and violin by Kurtág in Kafka-Fragmente op 24, "There is a goal, but no path to it. What we call a path is hesitation." Life is too short for hesitation and prevarication; on with the music.
Kurtág reached the age of thirty-three before he was willing to give any of his works opus numbers. The few works he still acknowledges from before 1959 belong to a period of his life which is quite detached from what followed. After a childhood and schooling in Transylvania, a region of Central Europe acquired from Hungary by Romania following World War I, Kurtág became a student of piano and composition at the Liszt Academy in Budapest.
His early choral piece Beads, his Suite for piano and his Viola Concerto date from this student period 1946-55, demonstrating the composer's intimate acquaintance with the works of Bartók and his consequent understanding of musical structure which was to serve him for several years longer. Between 1949 and 1953, Hungary's Stalinist regime banned middle-period Bartók, thus heightening Bartók's importance for artists seeking a path independent from authoritarian dictates. Only when Kurtág had spent a year in Paris (1957-58) was he able to lift himself beyond this stifling environment to produce his op 1 String Quartet.
Opp 1 to 6, a group which also includes a Wind Quintet and solo piano pieces, presents a clear picture of what Kurtág absorbed in Paris. Short, expressive, highly-concentrated musical motives reveal his discovery of early Webern; the motives' rhythmic vivacity is indebted to Olivier Messiaen's theatrical concept of rhythmic cells as "personnages," something Kurtág absorbed from his analysis classes.
The controlled exploration of music within clearly defined limits (sometimes just two notes) was suggested to Kurtág by Marianne Stein, the art psychologist with whom he worked in Paris, as a way of composing most suited to his temperament. This reduction process also enabled him to cleanse his language of any empty gestures accidentally absorbed from the empty musical rhetoric by which he had been surrounded in communist Hungary.
His master's voice
Kurtág's attachment to speech is also to be sensed in the works from this first period of maturity, something which emerged more concretely in his op 7, The sayings of Péter Bornemisza for soprano and piano. Phrases of music that evidently sprang from figures of speech and retain their communicative urgency now appear in op 7 with the terrifyingly vivid sermons of the 16th century preacher Bornemisza. Op 7 was originally to have been an opera on Bornemisza's translation of Sophocles's Elektra and despite its subsequent metamorphosis, it bears some of Greek Tragedy's horrifying realism.
Op 7 is the culmination of a musical language developed in opp 1 to 6 and led to a need for new musical stimuli. The work's dates, 1963-1968, include a period when Kurtág was not composing, but studied afresh the works of Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy and Bartók (among others) alongside working as an accompanist for the Budapest State Concert Agency. Following op 7's completion, he encountered considerable difficulties with composition, to which another process of simplification and reduction provided a solution.
The result was Games for piano, which he began in 1973. The influence of Milhaud, whose classes Kurtág attended in Paris, emerges for the first time, through Kurtág's acceptance of all ideas as possible future materials without prejudice, even if they are apparently banal on first sight.
Games was initially commissioned and conceived as pieces for children, which added to their liberating effect on the deeply serious and critical Kurtág. They developed into a unique blend of musical diary, analysis (of the works of others) and also compositional workshop. Many of the ideas generated in Games formed seeds for larger works in the ensuing years 1975-1979; Hommage à András Mihály (12 Microludes for String Quartet) op 13 (1977) is one example.
Diffusing unity
The next influence on Kurtág was the Russian language, which he learned especially in order to read Dostoevsky, and which is almost "sacred" for him, in the way that Latin was for Stravinsky. In his Russian works, opp 16 to 19, Kurtág's response to Russian prosody transforms his musical dialect with a poignant lyricism; this is to be heard both in the works for solo soprano and instruments such as Messages of the Late Miss R V Troussova op 17 (1976-1980) and the triumphantly pessimistic set of choruses, Songs of Despair and Sorrow op 18 (1980-1994).
His subsequent development was with instrumental genres: in the 1980s he introduced a spatial dimension to large ensembles, dispersing 'families' of instruments in different locations in the concert hall. Works such as ...quasi una fantasia... op 27 no 1 (1982-1987) explore this idea of "diffused unity," a development which also heralded the most recent work of all.
For aside from Stele op 33 (1993-1994), unique in this period for its formal synthesis, Kurtág now disperses his music either in space or in time. The gradually expanding Messages op 34 (1991-1996...) for orchestra relinquishes a synthesising formal time construct, just as have the other 'Works in Progress' that vary from performance to performance, and will continue to evolve as long as the composer lives.
Bartók's legacy of synthesis between folk music and firm Western structures was both a wonderful gift to, and an overwhelming shadow over, Hungarian composers of Kurtág's generation. Kurtág's most recent works represent his ultimate transcendence and diffusion of Bartók's closed formal constructs, and the constant, invigorating acknowledgement that:

