In Search of
by Alan Williams
If composers were horses you wouldn’t bet your life
savings on Gyorgy Kurtag: a composer who wrote little but state-approved
mass songs and concertos until the age of 30 or so, then destroyed almost
everything he had produced, declaring his tiny string quartet written
at the age of 33 in 1959 to be his "opus 1". Nor would his tally
during the next decade have impressed a Hungary obsessed with national
production targets: seven works, totalling a little under 90 minutes of
music. Possibly it was this laconic output which appealed to me when I
first came across Kurtag's work as a unproductive Mus.M. composer: with
Kurtag as my model, I could live in the illusion that my own meagre scratchings
would prove in the end to be miniature masterpieces.
Whatever the other reasons, it was partly interest in Kurtag which led
me to study at the Liszt Academy for a year in 1993-4: I knew he didn’t
teach composition, claiming to find it impossible, but I hoped to hear
some of his music in the context of its creation, and perhaps to hear
some of his world renowned chamber music classes. In the event, my information
proved to be hopelessly out of date: Kurtág was teaching in Berlin,
and I heard only two pieces by Kurtag: his 1960 wind quintet, and an aphoristic
organ work commemorating Messiaen, who had died the previous year, which
was so short half the audience didn’t even notice it had been played.
But, in retrospect, a year spent absorbing the great works of the 19th
century repertoire was probably the best training I could have had in
understanding Kurtag's compositional approach. A single phrase of a Beethoven
string quartet is so saturated with meaning for Kurtag that he often rehearses
even the most accomplished musicians to the point of distraction - as
I witnessed last June at a festival in Hungary with the Keller Quartet.
In April and May, a series of concerts at the South Bank and at the Royal
Academy of Music will celebrate the work of this extraordinary musical
figure. Works ranging from the tiny aphorisms of his early pieces, through
music theatre to the ghostly sonorities of his later orchestral pieces
are performed by leading contemporary music ensembles from this country
and abroad, and it’s a mark of how much interest has grown in Kurtag's
music recently that this is the second major retrospective festival in
this country in the past five years, not counting features at recent Edinburgh
International and Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festivals.
What is it that appeals to me and other devotees of his music? It is extraordinarily
elusive music: attempts to describe in simple terms Kurtag's style founder
at the first attempt, because it is a music where the basic elements of
the European tradition - perfect fifths, triads, simple chromatic and
diatonic scales – can occupy the same space as the most demanding
harmony imaginable. Everything in Kurtag's music has a quality of meaningfulness,
but its meanings are plural, fragmentary and ephemeral.
The elusiveness of Kurtag's musical identity is aptly illustrated by the
opening concert in the South Bank Festival: György and Márta
Kurtag perform a selection of Kurtag's "Plays and Games" (Játékok)
interspersed with his transcriptions from the works of Machaut, Purcell,
Bach and Scarlatti. Here the composer’s personality retreats almost
entirely behind the work of other people, or behind naïve childlike
"play" with the simplest elements of music. Yet heard over the
course of an evening, their selection acquires the power of an extended
musical form. It is indisputably Kurtag, yet made of elements either by
other people, or so basic as to deny any authorship.
It’s questions like this that led a group of academics interested
in Kurtag to produce the most recent edition of Contemporary Music Review
devoted to his music, timed to coincide with the South Bank festival (volume
20 parts 2 and 3: Perspectives on Kurtag). In it you’ll find articles
dealing with his music, from the earliest "pre-string quartet"
works to the latest large-scale orchestral pieces, with its cultural and
intellectual context, and with his compositional method. It’s available
through Harwood Academic Press via their web-site at www.gbhap.com
I’m not sure that Kurtag's music in itself is a good model for young
composers: I found after a while I had to consciously extend my forms,
consciously increase the scale of my ideas, so that they didn’t simply
become insipid shadows of Kurtag's already shadowy ideas. I also began
to allow "into" my own composition musics reflecting my own
subjective musical environment: jazz, the brass band tradition, folk and
pop music. But that is one of the multiple messages we can draw from Kurtag's
work – that our identities are not of our own creation, and that
it is when we allow ourselves to be most honest about the disparate origins
of our identities that we can be most ourselves.
And in the end, I did get to meet Kurtag, in a typically surprising way:
after a concert at last year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival,
walking into a Pakistani restaurant, there was Kurtag, sitting by himself
with a glass of mango lassi and a piece of naan bread. Afterwards I began
to consider the "meanings" of the encounter – a Hungarian
composer born in Romania, sitting in a restaurant owned by people from
South East Asia in a post-industrial Northern mill town, eating only the
simplest things available on the menu. But perhaps he just doesn’t
like spicy food.
(I had a biryani).
Alan E.Williams will deliver a lecture on the Music of Gyorgy Kurtag
at the Royal Academy of Music on May 9th at 6.15pm.
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