György Kurtág was born on 19 February 1926 at Lugos (Lugoj in Romanian) in the Bánát region of Romania. He has been a Hungarian citizen since 1948; since 2002 he holds Hungarian-French dual citizenship. Kurtág started playing the piano at the age of 5 with Klára Vojkicza-Peia. Music-making with his mother was in subsequent years an important source of inspiration: they played arrangements for piano duet of symphonies by Haydn and Beethoven as well as overtures by Mozart.
The first genuine pedagogue in his life was the piano teacher Magda Kardos at Temesvár/Timişoara who exerted a life-long influence on Kurtág, even in the field of composition. His first teacher of composition (harmony and counterpoint) was Max Eisikovits, also at Temesvár/Timişoara.In September 1945, Kurtág sat for an entrance examination at the Budapest Academy of Music - it was on that occasion that he made the acquaintance of György Ligeti who was to remain his friend until the latter's death in 2006.Kurtág began his studies at the Budapest Academy of Music in 1946. His professors included Pál Kadosa (piano), Leó Weiner (chamber music), Sándor Veress and subsequently Ferenc Farkas (composition); he also received important impulses from Pál Járdányi. Kurtág obtained his degree in piano and chamber music in 1951, and in composition in 1955.
In 1947, Kurtág married Márta Kinsker who was until her death in 2019 of decisive significance in every field of life: as wife, as the mother of their son, György Kurtág Jr (born in 1954), as pianist and also as the first listener and critic of his compositions in gestation.
In 1957/1958, Kurtág attended the courses of Messiaen and Milhaud in Paris. It was, however, Marianne Stein who made the greatest impact. Not only did she help him find the way out of the crisis that had paralysed his work as a composer for several years - she also opened a new chapter in his career ("Marianne halved my life"); she showed him a new direction. Hence the dedication of String Quartet Op. 1 and of the Kafka Fragments, Op. 24 to Marianne Stein. During the course of the months in Paris, Kurtág attended concerts of the Domaine musical under the baton of its founder, Pierre Boulez and heard several of Boulez' compositions - an experience which was to prove of significance for his thinking. The time in Paris as well as the few days in Cologne on his way back to Budapest when he met Ligeti again and heard his electronic composition Artikulation; also the acquaintance with Stockhausen and listening to his Gruppen for three orchestras were further decisive influences which played an important role when he was working on the String Quartet Op. 1.
Between 1960 and 1968, Kurtág acted as répétiteur for soloists of the National Concert Bureau; in 1967, he was invited to teach at the Academy of Music. Initially, he was assistant to Pál Kadosa in piano, later on he taught chamber music. He retired in 1986 but continued to give classes regularly until 1993. Since then, right up to the present day, he holds courses in chamber music in many European countries as well as in the United States. He and his wife also appear in recitals where they play from the piano series Játékok [Games] alternating with Kurtág's Bach transcriptions.
In 1971, Kurtág spent a year in West Berlin on a DAAD scholarship. He was awarded the Kossuth Prize in 1973 (in 1996, he was decorated with the prize a second time). In 1981, the Ensemble Intercontemporain played the world premiere in Paris of Messages of the Late Miss R.V.Troussova, Op. 17 for soprano and chamber ensemble (soloist: Adrienne Csengery, conductor: Sylvain Cambreling). It was that event which marked Kurtág's international breakthrough. In 1993, at the invitation of the Wissenschaftskolleg, he moved to Berlin for two years as composer-in-residence of the Berlin Philharmonic. In 1995/1996 he was a guest of the Konzerthaus in Vienna in the same capacity. There followed Amsterdam (1996-1998), Berlin again (1998-1999) and Paris (1999-2001). Between 2001 and 2015, Kurtág and his wife lived at St André de Cubzac near Bordeaux, then they returned to Hungary.
György Kurtág has been decorated with many awards and prizes. They include the Prize of the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation in 1998 and the Grawemeyer Award - one of the world's most prestigious music prizes - for ...concertante..., Op. 42 in 2006.
Kurtág's opera, Fin de partie, on the eponymous play by Samuel Beckett, was premiered in 2018 in La Scala, Milan, and in subsequent years was performed in Amsterdam, Valencia, and Paris.
For the composer of Flowers we are... - for his 90th birthday
Flowers we are… – Seven notes, which not only cover the piano's entire range but practically György Kurtág's entire life’s work. Already it is there, concealed in the Op. 1 quartet, confessionally in The Sayings of Peter Bornemissza, in the Games piano pieces, in numerous solo, chamber and orchestral works. As in all great music and every significant artistic creation, it is about man's beauty, fragility, fallibility and fears. And as is: Kurtág's art.
The whole musical world celebrates Kurtág on February 19. Our birthday present is two new publications: one is the piano piece composed in 2013, entitled …couple egyptienne en route vers l’inconnu… (…an Egyptian couple on the way to the unknown…) which was inspired by a more than 4000-year-old Egyptian statue. The other is the reproduction of the music notebook, into which, over 32 years, György Kurtág copied a succession of newly ready movements of the series of Games for Zoltán Kocsis. This notebook – Kocsis Zoli's manuscript book – is a constant participant even now in those concerts where Kocsis plays Kurtág's works.
Kurtág has a seventy-year composing career behind him: orchestral and chamber works, concertos, choruses, vocal and instrumental works. Over the past decades this enormous body of works has become classically elevated: he is one of the few of his contemporaries whose works are played not only in the isolated setting of contemporary music concerts and festivals, but which also form part of the traditional concert repertoire. Editio Musica Budapest (with the exception of a few compositions which appeared in the Viennese Universal Edition) has been his principal publisher for more than five decades. This means a continuing working relationship even today, since without the composer's collaboration not only would the scores' publication be impossible, but so too would satisfying the hunger for information about Kurtág's works in international concert life. All of us working on the publication of his new scores and attending to the old ones ask for his help almost daily, and he too finds us immediately if he has any request. This joint labour is always an exciting challenge and a constant learning process, both in a professional and personal sense. Because alongside Kurtág, even with an adult mind, you cannot but learn, and not only about his music but generally about everything that is important in music and art.
Kurtág, even now at 90, is young: his emotional and intellectual energy daily belie the number of years he has lived. In the last few years he has written numerous piano and chamber works, and in the summer of last year he celebrated his one-year-older, by then seriously ill colleague, Pierre Boulez, with a new orchestral work. Apart from all this, since 2010 he has been working on his life's greatest artistic undertaking and, in the interest of his Beckett opera’s completion, he daily shames even the young with proof of his strength of spirit.
We wish him continuing activity and energy, affectionately
the Editio Musica Budapest team