The mind is a free creature.
Neither with chains nor with rope can it be bound,
but all the time, day and night, in our dreams when we sleep,
it wanders.

Rachel Beckles Willson, Read Rachel Beckle Willson's review of Kurtág in Edinburgh as well.

György Kurtág: Great Hungarian Jewish Composer, No Monk

By Benjamin Ivry

Music generally eludes accurate verbal descriptions, but rarely as often as in the case of 82-year-old Hungarian Jewish composer György Kurtág. On February 1, Kurtag will perform a recital of his piano music with his wife, Márta, at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. (At that same venue, a day earlier, Peter Eötvös will conduct a concert with more music by Kurtág.) A lean, professorial man with close-cropped gray hair, Kurtág writes music that is aphoristic in its high-pressure concision, as if he were a Hungarian-Jewish version of Anton Webern.
QUITE THE DUO: Márta and György Kurtág at the piano.

As a one-off individualist, Kurtág puts notes in unusual and unexpected places, and no one can imitate his compositional style. More influential to later generations of performers is his work as a chamber music coach, during which he readily admits to “putting students through hell” by examining every measure of a work before they can experience joy from performing it.
Critics repeatedly refer to the composer’s “monastic seclusion,” and one even said that his composing process is “like a monk mortifying the flesh.” Though some might think he resembles one of the extras from the 1986 film “The Name of the Rose,” Kurtág is in fact a doting father and grandfather who is influenced by his Jewish family heritage, and this becomes quite clear on listening to certain works of his.
One such work is “Kafka Fragments” (“Kafka-Fragmente”), for soprano and solo violin. It includes a “Hasidic Dance” set to Kafka’s wistful words: “Once I broke my leg; it was the loveliest experience of my life.” As a teenager, Kurtág studied composition in Temesvar (Timişoara) with A specialist in Jewish folk and liturgical music, Mihály (Max) Eisikovits (1908–1983), who wrote in the preface to his “Songs of the Martyrs: Hassidic Melodies of Maramures” (Sepher-Hermon Press) that nigunim, from a “musical point of view… unquestionably constitute the most original and noble aspect of Jewish folklore.”
“Hasidic Dance,” a portion of “Kafka Fragments,” expresses rough, unsentimental folklike power, as well as the topsy-turvy absurdist element of turning somersaults in the marketplace, associated with the messianic movement. In 1940, when World War II broke out, Kurtág was studying with Eisikovits in Timişoara, from which Jews were not deported as much as elsewhere in the region, and so he managed to survive the war.
In another section of “Kafka Fragments,” labeled “Penetrant Jüdisch” (mistranslated, on the ECM label, in the booklet notes of an otherwise excellent performance as “offensively Jewish”), the German word penetrant means “penetratingly, overpoweringly, insistently.” Kafka’s maxim in the same musical passage (“In the struggle between yourself and the world, side with the world”) underlines how well Kurtág understands Kafkaesque sly wit and resignation to human weakness.
This is only natural, since Kurtág has identified so closely with Kafka as to represent himself as an incarnation of Gregor Samsa in “Metamorphosis.” As recounted in the perceptive 2007 documentary film “György Kurtág: The Matchstick Man,” now available on DVD from Ideale Audience, after Kurtág travels to Paris in the 1950s for further studies, he feels somewhat like a “cockroach striving to change into a human being, seeking light and purity.” Rereading Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” obsessively, he was eventually helped by depth analysis with Hungarian-born psychoanalyst Marianne Stein. The benefits were immediate. In addition to giving him a “moral demeanor,” Stein helped Kurtág, the latter asserts, to “stop lying to myself… [and] concentrate on essential things.” Using a form of art therapy involving the construction of small sculptures out of matchsticks (whence the documentary’s title), cigarette butts and tufts of dust, Kurtág slowly developed what his longtime friend, Romanian-born Jewish composer György Ligeti (1923–2006), called Kurtág’s “fantastic inner concentration” on “tiny, subtle gestures.”
