György Kurtág

György Kurtág: Every note in the right place

Late fame through polished and radically reduced music: About the composer György Kurtág.

It was a whopping surprise when Milan's La Scala announced in 2018 that György Kurtág had written his first opera! Not a few people in the contemporary music scene hardly believed this would happen any more. Work on the score dragged on for a total of eight years, and Kurtág even allowed a premiere planned for the Salzburg Festival to fall through. But finally the work was complete, and the Hungarian doyen handed over the score, nearly 400 pages long, to Markus Stenz, who was to conduct the first performance. 15 November saw the curtain rise at the legendary La Scala for Kurtág's Beckett opera »Fin de Partie«, which became a resounding success with international critics and audiences alike. In October 2023, the monumental work is also performed at the Elbphilharmonie.

Once more, Kurtág had pulled off the balance between daring, blazing expressiveness and familiar references to tradition à la Monteverdi: a stylistic blend with which he has been appealing to the wider public and contemporary music insiders alike for years, indeed decades.

György Kurtág in Focus :Season 2023/24

»Master of Miniatures« – three concerts are dedicated to the fascinating music of legendary composer.

The breakthrough of a late starter

»92 years old: a ripe old age for a newcomer to the operatic genre!«

Kurtág was already 92 when he conquered the opera stage with »Fin de Partie« – a ripe old age for a newcomer to the genre. But the composer, who was born to Hungarian parents in a little Rumanian town in 1926, was always something of late starter in the music scene. He was already 55 when he celebrated his international breakthrough in 1981 with the baptism of fire in Paris of his vocal work »Botschaften des verstorbenen Fräuleins R. V. Troussova«. And as French contemporary music icon Pierre Boulez later admitted, when reading through the score he actually assumed that Kurtág was a talented young composer: »I had never even heard his name!«

Budapest, 2015: Márta (88) and György (89) Kurtág play Bach. They were married for 72 years. Márta Kurtág died in autumn 2019.

That was to change in one fell swoop for both Boulez and Kurtág. Since his success in Paris, Kurtág's works have been played all over the world by renowned interpreters from Claudio Abbado to Pierre-Laurent Aimard. In a ranking of the most frequently-played modern compositions, Kurtág's »Hommage à Robert Schumann« for clarinet, viola and piano is very close to the top of the list. And in addition to highly-endowed leading music prizes like the Grawemeyer Award and the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, he was even awarded the Golden Lion at the Biennale di Venezia for his life's work. Hardly any other composer of his generation enjoys such a positive response, so much recognition and in particular admiration as György Kurtág.


»My mother tongue is Bartók, and Bartóks monther tongue was Beethoven.«

György Kurtág

Well removed from fashions and pigeonholes

But standing in the limelight doesn't come naturally to Kurtág. Beyond the confines of the concert hall, he is among the quieter stars of contemporary music, a master of the art of eloquent silence. He never took an interest in all the ideological trench warfare that some composers, including his old friend and former fellow student György Ligeti, conducted so vociferously starting in the 1960s.

»Kurtág never took an interest in all the ideological trench warfare«

Instead, Kurtág continues to this day to devote his time to a musical idiom that has evolved, well removed from all fashions and pigeonholes, into one of the most original styles in modern music. Working in seclusion in rural France, he places restlessly flickering vocal cycles alongside piano arrangements of gentle Bach chorales. Kurtág has written pieces for string quartet as well as for the classic Balkan instrument called the cymbal. And among the hundreds of piano miniatures he has written since 1973, publishing them under the title »Játékok« (Games), we find musical tributes to the »Devil's violinist« Paganini, to German avant-garde guru Stockhausen and even to Nancy »My Baby Shot Me Down« Sinatra!

Kim Kashkashian plays György Kurtág: »In memoriam Blum Tamás«

Thus the rich history of Western music, spanning seven centuries from the Middle Ages to the present day, presents a huge body of inspiration for Kurtág. Two 20th century composers have had a particularly strong influence on him. Firstly, there was his countryman Béla Bartók, whose music with its widespread use of Hungarian folk tradition fascinated him from an early age. Even though Kurtág did not manage to gain a place at the Budapest Conservatoire in 1945 to study under Bartók, he still sees Bartók as his artistic foster father.

The minimum number of notes, the maximum expression

Kurtág's second guiding light was to be Schönberg pupil Anton Webern. He first encountered Webern's work in the late 1950s in Paris, where he was studying with Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud. But Kurtág suddenly fell into an artistic crisis, from which the psychologist and art therapist Marianne Stein rescued him: she advised him to start from zero, as it were, and to work with radically reduced patterns of notes such as were typical of Webern's music.

The German music critic and musicologist Wolfgang Sandner once described Kurtág's style as containing a »minimum number of notes and the maximum expression«. Since his Opus 1, a string quartet he wrote in 1959, he has honed this style tirelessly, often for many years, to approach what he calls the »truth«. The outcome are masterpieces where every note sits exactly where it belongs.

»He can tell a wonderful joke with just a handful of notes«

György Kurtág with the Ensemble Musikfabrik

Sometimes, these masterpieces tell little burlesque stories in the shortest space of time, such as the piano pieces »Hampeln-Strampeln« and »Mit den Handflächen«, each only half a minute long. Then the unusual line-up of soprano and violin explores in the »Kafka Fragments« with in places just one, two, three little waltz steps the Prague writer's ambiguous world (of thought). This Kafka reading programme in music consists of some 40 miniatures.

And even if some of these little pieces again last for only a few seconds, we can apply anew to Kurtág's work what Arnold Schönberg once said about the music of Anton Webern: he could express the content of a entire novel with a single gesture, and pure bliss in a single breath. And then there is something else that Kurtág has a talent for, too: he can tell a wonderful joke with just a handful of notes.

Text: Guido Fischer, last updated: 27.4.2020

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