Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag is 80 today. The ECM CD Jatekok , (which translates as Games) is a wonderful introduction to his challenging, but rewarding, music. On Jatekok Kurtag (right) and his wife Marta play the composer’s crystalline piano miniatures interspersed with his own fragmentary Bach transcriptions. Kurtag once said: 'I keep coming back to the realisation that one note is almost enough.' Jatekok are beautifully turned piano haikus, the writing is imbued with wit and undertones of his teacher Milhaud, yet the style is uncompromisingly modern.
György Kurtág's musical language is unique, but his homage to Bach is a reflection of the influence of the great masters. Like Schönberg, Boulez and Tippett before him Kurtág has no problems with either ‘downtown music’, with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras embracing his work, or with ‘dead guys’ like Bartók, Berg, Beethoven, and Messiaen. The crucible that forged Kurtág 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. Kurtág is a true polymath. He speaks Romanian, Hungarian, German, French Russian, Ancient Greek and English, and his linguist skills are evident in the texts he has set, which include Blok, Sappho, Hölderlin, and of course Kafka.
György Kurtág was born on 19th February 1926 at Lugos in Romania, close to the birthplace of fellow Hungarian György Ligeti. Both young composers hoped to study with Bartok in Budapest in 1945. But Bartók died in America, and Kurtág went on to study piano, composition and chamber music with other teachers at the Budapest Academy. Among his early works was a Korean Cantata which expressed solidarity with the Koreans in their war with the US, but he reached the age of thirty-three before he was willing to give any of his works opus numbers.
During the early 1950s the Stalinist regime in Hungary proscribed 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-1950s was the music of Schönberg, and middle and late-period Stravinsky. To escape this creative straitjacket Kurtág moved to Paris in 1957 to study music with Olivier Messiaen (right) and Darius Milhaud, and also with the Hungarian art psychologist Marianne Stein. It was in Paris he wrote his Op 1 String Quartet. He returned to Budapest in 1959 and was appointed Professor of piano and chamber music before retiring in 1986. His pupils included András Schiff and Zoltán Kocsis. Between 1993 and 1995 Kurtág was composer-in-residence at the Berlin Philharmonic, and his Op 33 “Stele” was written for the orchestra.
Many of Kurtág's compositions are for chamber groups. 'Messages of the late Miss R.V. Troussova' Op. 17 for soprano and chamber ensemble 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 which exploited spatial effects. More recently Kurtág has written for symphonic forces, and among the champions of his larger works is Simon Rattle (right) who programmed 'Gravestone in Memory of Stephan Stein', which surrounds the audience with instruments, with Mahler’s Second Symphony in a widely acclaimed Vienna Philharmonic concert at the 1999 Salzburg Festival. This twelve minute work is an elegy for the singer husband of Kurtag’s psychology teacher Marianne Stein.
György Kurtág’s achievement is remarkable. He is one of our foremost living composers, and his music is truly inclusive. His compositions are in the vanguard of modern music, yet he is embraced by the mainstream.
Happy 8oth birthday maestro Kurtág! Shame that your anniversary hasn't received a fraction of the attention currently being given to Dmitri Shostakovich and Osvaldo Golijov.
Now playing: György Kurtág's Musik für Streichinstrumente performed by the Keller Quartet on ECM. Both Officium breve and the Twelve Microludes are amongst the finest of post-war quartets. Also noteworthy is ECM's release this month of Kurtág's Kafka Fragments. The hour long work dates from 1986 and comprises forty tiny movements scored for soprano and violin. Julianse Banse is the soprano with violinist Andras Keller.
* The best internet resource on Kurtág is an article written in 2000 by his pupil Rachel Beckles Willson in Central European Review - follow this link for the text. As a small birthday present to György Kurtág I have uploaded an edited version of this article as his Wikipedia entry, amendments and additions can be made by anyone to this Wikipedia contribution.
* I apologise for rudely omitting the accents on György Kurtág and Játékok in the headline and first paragraph. But as I have explained elsewhere these accents play havoc with some news aggregators.
* Image credit - György Kurtág Ensemble Modern, Olivier Messiaen Ircam, and Simon Rattle BCMG. Image owners - if you do not want your picture used in this article please contact me and it will be removed. Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to György Ligeti's Private Passions