Such aspects are evident in Kurtág’s “Games” (“Játékok”), a still-unfinished work for piano four hands that Kurtág has been working on for three decades, excerpts of which are part of the Carnegie Hall performance. Already brilliantly recorded by Kurtág and Márta on ECM, “Games” interlaces original compositions with transcriptions of Bach, conjuring up a world of Central European domestic music making. The excerpt “Slaps — Squabbles” (“Schläge — Zank”) expresses a conversational spat, with the distracted nagging that is to be expected in any long-term partnership. Arguing, like music, is a domestic form of entertainment. Also in “Games” appears an “Homage to Márta Kurtág,” which on the ECM recording prefaces several solo pieces played by Márta, herself a masterful student of composition who offers advice on every note written by her husband.
Kurtág is not always a miniaturist, and this is notable in “Stele” (1994), a mighty work for large orchestra, composed for Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, in which, like all major artists, he defies generalizations and expectations. His compositional approach, aspiring to the simplicity of Gregorian chants, creates music, Kurtág said, from “almost nothing, without any material so to speak, quite simply because something happens which transforms nothingness into movement.” This approach strongly echoes French-Jewish philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch (1903–1985), whose book “Le je-ne-sais-quoi et le Presque-rien” (The Indescribable Attribute and the Almost-Nothing) inhabits comparable theoretical terrain.
But although writers make his music seem impossibly ethereal and abstruse, it’s worth recalling that in the 1990s, Kurtág the man relocated to Saint-André-de-Cubzac, a no-frills, down-to-earth small town outside Bordeaux in southwestern France. Offering tourists little except the gravesite of native son Jacques-Yves Cousteau, it’s the town where Kurtág’s son, aspiring composer György Kurtág Jr. — a fan of electronica who is inspired by The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix — lives with his family. According to Junior’s Web site, one of Kurtág’s teenage grandsons, Raphaël, currently aspires to be a dancer in a boy band. The realization of this dream might make some grandfathers react “like a monk mortifying the flesh,” but surely Kurtág will merely offer a Kafka-like smile and shrug of resignation, since he is not just a great composer, but a loving family man, as well.
This domesticity is essential not just to Kurtág, but also to other composers — especially Ligeti — featured in the concert series “Celebrating Hungary,” which runs at New York City’s Carnegie Hall from January 24 to February 14. I well recall asking Ligeti, during a Paris interview that took place around 1990, whether some of the humanitarian awards that he himself had received asked too much saintly activity from a man whose chief responsibility was to write good music. Ligeti agreed absolutely, saying, “Two things are of essential importance to me: composing music and making love to my wife.” So much for the “monastic” school of modern Hungarian composers.
To watch a clip from “György Kurtág: The Matchstick Man” click here

