April 2002

In Search of Kurtag

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 In the event, my information proved to be hopelessly out of date: Kurtág was teaching in Berlin, and I heard only two pieces by Kurtag: his 1960 wind quintet, and an aphoristic organ work commemorating Messiaen, who had died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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