What marks György Kurtág's oeuvre is the refusal to abide by the injunction which concludes Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Spellbinding, expressive, mysterious, and deeply engaging, Kurtág's music is a constant effort to describe the indescribable, to explore the human microcosm, to shed light on the human experience. Like Austrian composer and conductor Anton Webern, Kurtág is a master of conciseness: in his Kafka-Fragments for soprano voice and violin, inner worlds are condensed into brief, often disturbing utterances, which suddenly fade away into a soothing aura created by the violin. While Kurtág's works address humankind's predicament of living in a fragmented world, his compositions nevertheless embody the integrative energies which constitute the essential power of music.
Kurtág's music betrays a systematic interest in signs, symbols, and messages. The mystery of human existence may surpass any structured discourse, including music, but composers like Kurtág nevertheless succeed in capturing and expressing the feeling of awe that this mystery inspires. "One delves," Jankélévitch wrote in his book Music and the Ineffable, "without end into such transparent depths and into this heartening plenitude of meanings: if this plenitude is infinitely intelligible, it is also infinitely equivocal. The inexpressible-ineffable, being explicable into infinity, is the bearer of an ambiguous 'message,' in this resembling Henrie Bremond's 'je-ne-sais-quoi'. From a negative that is unsayable to a positive that is ineffable is a distance as vast as that between blind shadow and transparent night, or between silence that is mute, throttled, and silence that is tacit, for music takes root in the distant rumor of pianissimo, the border of silence."
Born in Romania to to a Hungarian family, Kurtág moved to Hungary in 1946, settling in Budapest, where he studied at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. Like many of his colleagues, he was profoundly influenced by the music of Béla Bartók (1881-1945). In fact, Kurtág's Viola Concerto, his first important composition, is an homage to Bartók. An extraordinaty pianist, Kurtág also became an acclaimed performer of Bartók's piano music.
The 1950s were a particularly difficult decade for Hungarian musicians, who, due to travel restrictions, remained isolated from musical developments in Western Europe. Even Bartól's music, despite his immense status, was censored by the Communist authorities, who feared free artistic expression. Forced to compose "politically correct" music, composers, including Kurtág, felt stifled and frustrated. Fortunately, Kurtág was able to travel to Paris in 1957. Kurtág's year-long stay in Paris was marked by two crucial experiences. The first was his work with psychologist Marianne Stein, who instructed him to approach composition as a process, initiated by the simplest gesture, which only gradually leads to higher levels of complexity. The second was his careful study of Webern's music.
A notable work from this period is the String Quartet Op. 1, which combined Webern's sparseness of utterance with Bartó's rhythmic energy. This highly original work identified Kurtág as a prominent Hungarian composer. Unlike his colleague György Ligeti, and many other Hungarian artists, Kurtág stayed in Hungary after the brutally suppressed 1956 uprising against the Communist government. During the 1950s and 1960s, he gained recognition as a pianist, chamber music teacher, and vocal coach. To a superficial observer, these activities were obstacles to his development as a composer. But for Kurtág, playing the piano was organically connected to the act of composing.
Composing music was never been easy for Kurtág. When, in 1973, Kurtág was asked to write some piano pieces for a children's album, he found the well-defined task a true blessing. Inspired by the challenge, Kurtág called these compositions Games, in effect encouraging the player to approach performance as a free, creative, essentially enjoyable activity, distinct from the traditional concept of performance as hard work. In fact, the game approach eventually became a compositional paradigm for Kurtág, enabling him to introduce a remarkable spirit of spontaneity into several genres, including songs and chamber works. In fact, Games became a work in progress, with new series appearing. The best-known performers of Games are the composer and his wife, playing four-hands. Kurtág also found inspiration in the New Music Studio, founded in 1970, an innovative group whose activities included performances of new music, workshops, collaborative projects, and experiments in composition.
While applying the creative impulse of games to his compositions for voice, Kurtág became fascinated by the power of language, especially Russian, a language that he, like many other young Hungarians, had resisted in school. Now, however, languages became a key to great poetry, which Kurtág set to music in several works, such as Songs of Despair and Sorrow, which include settings of poems by Anna Akhmatova, Aleksandr Blok, and Marina Tsvetayeva.
In the 1980s, the essentially humanistic nature of Kurtág's music became evident, and his humanism was especially evident in his work as teacher, when he fostered the performing careers of several noted musicians, including the distinguished pianists Zoltán Koscis and András Schiff.
Kurtág left Hungary in 1993, after the fall of Communism, having retained his artistic integrity throughout the oppressive period of Communist rule. In addition, he attained international recognition as a Hungarian composer working in Hungary. Settling in Berlin, he became associated with a variety of musical institutions, including the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, the Wiener Konzerthaus, and the Ensemble InterContemporain. However, while his association with large orchestras led to several orchestral projects, composition for soloists and small groups remained his forte.