György Kurtág is a Hungarian composer of contemporary music. He was born at Lugoj in Romania, not far from the birthplace of fellow Hungarian György Ligeti. Both young composers hoped to study with Béla Bartók in Budapest in 1945, but B. Bartók died in America. In 1940, he studied piano with Magda Kardos and composition from Max Eisikovits, at Temesvár (Timisoara, Romania). He then moved to Budapest in 1946, enrolling in the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music, studying composition with Sándor Veress and Ferenc Farkas, as well as piano with Pál Kadosa and chamber music with Leó Weiner. Kurtág officially became a Hungarian citizen in 1948. In the early part of the 1950's, he continued his studies of composition, chamber music, and piano. He was an outstanding student, winning the Erkl prize in 1954 and 1956. Among his early works was a Korean Cantata which expressed solidarity with the North Koreans in the Korean War against the USA, but he reached the age of 33 before he was willing to give any of his works opus numbers.
In the early 1950's the Stalinist regime in Hungary proscribed B. Bartók's later works, and immediately his music became a rallying call for artists taking a stand against authoritarianism. Also banned in Hungary until the mid-1950's was the music of Arnold Schoenberg, and middle and late-period Igor Stravinsky. To escape this creative straitjacket György Kurtág moved to Paris in 1957 to study music with Olivier Messiaen, Darius Milhaud and Max Deutsch. He also had consultations with the Hungarian art psychologist Marianne Stein, and it was her advice that would prove most influential on his future development. While in Paris he wrote his first String Quartet, designating it 'opus 1' to mark a decisive break from his compositions to date. He returned to Budapest in 1958, stopping for a few days in Cologne where he first heard recordings of Stockhausen's Gruppen and Ligeti's recent electronic music. This experience would also prove important in formulating his new compositional voice.
Though the standard of living in democratic France was no doubt higher than communist Hungary, György Kurtág returned home as repetiteur of soloists with the Hungarian National Philharmonia throughout most the 1960s. In 1967 he was appointed professor at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music, Budapest, first of piano, then of chamber music. In 1971, he had his second appointment in the west. This time it was a one-year stay in West Berlin as grantee of the DAAD scholarship. His reputation began to gain more ground. He officially retired from the Academy in 1986. During his time his pupils included the renowned pianists András Schiff and Zoltán Kocsis.
After his retirement from the Liszt Academy in 1986, György Kurtág lived in Germany and Austria. In 1987, one year after leaving Hungary, he immediately became a member of the Bayerische Akademie der Schönen Künste, Munich, as well as a member of the Akademie der Künste, Berlin. His works were getting more sought after, and he was relentlessly sought after as an instructor.
Living at a comparatively brisker, international pace, in 1993 György Kurtág was awarded the Prix de Composition Musicale by the Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco, for his Grabstein für Stephan and Op. 27 No. 2 (Double Concerto); the Herder Prize by the Freiherr-vom-Stein Stiftung, Hamburg; and the Premio Feltrinelli by the Accademia dei Lincei, Rome. That same year (1993), Kurtág was invited to stay in Berlin as composer-in-residence with the Berliner Philharmoniker for two years, and his op. 33 Στηλη (Stele) was written for the orchestra.. This was followed by a residency with the Wiener Konzerthaus and, in 1998, the Kossuth Prize from the Hungarian states for his life's work.
György Kurtág is one of the more highly esteemed composers of the late 20th century. He is not well known outside of Europe, writing little and not prone to acts of self-promotion. Most composers would not have been able to establish a career in this manner.
