György Kurtág

Born 1926

György Kurtág

Composer • Piano


Hungarian composer György Kurtág has a strong international reputation, especially in Europe. He has composed a large number of chamber pieces, a few larger orchestral pieces, as well as works for solo instruments and for voice.

Kurtág was born in Lugoj, Romania on 19 February 1926. The town was historically called Lugos and was part of Hungary until ceded to Romania as part of the Treaty of Versailles. His musical training began in earnest in 1940, studying piano with Magda Kardos and compostion with Max Eisikovits in Timisoara.

In 1946, Kurtág moved to Budapest to study at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music. He had hoped to study with Béla Bartók, but the composer had passed away in America in 1945. At the academy he studied with Sándor Veress and Ferenc Farkas. He received Hungarian citizenship in 1948. Kurtág thrived as a student. In 1954 and again in 1956 he won the Erkl prize. He wrote theKorean Cantata in support of North Korea during the Korean War.

Kurtág received his degree in composition in 1955 and in 1957 he moved to Paris to study. The impetus was a clampdown on the arts under Stalin’s communist regime. The music ofBartók, Schönberg, and much of Stravinsky was banned. In France Kurtág studied withOlivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud. He also worked with Hungarian psychologist Marianne Stein, who specialized in working with artists. This would be a major relationship for the young composer, and the therapist helped him through depression. He would call it a turning point, dividing his life into before and after he met her.

After his time in Paris, Kurtág returned to Hungary by way of Cologne. There he metGyörgy Ligeti, who had escaped to there in 1956. Ligeti exposed Kurtág to new music including Stockhausen and his ownArtikulation. On his return to Budapest, Kurtág composed a string quartet, dedicated to Stein, which would be his first official composition. He worked for most of the 1960s as a repetiteur for the Hungarian National Philharmonia and in 1967 he began teaching at the Liszt Academy of Music. He would hold positions in the academy until his retirement in 1986. He would interrupt his time there with one more year across the Iron Curtain to study in West Berlin.

After retiring from the Liszt Academy, Kurtág travelled much more extensively. He spent time living in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and currently lives Bordeaux, France with his wife of over forty years, Marta. He has been a composer in residence for the Berlin Philharmonic and had a residency with the Wiener Konzerthaus.

György Kurtág has established an international reputation with a relatively small body of work His compositions with assigned opus numbers reach only forty-seven. They include a large amount of chamber pieces and a few larger orchestral works. He has also produced a number of works for solo instruments and for voice.

Kurtág’s Signs, Games, and Messages for solo viola is a work in progress, begun in 1989. It is in over twenty sections. Each section though is very short, the movements being compared to diary entries. Kurtág writes the piece looking for an immediate emotional connection before moving on. He has also scored the piece for violin, cello, and double bass, as well as the original viola. There is one movement, “Samuel Becket: le nain” that includes solo baritone.

After a string quartet was completed in 1978, it would take the composer over a decade until the next was finished.Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervßnszkywas completed in 1989. Over the course of 15 very short movements, Kurtág creates an atmospheric work of art. He has taken themes fromWebern and developed them farther than the Austrian composer had done himself. The movements are brief, but create raw emotion that says what is needed quickly. The piece is in the line of central European composers and fits clearly into the progression of the history of the string quartet.

Another work made up of mostly brief movements, Hommage a Robert Schumann was completed in 1990, though sketches of the piece date back to the 1970s. It is a trio scored for piano, viola, and clarinet. The work contains references to music from different centuries and by the composer and other composers. The piece is inspired by characters created by E. T. A. Hoffmann and others by Robert Schumann. It is presented in six movements. The first five are relatively short. The final sixth movement is longer and funereal, titled “Farewell, (Master Raro discovers Guillaume de Machaut)”.

Stele was completed in 1994 while Kurtág was composer-in-residence with the Berlin Philharmonic. It is a rare composition by Kurtág in that it uses a traditional orchestra, albeit with the addition of Wagner tubas and extra percussion. The piece was written to commemorate the passing of a friend and fellow Hungarian composer András Mihály, who had died in 1993. The piece is reserved though, not outwardly emotional, perhaps owing to Kurtág’s upbringing under communist rule.

György Kurtág has a strong, international reputation, especially in Europe. He has been honoured with special programs at festivals like the Holland Festival and Musikfest Berlin. He has received numerous awards including the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize from the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts, the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, and the Royal Philharmonic Society gold medal. He still has an active musical presence, including performing his works with his wife in London as recently as 2013. He can count among his current champions conductors Simon Rattle, Christoph von Dohnányi and Peter Eötvös.

Header image courtesy of Daily News Hungary Other images courtesy of Danubius Magazin and Ádám Bösze