The agony and the ecstasy

The Hungarian singer Ildiko Monyok lost the ability to speak in a car accident. She found her voice again, thanks to composer Gyorgy Kurtag. Now you too can hear his music at the Edinburgh Festival and the Proms.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"It's time ..." is the title of the final movement of Gyorgy Kurtag's new choral cycle, Songs of Despair and Sorrow, to be premiered at the Edinburgh Festival tomorrow. Rather an apt motto for this composer, receiving widespread international recognition only as he enters his 71st year. Forty-five years behind Bartok, just two behind Ligeti, Kurtag is the third great Hungarian composer to emerge from Transylvania. This summer provides the chance to hear not only a whole concert of his works at the Edinburgh Festival (the composer and his wife are taking part), but also two performances at the BBC Proms.

It's time, too, that we heard Songs of Despair and Sorrow in its entirety. Kurtag began work on it in 1980: as Opus 18, it lies between two other Russian cycles, Messages of the Late Miss RV Troussova, Op 17, and Scenes from a Novel, Op 19. The work was only completed 14 years later, however, and, owing to practical obstacles, the premiere at last year's Edinburgh Festival was given incomplete. Not for the faint-hearted, the score not only requires an exceptionally able choir of 60, but alongside more conventional instrumental accompaniments, four Russian accordions, or bayans. Kurtag's passion for Russian language and literature carries us on a grief-stricken journey through one hundred years of Russian poetry, passing through Lermontov's So wretched, and Yesenin's Blue Evening, en route to Tsvetayeva's It's time...

The 14-year period between beginning and completing the cycle was a lengthy one, even by Kurtag's standards. His career has been characterised by a gradual accumulation of vital, intense, but often very short works, and also by a tendency to abandon pieces and to return to them later. Colossal spurts of inspiration have alternated with periods of a perplexed inability to compose. Following the completion of his monumental Hungarian cycle The Sayings of Peter Bornemisza, Op 7, in 1968, Kurtag was locked in a compositional paralysis for three years. He rationalises this predicament very eloquently, seeming to regard it as a law of nature: "The child decides when it wants to be born - not its mother..." he says.

Years of desperately "waiting for the child to be born" have provided Kurtag with an insight into frustration that he uses to a terrifying degree in Samuel Beckett: What is the Word? (the original version of which, Op 30, is being given at the Edinburgh Festival, while the later revision, Op 30b, can be heard at the Proms). The work recreates a living nightmare: that of the Hungarian actress and singer Ildiko Monyok, who lost the ability to speak in a car accident, but gradually, tortuously, re-acquired it. Monyok herself re-enacts her learning experience, stuttering, spluttering her way through Beckett's last piece of prose, while Kurtag instructs from an upright piano. In the "orchestrated" version (Op 30b) her endless abortive strivings for coherence are wound into a desperate madness by the other vocalists (an "outside world" stationed in the middle of the hall), with their uncomprehending shrieks of what? what? what?. For the audience, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of listening to this work lies in the inescapable confrontation with something we all fear: being unable to make ourselves understood, even heard. The agony remains unresolved: the work ends with an instrumental epilogue as the vocalists are numbed into speechlessness.

Kurtag found a way out of his own "speechlessness" in the Seventies by playing and writing Jatekok: Games for piano. Games show a lighter side of Kurtag's personality, originally composed with the immediacy and spontaneity of children in mind. Lucky audience members at the Edinburgh Festival will witness Games juxtaposed with Kurtag's Bach transcriptions, through the hands of the extraordinary husband-and-wife duo of Gyorgy and Marta Kurtag. Teasing, caressing and attacking the piano, listening to one another, arguing with one another, they literally play games. Their rare concert appearances are events to be treasured in the musical life of the century. As a pianist, Kurtag is one of the last of his generation, in whom the spirit of a work is captured in the tiniest gesture or fragment. Interesting to note that in his performing habits, as well as in his composition, he displays affinities with both Robert Schumann (who performed on occasion with Clara) and Bela Bartok (who performed with his wife, Ditta).

While it is something of a rarity these days for a composer of Kurtag's stature to perform as a pianist, even more exceptional is his dedication to the teaching of performance. For 19 years, Kurtag was a professor at the Liszt Academy in Budapest (teaching piano and chamber music), and he has frequently taught in Britain at the International Musicians Seminar in Cornwall. The Hungarian artists now so familiar to us here have all passed through his hands: Andras Schiff, Zoltan Kocsis, Dezso Ranki and the Takacs String Quartet acknowledge the enormous role he played in their development. Kurtag's explanation is that he simply loves dealing with music as a teacher. "I understand music only when I teach it ... I discover much more in working on, and trying to find out for others, how to approach it," he says.

Leaving fun and Games behind, the Prom performance of Stele, Op 33, returns once more to sorrow. It was written for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1994, and is Kurtag's only mature work for symphony orchestra. The gravestone hidden in the Greek title refers to the third movement of the work. This is an arrangement of an earlier piano "Game" written in memory of Andras Mihaly, a close friend and colleague of Kurtag who died in 1993. Whereas earlier mournful pieces have evoked raw wounds and harrowing torment, however, Stele is of a different nature. Although beginning in a characteristically anguished mode, and passing through significantly agitated phases, the later stages of the work seem to present a far more resolved sadness. The slow-motion funeral procession at the end is a deeply calming, reconciled picture of mourning.

The three major works to be heard this summer present a more sustained, expansive compositional style than is frequently heard from Kurtag. Stele lasts 13 minutes, What is the Word? lasts over 16, and Songs of Despair and Sorrow over 20. Yet even in these longer works the Kurtagian level of intensity is unremitting, almost unbearable. And that's experiencing them as a mere listener! An insight into the intense working world of Kurtag may perhaps be glimpsed in his setting of this fragment of Kafka in his Op 20 cycle for soprano and violin: "Now in the evening, having studied since six in the morning, I notice that my left hand has for some time been gripping the fingers of my right in commiseration."

A summing-up of Kurtag's whole ethos may be found in a comparison made by a colleague in Budapest: there are people who would like to visit every existing country in the world in the course of their lives; there are also people for whom even one country is too large and impersonal, for whom the ambition would be to shake hands (become acquainted), with every single person in a given country. Kurtag belongs to this latter type in his relationship with pieces, and the notes within them. The audible result is that he never writes a note lacking musical intent, and never writes a note with which he has not lived and suffered, with which he has not become intimately acquainted.

n The world premieres of Kurtag's 'Jatekok: Games and transcriptions for two and four hands', and of 'Songs of Despair and Sorrow', and 'Samuel Beckett: What is the word?' can be heard tomorrow at Usher Hall, Edinburgh (0131-225 5756); 'Stele' on Tues at the Proms (0171-589 8212) and on Radio 3; and 'Samuel Beckett: What is the word?' next Fri (Aug 30), 10pm, at the Proms and on Radio 3