What little he had written demonstrated itself as the work of genius, beginning with the brief Quartetto per archi opus 1 from 1959. A perfect synthesis of Webern and B. Bartók, this work has an undistracted intelligence about it, a courage that intellectuals required to survive the tyranny of the Soviets. He did seem entirely at odds with the Communists, having written some works with anti-American sentiment, but this appeared exclusively before his visit to Paris in the 1950's. The 1960's and 1970's were been fairly uneventful, and his catalog continued to grow at a startlingly slow rate. However, what works he had written made a large impression.
György Kurtág had carved his place in the Western world while still behind the Iron Curtain, emerging in the 1980's as an indisputably necessary voice. His musical language is highly individual, but it reflects several influences including J.S. Bach, B. Bartók, Alban Berg, L.v. Beethoven, and Messiaen. The crucible that forged Kurtág's music ranges from Guillaume de Machaut, whose music he transcribed for piano, through French Gothic architecture to the plays of Samuel Beckett, the novels of Dostoevsky and the writings of Goethe. He speaks Romanian, Hungarian, German, French, Russian, Ancient Greek and English, and his linguistic skills are evident in the texts he has set, which include Blok, Sappho, Hölderlin, and Kafka.
Many of György Kurtág's compositions are for chamber groups. Messages of the late Miss R.V. Troussova Op. 17 for soprano and chamber ensemble (on poems of Rimma Dalos) was premiered in Paris in 1981 and established his reputation, while the earlier chamber concerto for soprano and piano Sayings of Péter Bornemisza is also frequently performed. His quasi una fantasia… Op. 27 no. 1, first performed in 1988, was the first of several works that exploited spatial effects, an interest that dates back to his encounter with Gruppen in 1958. More recently Kurtág has written for symphonic forces, and among the champions of his larger works is Simon Rattle who programmed Grabstein für Stephan, which surrounds the audience with instruments, with Mahler's Second Symphony in a widely acclaimed Wiener Philharmoniker concert at the 1999 Salzburg Festival. This twelve minute work is an elegy for the singer, husband of Kurtág’s psychology teacher Marianne Stein.
Works (Selection)
wo op. Viola Concerto
Op. 1 String Quartet No. 1 (1959)
Op. 2 Wind Quintett
Op. 3 Eight Pieces for piano
Op. 4 Eight Duos for violin and cimbalom
Op. 5 Signs for viola
Op. 6c Splinters for cimbalom
Op. 6d Splinters for piano
Op. 7 The sayings of P. Bornemisza for soprano and piano
Op. 9 Four Capriccios for soprano and chamber ensemble
Op. 11 Four Songs to poems by János Pilinszky op. 11 for bass voice and ensemble
Op. 12 S. K. Remembrance Noise for soprano and violin
Op. 13 Hommage a András Mihály for string quartet (1977-1978)
Op. 14d Bagatelles for flute, double-bass and piano
Op. 15b The Little Predicament for piccolo, trombone and guitar
Op. 15c Grabstein für Stephan for guitat and instrumental groups (1989)
Op. 15d Hommage a Robert Schumann for Clarinet, Viola, and Piano
Op. 16 Omaggio a Luigi Nono (to poems by Anna Akhmatova and R. Dalos) for mixed voices
Op. 17 Messages of the Late R. V. Troussova for soprano and chamber ensemble
Op. 20 Attila József Fragments for soprano
O. 24 Kafka-Fragmente for soprano and violin
Op. 27/1 ... quasi una fantasia ... for piano and chamber ensemble
Op. 27/2 Double concerto for piano, violoncello and ensemble
Games (Játékok) 7 Volumes so far
Op. 28 Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky for string quartet (1988-1989)
Op. 33 Stele for orchestra (1994)
Op. 35a Hölderlin-Gesänge for baritone
Op. 36 ...pas à pas - nulle part...(poems by Beckett) for baritone, string trio, percussion
Op. 42 Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra (2005)

