Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 12
27 March 2000

György Kurtág
  György Kurtág
C O N T E M P O R A R Y  M U S I C:
Kurtág in Edinburgh

Rachel Beckles Willson

The Edinburgh International Festival has frequently included works by Kurtág on its programmes and this year their focus on his work represented the culmination of that ongoing support for his work. Of special interest this year was Samuel Beckett: ...pas à pas - nulle part op 36 (1993-1997...), co-commissioned by the Edinburgh International Festival and the Festival d'Automne à Paris, which received its British premičre on 28 August. It was preceded on the programme by Hölderlin-Gesänge op 35 (1993-1997...) and Signs, Games and Messages for strings (1989-97...).

For Kurtág, like the artist Giacometti, for whom a work became alien when it was "finished," a piece should always lie open to new thought, to adjustment and expansion. All three works on the programme are a response to this. They represent a new genre in the composer's oeuvre: Works in Progress. Kurtág may reorder their movements, add new movements, or even add a theatrical dimension at some stage. His approach recalls Beckett's comment that "To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now."

Kurtág's works contain a labyrinth of connecting threads and the formal boundaries of these three Works in Progress are particularly fluid. There are common poetic references as well as musical ones: Beckett's poem "...pas à pas - nulle part" ("step by step - nowhere") evokes John Cage's statement during a lecture that "more and more I have the feeling we are going nowhere," and there is a "Hommage à John Cage" in Signs, Games and Messages. Hölderlin's vision of the beauty of nature painted by the divine, rudely juxtaposed with the narrow, barely visible path of the mortal artist in his poem "The Walk," provided one stimulus for Beckett's painful reflection of light and dark in "Dieppe."

The torn, fragmentary work of these poets is at once empathetic to Kurtág, and also leads him to explore un-trodden formal paths in music. He is in search of forms that allow a plethora of antithetical inner musical messages to speak without restraint. The quest is not without danger: hardly by chance, he juxtaposes settings of the following two fragments from verses by Hölderlin in Hölderlin-Gesänge:

And always there is a yearning that seeks the unbound...

...Yet in the face of fate, imprudent it is to wish...

Hölderlin-Gesänge, opus 35

Hölderlin-Gesänge presently consists of thirteen songs for baritone: twelve settings of Friederich Hölderlin (1770-1843) and one of Paul Celan (1920-1970). The solo voice is an important medium for Kurtág; his interest in the simple relationship between word and music in both plainchant and folksong has led to solo movements in otherwise accompanied cycles and also to Attila József Fragments op 20 for unaccompanied soprano.

The first song heard, "An..." ("For..."), is dedicated to D E Sattler, who edited the many volumes of the Frankfurt critical edition of Hölderlin, a magnificent collection which includes sketches, fragments and facsimiles as well as complete poems and novels. It was Kurtág's source for his own work. Kurtág's setting of the fragment "An..." opens with the vowel "u," all alone. It is the first of many echoing phrases and hummed sections throughout the cycle, which provide a wordless counterpoint to his solo line of text. The echo disappears in the centre of "An..." at the point of most direct, personal, expression, "I want to sing of you, but only tears...."

Both "An Zimmern" ("For Zimmer") and "Der Spaziergang" ("The Walk") are concerned with paths through life, a frequent theme of Kurtág. Complex, divergent "lines of life" in the former are resolved "elsewhere" by "a God" in the poem: Kurtág's contorted and chromatic lines of humming and singing resolve gradually into a final C major scale. "Der Spaziergang" follows the path of a walk through "wayside woods" and "graceful valleys" initially with narrow semitone and tone steps, later with wide dramatic leaps in "scorching flashes and rolling of thunder." When at the end the poet relishes the consolation for the pain of artistic strife that "the primal image" of nature provides, Kurtág rises again to the top F used in "flashes," now as a peaceful resolution.

