Monday, February 29, 2016

Microcosms: A Brief Introduction to the World of György Kurtág

György Kurtág
(Originally written as part of a series about a recital by Ensemble Epomeo with Market Square Concerts for February 28th, 2016, which also included works by Leo Weiner and somebody named Beethoven - you can read these other posts here and here - I wanted to repost it here in light of the recent celebration of Kurtág's 90th birthday.)

György Kurtág celebrated his 90th birthday a week ago, February 19th. He is recognized as one of the leading composers of the 20th Century still composing into the 21st, though, like many such composers, more “heard of” than “heard.”

To him, music is a language with its own syntax and texts. And much of his music springs from words - he has written a great deal of vocal music setting words (if not poems) by Kafka, Samuel Beckett or Anna Akhmatova among others. Even pieces without words imply their origins in words.

The string trio Ensemble Epomeo performed excerpts from “Signs, Games, and Messages” at their Market Square Concerts program (which, speaking of words, included Nicholas Hughes reading an unrelated poem written specifically for Epomeo, brief segments intruding between the musical selections) – but Kurtág has been writing piano pieces called “Games” since 1973 and “Signs, Games, and Messages” since 1984, beginning (as far as I can tell) with several for solo clarinet. They exist in various groupings, in various combinations for solo instruments and small ensembles, in various arrangements as well. They are often each given “descriptive titles” but more in the sense of “A Flower for Tabea” for solo viola written for violist Tabea Zimerman rather than describing, perhaps, the physical flower of the title; or a “Tribute to...” someone in particular whose name we may not recognize but in which the audience is not likely to imagine – thinking of Elgar's enigma – a musical portrait. They might be or might only have originated in the composer's mind as an actual portrait but they are none the less personal statements for our lack of familiarity.

The set of pieces written for string trio were written between 1989 and 2005.

The repeated use of the title brings to mind another collection of another, earlier and more famous Hungarian composer, Bela Bartók, who wrote 153 pieces collected into six volumes of Mikrokosmos. These, however, began as teaching pieces when Bartók, an acclaimed piano teacher in Budapest, began giving his youngest son, Peter, piano lessons in 1926. They move progressively in difficulty (hopefully) with the ability of the pianist to master them, small etudes (often with picturesque titles and subjects that might interest a young imagination) geared to not only develop the fingers but open the ears. (Peter talked of going into a lesson to find his father jotting down some ideas which the boy would then sight-read – imagine having your father, a famous composer, writing something especially for you, and you're playing it hot-off-the-press, not only the first person to play it but also hear it? But then, as he thought, doesn't every boy's father do that?)

Though Kurtág's “Games” also began as teaching pieces, they quickly outgrew the pedagogical element, except in the sense listening to any piece of music can teach us something – if not about the composer or the time the music was created in, perhaps about ourselves.

György and Marta Kurtág, piano-duet: London Dec. 2013
The first thing I would say to someone about to hear Kurtág for the first time is to allow yourself to enter into Kurtág's sound-world. He writes what might be called miniatures – but not the way Schumann created his “character pieces,” suites of short descriptive movements that make up works like Carnaval or “Scenes from Childhood.” They're more like “fragments,” wisps of sound and, even within their brief time-frames, a bit kaleidoscopic.

Hearing several of these pieces is to hear “collisions” of sounds rather than a progression of little dramatic moments, like Schumann's suites. It is like looking first at one drop of water through a microscope and then, from some other source, another and noticing how, while they're both “drops of water,” they are completely separate worlds.

The second thing I would say would be not to get hung up on the titles or where in the list of titles you might be (is this the third or the fourth piece on this list?). As I said, often, the titles are merely ways of identifying one piece from another (while they may have personal meaning for the composer, it's quite possible a listener could manage quite well if they were “Sign VII,” “Game XVI,” or “Message III.” That, however, I suspect might remove one layer of magic, so I wouldn't recommend it.

Some of the “Games” have a collective subtitle of Diary Entries and Personal Messages (speaking of music having its origins in texts) which might give you a better concept of music as a personal statement and of the intimacy of the music itself.

The third thing, which I say to anyone listening to any musical style that is unfamiliar, is not to worry about its unfamiliarity, not to compare it to something you do know, not to focus on things perhaps, on the surface, you may not like, whether it's the “lack of harmonic motion in tonal music,” the “lack of something I can hum,” or “the lack of comfort in a style that makes no sense to me.” It's like saying “How can this make any sense” when you're listening to somebody speak, say, Hungarian, because it's not English or some other language you're familiar with, whether you also speak fluent German or can get by with High-School French.

Kurtág, like any composer, creates his own world. This world comes into being through the consistency and integrity of its details: it is a colorful world, even for a single instrument, that creates a variety of contrasts through the same means a 19th Century composer might, but with a different “surface.” You might feel different moods – calm, agitated, hypnotic, unsettling, comforting – which are not unlike moods we could hear in Schumann's picturesque pieces or Bach's more abstract preludes and fugues (whether that was the composer's intention or not).

There may be moments of “tension” that resolve to something of a resolution – or maybe only of “less tension” or, given the philosophical implications of the world we live in, no resolution at all. You may not be able to tap your foot to Kurtág's music, but you may feel the flow of a universal pulse even if only for a moment before it is interrupted by a pause – silence is a very important part of his sound. You may not notice that this pause is only a pause where that pause is the end of this piece (or does it only mean the piece stops?).

And he enjoys the contrasts of styles and languages: many of his concerts and some recordings of his works interweave his pieces in between those of another composer – one obvious choice was his “Hommage à Robert Schumann” and works by Schumann himself. Below, I include a video of he and his wife, Marta, performing his music for one and two pianists with his transcriptions of Bach for piano duet. The effect can be mesmerizing, reminding us that music is something to experience, not just to hear.