György Kurtág: Three Interviews and Ligeti Homages

Bálint András Varga: György Kurtág: Three Interviews and Ligeti Homages (Hardback)

University of Rochester Press, 2009 

Bálint András Varga is a former head of promotion for Universal Edition and a figure who has to his name a long engagement with contemporary music. His previous books include interviews with Xenakis and Lutoslawski – with both of whom, as with Kurtag, he has had close ties – and on the dust jacket of this new volume on Kurtag, one finds an enthusiastic thumbs-up from Boulez, Peter Eötvös and Kent Nagano.
The book is compiled of three interviews conducted over a number of years, along with a couple of texts by Kurtag in homage to his close friend Ligeti. Neat and well organised, with a catalogue of works, personalia and a comprehensive bibliography, it will mainly be of interest to Kurtág enthusiasts; but it also offers insights on contemporary music, the life of the composer and the mid-twentieth century intellectual-artistic milieu in Europe that will be of wider interest.
Kurtag is notoriously reticent; one imagines he says all he wants to say in his music. When he speaks, Varga tells us at the start of the book, Kurtag 'hardly ever talks in complete sentences… he leaves many of them unfinished or changes direction mid-course.' It follows that though a volume offering Kurtag's views on his own music will be precious, it certainly won't read like a voluble Stravinsky with Robert Craft. And though this volume isn't a rip-roarer, it doesn't make any claim to be. Rather it is a book that in a modest way does its job well – like Kurtag himself.
Its discourse is not so fragmented as you might expect. This is likely due to Varga's having allowed Kurtag and his wife Márta the opportunity to look back over the transcribed interview after the fact and to emend or add to it as they saw fit. The result is a smooth flow, and an ability to elaborate (one imagines) small anecdotes from the initial conversation into fuller accounts. But it also makes the tide of conversation a safe one in its ebb and flow, lacking perhaps that element of danger that would provide an occasional quickening instability. Given that fragmentedness is something one associates with Kurtag's music – allusiveness and an unsteady proximity to silence – it would be interesting to read the undoctored text, syntax rendered with splinters intact.
The interview format ostensibly sees Varga ask Kurtag – accompanied by his wife Marta – the same three questions on three separate occasions over intervals of a number of years (the interviews took place in 1982-85, 1996 and 2007-8). The intention is to see what changes occur over time in Kurtag's opinions and in the weight of his recollections (not a lot as it turns out). The three questions chosen are whether listening to any particular piece of music had brought about a fundamental change in Kurtag's musical thinking; to what extent the sounds of his immediate environment are of significance to his creativity; and up to what point one can speak of a personal style, and where self-repetition begins. As much as to garner straight answers the questions are designed to prompts reflection and reminiscence and to provoke unforseen memory. As it turns out Varga does not really stick to this programme, preferring to let the theme of the interview be determined by what has arisen in previous conversation.
Kurtag's mind wanders freely, visiting various events from his past in close succession and without respect for their chronology. You get the sense that the past has a distinct reality for him that isn't limited to being a time that has passed: it is instead ever present with its own haunting reality. Memories of how hearing Schubert's 'Unfinished' Symphony at an early age led to his wanting to compose music lead on to memories of dancing and playing piano duets with his mother as a child, this gradually merging into an account of his well-known mental troubles during his time in Paris in the 1950s befoe moving back again. Certain key moments in Kurtag's life seem to have for him a magnetic pull, an attraction that informs upon everything else.
The relation of this early Paris stint is particularly fascinating, the pain then experienced rendered vividly: 'In 1956, the world had literally collapsed around me – not just the external world but my inner world too.' A disturbing account is given of how his state developed: 'I made angular movements, almost like playing a pantomime. I even tried to alter my handwriting to an angular, crabbed style. The next stage of this was my starting to make angular forms from matches. A whole symbolic world evolved. I perceived myself as in a worm-like state, totally diminished in humanity. The matchstick forms and balls of dust, along with black stubs (I also smoked) represented me.' The scene appears like something created and which in turn engendered creation in the mind of its subject.
György Kurtág