The solitude of the singer is broken in "Gestalt und Geist," a poem which reflects on the tension between the external and internal aspects of life. Thus accompanying instruments enrich (or disturb?) our narrator's flow. There are five alternative accompaniments in the score: one for chamber orchestra, one for trombone, tuba and 'cello, one for clarinet, trombone, tuba and double bass and two for trombone and tuba, the later version of which we heard in Edinburgh.

The final song set Celan's "Tübingen, Jäner," which the poet wrote after visiting Tübingen (where Hölderlin's spent the last 37 years of his life) in January ("Jäner") 1961. Celan quotes Hölderlin's poem "Der Rhein," but also alludes to the poet's derangement: the final word, "Pallaksch," was Hölderlin's frequent nonsense answer to questions. Sometimes "Pallaksch" meant "yes," sometimes "no." Here, just as when Celan disrupts syntax or plays words games (Mandelstam appears as Mandelbaum, Bandelmaum, Mandeltraum and Trandelmaum in his works, for example), the result is humorous, and Kurtág's extra, exaggerated repetitions are amusing.

The tacit anguish beneath the comedy, however, links Hölderlin with Celan and with Kurtág too. Hölderlin had a nomadic existence, cared for in his insanity by the carpenter Zimmer (hence the title of "An Zimmern") and his work speaks of the tragedy of the human condition, a subject explored by Kurtág in almost every one of his vocal works. Celan's writing sets out to reinvent the German language, which was his mother tongue but, as a Jew, also that of his persecutors. In Nazi rhetoric "no" sometimes did means "yes," and vice versa. Celan's brilliant, but baffled (and often baffling) reflections explore the "unsayable" and the need to speak beyond words: so Kurtág's exploration of silence, of wordless singing and his resistance to established formal constructs.

Signs, Games and Messages

Signs, Games, Messages - each word of the title of this work has already appeared as a title to another of Kurtág's compositions: Signs for viola op 5, Games for piano and Messages of the Late R V Troussova op 17 for soprano and ensemble offer but a sample. Likewise, many of the movements of Signs, Games and Messages appear in different contexts in other works. Kurtág takes pleasure in the reordering of pieces, "composing a programme" of movements from works into a group and thus drawing out associations between them that otherwise pass unobserved. The assembly of seventeen pieces includes pieces for violin, viola and 'cello solo, as well as pieces for the trio combination.

"Hommage à J S B" was first written for flute, piano and double bass in Bagatelles op 14d and also exists in a version for two pianos. Kurtág's hommages may be private messages to their dedicatee, but frequently display an analysis by Kurtág of a composer's style. This one is constructed essentially from one single Bach-like melodic line which, as with many of Bach's melodies, has two active registral "layers": two melodies coexist within one line. Kurtág emphasises this double nature of the line by using the accompanying instruments to highlight the lower register. The effect is offset by an unexpectedly limping rhythmic pattern.

Other movements are linked with a particular instrumental quality: "Plaintive song" produces a wailing especially appropriate to the violin, "The carenza jig" delights in studying double stops. "A Flower for Dénes Zsigmondy" is to be played with the unique timbre achieved by strings with "Hotel-Sordino," ie with a mute used for practice. "In the style of a folk song" includes allusions to folk fiddle in its simplicity and near adherence to the limits of open strings. The "Ligatura" pieces also draw on a specific genre for inspiration. There are two in Signs, Games and Messages (and also in ...pas à pas): they recall Medieval rhythmic simplicity and chant-like stepwise motion in Kurtág's own chromatic language.

One can hardly call this work a "string trio": it is more like a conversation between three players, a conversation which sometimes attains synthesis, as in "Ligatura Y," and is sometimes disfunctional or obstruse, as in Hommage à John Cage (faltering words). The movements are short: they were often composed in one sweep on a single afternoon, in response to news, a mood or a thought. In their resultant abundance they have been compared to diary entries. The opening "The carenza jig" can hardly be called a diary entry, however: it was adjusted on four different occasions between 1989 and 1995, in locations ranging from a cove in Cornwall to Berlin. In the end the work defies description other than its chosen title. It is: Signs, Games and Messages.

