“Every note he writes is essential. There is never an idea of small talk. There is never an idea of wanting to please somebody or an audience. For him, there is only the truth, the essential, that you never can lie when you make music.” – That’s how Heinz Holliger recently summed up the life and work of his friend and fellow musician György Kurtág who soon turns 95. Holliger’s short, considered statements echo Kurtág’s notoriously aphoristic musical style.
“You never come too late” – said Kurtág once, referring to his slow, meticulous working method. He dates his mature composer career from 1958 when after one year stay in Paris, he returned to his Hungarian isolation behind the iron curtain being aware of his task of life, and, as he put decades later, “that outward circumstance cannot influence what is now happening to me.”
This more than sixty-year-old notion is valid even today since Kurtág follows unshakably his own path. The fame of his unique musicality as a composer and as a teacher first has been revealed only for a small circle of Hungarian enthusiast. Sayings of Péter Bornemisza remained unnoticed in Darmstadt in 1968. Not so the premiere of the Messages of the Late R. V. Troussova fifteen years later in Paris, recorded under the baton of Pierre Boulez. And since then the camp of the Kurtágians has gradually grown to uncountable. Even if the centre of his output is unalterable, the musical manifestations are astoundingly varied: from aethereal to vulgar, from gentle to cruel, from menacing to grotesque. The common feature in this whole spectrum is that the gestures always communicate in a direct and unambiguous manner.
As a copestone of seventy years of composing, Kurtág delivered his Beckett-opera, Fin de partie, that he finished after seven years of work. “The final masterpiece of twentieth-century music,” that’s how Axel Ross labelled it after the 2018 Milan premiere. The opera comprises an encyclopedia of Kurtágian gestures but it also represents a through-composed dramatic process of two hours.
Since this premiere Kurtág, the nonagenarian hasn’t stopped composing: new piano pieces, short vocal compositions leave his workshop regularly. UMP Editio Musica Budapest, his principal publisher for six decades now, celebrates his forthcoming 95th birthday with the release of 10th volume of Játékok (Games), that contains besides piano pieces written between 2002 and 2011 also a couple of compositions from the 1940s-1980s, giving an exceptional insight into Kurtág’s workshop in his earlier years.
Preparing new editions and revisiting old ones means a continual exchange with him, an exciting challenge and a constant learning process, both in a professional and personal sense. We wish him, and ourselves, and the entire music world that this relationship continue for a long time.
the UMP Editio Musica Budapest team