In the second interview Varga focuses on drawings that Kurtag created around this time, to which Kurtag partly ascribes his breaking free from his mental malaise. Handsome prints of these paintings are reproduced, along with paintings that Kurtag made during the time of another period of creative paralysis in the early seventies, out of which Játékok was born. These abstract monochrome drawings and paintings, by turns spindly and blotchy, are compared with Kurtag’s music for the light they might reciprocally shed on each other. As Kurtag notes, all of his work may be viewed as an ongoing autobiography, albeit one not written in language.
Throughout the interviews we get insight into Kurtag's mindset as a composer. For him, as it was for Schoenberg, composition is largely something involving the unconscious: 'When I know how to do something, when I know what the form will be like, what kind of variations or systems will be in the piece – then I normally don’t write it.' This is obviously not to say that conscious craft doesn't play a role. It is clear from various other remarks made that Kurtag's technical ability and comprehension of his material stems in a large part from his study of scores – an activity he still engages in, speaking in one interview, for instance, of having closely analysed Bartok's fifth string quartet recently. We are also told that Kurtag's appreciation for Webern and Bartok did not in the first come about instinctively through hearing the music. Instead it was through studying the scores and understanding how the works were constructed that Kurtag's appreciation bloomed.
Entitled 'Key Words,' the third interview is by far the longest. Here Varga's approach is to bring to Kurtag certain words he associates with Kurtag's music, for example rite, silence, disperato, memory and so on. Predictably enough, Kurtag does not much elaborate on these leads, preferring to accede to their relevance while bringing the talk back to the more practical matters of specific compositions, their attributes and the experience he has had with performers. The result is an interview peppered with anecdotes and remarks especially relevant to prospective performers of Kurtag's music.
Looming large in this is Kurtag's wife Márta, who contributes in answering the questions. Varga describes their relationship as being one of 'complete harmony', with Márta referred to by the composer as his 'projected self.' 'Those who have experienced the concerts of György and Márta Kurtág, have been able to sense their human and artistic oneness,' a oneness whereby Márta has shared the composer's life for the past sixty years and now too most of his memories. While touching, this relationship is so close that the two can sometimes appear in their sum as one combined or cleft person.
György Ligeti
By Kurtag's request the latter part of the book is taken up with 'Mementos of a Friendship', a portmanteau of two texts written by him on his lifelong friend and compatriot György Ligeti. Both of these texts were originally given as speeches: one in 1993 when Ligeti was alive, the other in 2007 after he had died. For the former Kurtag devised a visual aid whereby his memories occupy different positions on an imaginary stage; for example 'back corner, top, left,' and 'corner, back, right, top'; a technique that for Kurtag eased the process of writing and allowed the memories to emerge by their own accord. The text is mostly made up of anecdotes, moving backwards and forwards through time to give a rounded and animated portrait of Ligeti as Kurtag knew him.
The tone is light and full of affection, admiration and respect. An account is given, for instance, of Ligeti's first arrival in Paris, late on Christmas Eve 1957 with Kurtag awaiting him at the Gare du Nord. Upon arriving, Ligeti proceeds apace on foot through the streets, shirking the metro, leading Kurtag and another friend towards the latter's apartment, the location of which he already knows through having known the outlay of the city since his obsession in youth with maps (which fed into his inventing his own imaginary land, Kylwyria). This image leads to a reflection on how this preoccupation of Ligeti's youth seems hereditarily shared by his son Lucas, and then onto how its encyclopaedic eccentricity helped inspire Kurtag to come up with the capacious form of Játékok. Myriad other scenes flash by: musical evenings in Budapest with the composers and their wives singing tunes from Mozart operas, Ligeti storming out of a production of Le Grand Macabre in Paris in the early eighties; and in the end his deathbed scene, by which time he had lost the ability to speak. - Liam Cagney The seeming disorder of Kurtag's recollections hides their thoughtful and discrete, if unorthodox ordering. These two texts on Ligeti are the only published texts to ever have been penned by Kurtag, and give insight on his general use of form and expression. As with the rest of the book there is much to pore over in them; and in Kurtag's voice – one very ably literate – scenes from the past shift about in response. Referring to Ligeti, he says that despite his death, 'For me he is more alive than ever.' This is true of the past in general for Kurtag, as is evident in the shuffling through his memories that occurs in the interviews.
Though the overall tone of the interviews is sometimes a little dry or even reverential, this is perhaps necessary because of the subject being interviewed – who would likely not yield much information from a racier or more pressing approach. Varga's book, fed with its subject's life and experiences, is probably the closest we will get to Kurtag's music by way of his voice.
By Liam Cagney
Photo: Kurtag courtesy of Editio Musica Budapest

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