Samuel Beckett: ... pas à pas - nulle part, opus 36

Kurtág's first setting of Beckett, Samuel Beckett: What is the Word? op 30 set a piece of the writer's prose. ...pas à pas - nulle part is a set of twenty-two of his poems and nine of his English translations of Sebastien Chamfort (1741-1794) for baritone. They are interspersed with Intermezzi for the accompanying string trio and an array of percussion which includes an African rattle, Temple chimes, a water gong and even a saw.

The tapping of wood blocks and drums leads us into a carnival of sheer absurdities: "Introdutione" combines the percussion's apparent clicking of heels with sliding lines of descent in the strings. As our narrator explains in the first poem, we are going "step by step - nowhere" ("pas à pas - nulle part") but we are doing it obstinately ("obstiné"), a quality which is emphasised by the three strokes to the edge of the drum which the percussionist insists on delivering - after the song is finished.

The discussion of movement, whether galloping, moving step by step or merely turning, pervades the cycle. "elles viennent," song X, however, makes clear that the movement is not that of the narrator, but that of the world around him. "they come/ different and the same/ with each it is different and the same": the narrator is powerless and static. His lovers bring the outside world to him, but with successive encounters, he is increasingly aware of their uniformity: "with each the absence of love is the same." Kurtág adds an echo of the word "love," whispered by the percussionist at the end here. Physical presence is evident but the parody belies emotional or spiritual engagement.

"Dieppe," song XVIII, is similarly occupied with movement, and a decision to turn away from the solitude of "dead shingle" to the community and "lights" of the town. Kurtág extends the steps taken ("les pas, les pas, les pas") and echoes them on the marimba. The ensuing song XX, "de pied ferme," however, scorns the steps (and such a positive decision): here feet are firm, as we hear from the march-like strings and percussion, but they are stepping without aim ("sans but, sans but, sans but" - the repetitions, rendering the whole act of walking ludicrous, are once again Kurtág's own.)

Is there any point in aiming or hoping anything anyway? That is the question posed here. As Chamfort's "an indian proverb" in song XXIV declares, it is better to be dead than on your back, on your arse or on your feet. Furthermore, in song XXVI, "lasciate ogni speranza," there's no happiness to be found in this thing called "life" between the cry of birth and the sigh of death - until we abandon hope. Kurtág's commentary on this nihilism, however, is now not so clown-like. The major third between G sharp and E, with which he provides the marimba as our narrator describes entry to heaven, is far from willing to relinquish hope. It is a recurring pair of notes first heard in The sayings of Péter Bornemisza at the appearance of Kurtág's eternal symbol for death - but for rebirth too - "Man is but a flower."

Rachel Beckles Willson , 27 March 2000

Read Rachel Beckle Willson's overview of Kurtág's music The Mind is a Free Creature as well.

Kurtág on CD

You can order Kurtág CD's from the States via Amazon.com or from the UK via Amazon.co.uk. Note that the two companies don't necessarily have the same stock of CDs, so some titles are only available from one country.

Grabstein Fur Stepha


Hommage to Robert Schumann

pieces by Kurtág and the great German Romantic (.com)
Hommage to Robert Schumann

Hungarian Contemporary Organ Music -

6 pieces by 6 composers, including one from Kurtág (.com)

Hungarian Music for Wind Quintet

5 pieces by modern composers (.com)


Kurtág and his wife play the composer's "games" for piano(.com)

Kafka Fragments


Music for Strings

Music for Strings

Portraitkonzert 1961-1992

double CD (.com)
Portraitkonzert 1961-1992

Song Cycles


Works for Soprano

Boulez conducts his famous Ensemble InterContemporain (.com)



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