For the Record …
Born on February 19, 1926, in Lugoj, Romania; married Márta Kinsker (a pianist), 1947; children: Gyögy Kurtág (born 1954). Education: Studied piano with Pál Kadosa, chamber music with Leo Weiner, and composition with Sándor Veress and Ferenc Farkas; Franz Liszt Academy of Music, degree in piano and chamber music, 1951, degree in composition, 1955; studied in Paris with Olivier Messiaen, Darius Milhaud, and Max Deutsch, 1957-58; studied in West Berlin, 1971.
Bartók School of Music, repetiteur, 1958-63; National Philharmonia (Hungarian concert agency), repetiteur, 1960-68; Franz Liszt Academy of Music, professor of piano, 1967-69, professor of chamber music, 1969-86; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, composer-in-residence, 1993-95.
Awards: Erkel Prize, 1954, 1956, 1969; Herder Prize, 1993; Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, 1998.
Addresses: Record company—ECM Records, Postfach 600 331 Munich, Germany, website: http://www.ecmrecords.com.
In composing Samuel Beckett: What is the Word?, Kurtág has offered a musical response to the fundamental question of meaning posed by Samuel Beckett in the poem "What is the Word?," his last work. Written for voice, with various instrumental combination as accompaniment, this composition in many ways symbolizes Kurtág's constant effort, as a composer, to overcome the initial, and sometime hopeless, silence that precedes the act of creation. The word, as Beckett described it in his poem, remains the "need to seem to glimpse," and Kurtág's composition, indeed his entire oeuvre, has acknowledged the fundamental fragility of human experiences and utterances. According to Rachel Beckles Wilson in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Kurtág, particularly in his late works, has reduced his own musical language "to its barest gestural, speech-like core," in a constant effort to grasp the immense complexity and astonishing simplicity of existence.
Viola Concerto, 1953-54.
String Quartet, Op. 1, 1959.
Jelek ["Signs"], Op. 5 (viola), 1961, rev. 1992.
Jelek, Op. 5b (cello), 1961-99.
Bornemisza Péter mondásai ["The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza"], Op. 7 (soprano voice and piano), 1963-68, rev. 1976.
Elo-Játékok ["Pre-Games"] (piano), 1973-74.
Játéekok, series I (piano), 1975-79.
Poslanya pokoynoy R. V. Trusovoy ["Messages of the Late R. V. Troussova"], Op. 17 (soprano voice and chamber ensemble), 1976-80.
Hommage à Mihály András, Op. 13 (string quartet), 1977.
Stseny iz romana ["Scenes from a Novel"], Op. 19 (violin double bass, cimbalom), 1979-82.
Játékok, series II (piano), 1979-98. series
Józseph Attila-öredékék ["Attila József Fragments"], Op. 20 (soprano voice), 1981.
Kafka-Fragmente, Op. 24 (soprano voice), 1985-87.
… quasi una fantasia…, Op. 27/1 (piano, cello, and 2 chamber ensembles), 1987-88.
Ligatura: Message to Frances-Marie (The Answered Unanswered Question), Op. 31b, (cello [2 bows]/2 cellos, 2 violins, and celesta), 1989.
Double Concerto (piano, cello, and 2 chamber ensembles), 1989-90.
Jelek, játékok és ü:zenetek ["Signs, Games, and Messages"] (violin, viola, cello, and double bass, in various combinations), 1989-.
Siklós István tolmácsoláásában Beckett Sámuel üzeni-Monyól Ildikóval: mi is a szó? ["Samuel Becket Sends Word through Ildikó Monyók in the Translation of István Siklós: What is the Word?"], Op. 30a (soprano voice and piano), 1990.
Üzenetek ["Messages"], Op. 34 (orchestra), 1991-96.
Hölderlin Gesänge, Op. 35a (baritone voice, trombone, tuba), 1993-97.
… pas à pas - nulle part…, Op.36 (baritone voice, string trio, and percussion), 1993-97.
Úl üzenetek ["New Messages"], Op. 34a (orchestra), 1998-.
Songs & Chamber Works, Hungaroton, 1994.
Musik für Streichinstrumente, ECM Records, 2000.
Signs, Games and Messages, ICM Records, 2003.
Jankélévitch, Vladimir, Music and the Ineffable, Princeton University Press, 2003.
Sadie, Stanley, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillan, 2001.
Whittall, Arnold, Musical Composition in the Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press, 1999.
American Record Guide, March-April 1997; March-April 1998.
"Kurtág, György." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/kurtag-gyorgy
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