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Looking for videos on You-Tube to include here, there are many things to choose from which may or may not work. For instance, I found Kurtág's music challenging to “get into” when I first heard them because there's always this sense that music has become so much a part of our environment (and I say this having “played” music on the radio for 18 years), we feel we can use it while we do something else. A live performance is better than listening to a recording where we might be tempted to be distracted. And very often one short piece is not likely to give you much more than one short expanse of time filled with sound. The world is so much more than that – as is Kurtág's music.

Given that, here is one of the pieces from “Signs, Games, and Messages” for string trio, performed at a Dutch summer music festival (and from an angle I'm sure not cellist-approved, speaking of distractions). But the sound and mood it creates might give you an idea what to expect:

Not all of Kurtág's music is so delicate – or even for small ensembles. One of his first works to bring his name to a wider public was the orchestra work Stele in 1994. In an interview in The Guardian in 2013, Tom Service writes how it is...

“filled with a strange luminescence: the reverberating chordal repetitions in the final movement sound like the tolling of funeral bells (or perhaps the breathing of alien life forms). The first movement is an adagio, an implacable lament that ends with a homage to Bruckner in a passage for four Wagner tubas. But the second movement has the most scintillating moment of all. In the middle of the music's desperate violence, there is a sudden image of strange stillness, a sound made by six flutes, a tuba, and a piano. Kurtág said he wanted the effect to be like "the scene in Tolstoy's War and Peace where Prince Andrei is wounded at Austerlitz for the first time: all of a sudden, he no longer hears the battle but discovers the blue sky above him. That is what the music conjures up." He continues, lamenting that, "I keep telling this story and no one responds." But they do, György! If you are open to it, the devastating poetry of Stele can sear itself on your soul.”

(Incidentally, if you have time, I recommend reading this entire article which you can find here.)

Elsewhere in this article, Service writes about this contrast of sound, the meditation that becomes the experience of such a fragment:

“Despite their brevity, these tiny pieces are not incomplete as experiences. Take, for example, the seven notes of 'Flowers We Are, Mere Flowers… (…embracing sounds)' – whose title takes almost as long to read as the piece does to hear – part of the 8th book of Jatekok [“Games”]. (You hear it from 4'10'' into the Kurtágs' performance [posted below].) Kurtág precedes the piece with a prelude of nine tolling B flats; the seven notes of 'Flowers We Are…' follow. What you hear are the notes of the C major scale turned into a meditation for four hands. There is nothing more familiar than these elements, but nothing stranger than what happens to them throughout this performance. Paradoxically, precisely because of its conciseness, the piece becomes static and timeless; and those notes, far from meaning anything like "C major" or "tonality" are unmoored from conventional function and allowed to resound and shimmer in a much larger musical space. Hearing 'Flowers We Are…' is like opening a trapdoor in your floor and dropping for a moment into the infinity of the cosmos.”

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Though his first published work was a string quartet composed in 1959 when he was 33, he began his official studies in 1946 in Budapest at the school where Bartók, Kodály and Dohnányi had taught (by this time, Bartók had left the country and died in the United States), graduating in piano and chamber music, then earning a degree in composition in 1955. While the names of those he studied with may not bring nods of recognition to many Americans – Sandor Veress, Ferenc Farkas – he did study chamber music with Leo Weiner (another composer on this program).

More unsettling history engulfed Hungary in the years of the Communist regime following World War II, and after the 1956 Revolution, 18 bloody days that began as a student demonstration resulting in 3,000 deaths, Kurtág went to Paris where he studied with Messiaen and Milhaud. But he was also suffering from depression: he later wrote, “I realized to the point of despair that nothing I had believed to constitute the world was true...” and how his therapy sessions revived him personally and creatively. When he returned to Budapest in 1958, he began his 1st String Quartet which he dedicated to his therapist.

He remained in Budapest until his retirement from teaching piano and chamber music, taking over the classes offered by Weiner until his death in 1960, though since then, aside from being a composer-in-residence with the Berlin Philharmonic and in Vienna, he has spent more time living abroad, since 2002, living outside Bordeaux, France. And he has written a great deal of music which, despite his own unwillingness to self-promote, has established him as one of the leading composers of his time.

It is impossible not to mention two people Kurtág met while he was in school after the 2nd World War. One was the fellow composer György Ligéti (again, like most Hungarian words, the accents are on the first syllable) who would become perhaps the best known Hungarian composer of the late-20th Century, best known for his extroverted works ranging from his opera, Le grande macabre and orchestral canvases (speaking of color) like Lontano, Atmospheres and the Requiem which gained audience awareness through their use in Stanley Kubrick's film, 2001: A Space Odyssey – or his wildly virtuosic piano etudes. Both Kurtág and Ligéti were born in what is now Romania that was still in the 1920s part of Hungary, but Ligéti would leave Hungary and its Communist government for Vienna in 1956, spending much of his life teaching in Hamburg, (West) Germany. He died in Vienna in 2006 at the age of 83.

The other important person he met in school became his wife, Marta, who has been his collaborator in their piano-duet team ever since and who is his first “spring-board” and critic with every new piece of music he writes. They have been married for 68 years, now, and still perform piano duets.

I would not say “don't listen to the whole thing,” but certainly listen to some of this amazing video as the Kurtágs play selections of his “Games” in and around his arrangements of works by Johann Sebastian Bach. This concert was recorded in Paris in 2012 and is one instance where I would say definitely do watch the performers!

After that, what is left to say?

Dick Strawser

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