Kurtag, 6 Moments musicaux for string quartet

March 5, 2018

György Kurtág (born 1926)

6 Moments musicaux, Op. 44 (1999-2005)

György Kurtág György Kurtág, a living composer now in his early nineties, is widely regarded as one of the most important avant-garde composers coming into prominence in the second half of the 20th century. Kurtág was born of Hungarian parents but grew up in a part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire that became part of Romania in 1918. Speaking Hungarian at home and Romanian at school, he moved to Budapest in 1946 to study music at the Franz Liszt Academy and soon became a Hungarian citizen. Kurtág graduated with degrees in piano, chamber music and composition and established his initial reputation as a pianist. Despite the disastrous uprising of 1956 and a brief yearlong sojourn in Paris in 1957/8, Kurtág chose to remain in Hungary and has been cited as the only composer to live through the communist regime (lasting until 1989) and achieve an international recognition. Yet his time in Paris was crucial to his future: there he studied with Messiaen and Milhaud and, for the first time, studied the scores of Anton Webern. At the same time, Kurtág suffered with depression seeking therapy with Marianne Stein whom Kurtág regarded as his most important encounter in Paris. The struggles and revelations of the period gave a new definition to the mature Kurtág and, after returning to Budapest, he composed a new string quartet in 1959 that he significantly numbered “Opus 1.”

Kurtág is known as a meticulous and painstaking composer so his oeuvre is comparatively small, yet to date, he has composed nine pieces for string quartet, a particularly prodigious and intense part of his music. While exploring his works for string quartet, it becomes obvious why his music is typically described as compressed, epigrammatic and masterful in miniature. Whether a complete work, a movement or a piece within a set, Kurtág’s string quartet music rarely exceeds a few minutes in duration and often less. No doubt this reflects the profound influence of Webern with his own two landmark sets of string quartet miniatures. A further similarity can be found in the wide ranges of pitch, timbre and dynamics where every note, nuance and gesture is precise, intentional and significant. Even silences are saturated with musicality. A listener is compelled to “lean in”, attentive to every sound, almost afraid that a breath will break the spell.

Kurtág’s composed his 6 Moments musicaux, Op 44 between 1999 and 2005 when he was in his mid-seventies. Dedicated to his son, they are, like their namesakes from Schubert, individual pieces in a set, each concerned with its own soundscape and programmatic suggestion. Invocatio (invocation), is a supplication to the gods, a calling of the muse before the recitation of an epic. The process is tense and fraught. Footfalls is tentative, suspenseful, sparse. The title may refer to the play by Samuel Beckett who has been an enduring influence on Kurtág’s music, but it also comes from a poem by Hungarian poet Endre Ady about the sound of footsteps, the hopeful anticipation, yet, ultimately, no one comes, leaving only loneliness. The third piece, Capriccio, is, by comparison, quirky, erratic and capricious, full of what Kurtág called “cunning pitfalls.” One detects the influence of Stravinsky here. The fourth piece is an elegy for Hungarian teacher and pianist György Sebök. Rappel des oiseaux (etude pour les harmoniques) is the memory or recall of birds expressed almost entirely in harmonics, a technique giving the stringed instruments uncanny, birdlike sounds. The influence of Messiaen is unmistakable. In the final piece, Les Adieux (in Janáček's manner), Kurtág specifically calls out the influence of Czech composer Leoš Janáček whose passion, rhythmic vitality and emphasis on the natural cadences of speech all seem to be in play in the music. The concluding fadeout vividly evokes departure and disappearance, the essence of “goodbyes.”

© Kai Christiansen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.