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By the time the Hungarian composer György Kurtág was born in Lugos in 1926, the town was called Lugoj, and had, due to the peace treaty of Versailles, been ceded to Romania. Kurtág grew up in a multi-ethnic environment. It was as natural for him as for his friend György Ligeti, born in 1923 in Tarnaveni not far from Lugos, to speak three languages on a daily basis: Hungarian, Romanian and German.
The first significant pedagogue-personality Kurtág came in touch with was his piano teacher Magda Kardos at Temesvár/Timisoara. Her influence has stayed with him ever since. It was Magda Kardos who entrusted the young man to coach younger pupils – an activity that has kept him busy up to this day.
Kurtág met Ligeti at the entrance examination at the Budapest Academy of Music in 1946 for the first time. They were to form a life-long friendship. Some professors of the Academy gave Kurtág important impulses – such as Ferenc Farkas, who was also Ligeti’s teacher, as well as Leó Weiner, Lajos Bárdos, Pál Járdányi and others.
The next important encounter in Kurtág’s life occurred in Paris where he attended courses by Messiaen and Milhaud in 1957 and 1958. Most important of all, however, were the sessions with the psychologist Marianne Stein who specialised in artists. She tided him over a crisis which had paralysed his creativity for years. Kurtág says the meeting with Marianne Stein divided his life in two – she gave him a new lease of life, so to speak.
On his way back to Budapest Kurtág stopped over in Cologne where he first met Ligeti after the latter’s escape from Hungary in 1956. Ligeti introduced Kurtág to Stockhausen whose Gruppen made a tremendous impact on him. So did Ligeti’s Artikulation, realised in the electronic studio of West-German Radio.
Back in Budapest, Kurtág composed his first string quartet which he denoted as his Opus 1 – to signify that it marked the starting point of his oeuvre proper.
Kurtág is published in Hungary by Editio Musica Budapest. In the years of the cold war, when the world was divided into two on either side of the Iron Curtain, he needed another publisher as well to represent him in the west. Thanks to his friendship with Alfred Schlee, Director of Universal Edition, he signed a contract with UE. The pieces he wrote in those years were not easy to promote: the string quartet was followed by a wind quintet, eight piano pieces, eight duos for violin and cimbalom, The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza, a substantial work for soprano and piano and one of his key compositions, Four Capriccios for soprano and ensemble (his first piece for a larger combination of instruments which included a cimbalom), Four Lieder to poems by János Pilinszky, for baritone, two cimbaloms, a bass zither and some other instruments and In Memory of a Winter Evening for soprano, violin and cimbalom. Truly, works difficult to promote, especially those written for the cimbalom, which in those years had just a couple of players outside Hungary.
Political developments did away with the so-called socialist camp and with the disappearance of the Berlin Wall there disappeared the division of Europe as well. Kurtág no longer needed a publisher in the west and all his compositions have since been entrusted to Editio Musica Budapest. The ones that used to be shared by EMB and UE were duly divided up so that Universal Edition possesses the copyright of a range of pieces for the whole world. They include some of his pivotal early works, such as the Bornemisza-concerto and the Pilinszky Lieder (the only composition for which Kurtág has written programme notes).
Universal Edition is the world-wide distributor of Rückblick. Old and new for four instruments. Hommage à Stockhausen, apart from Hungary. Rückblick could be translated as “Looking Back”, incorporating as it does arrangements of old works, some of the UE, some EMB copyright, as well as some new ones.
It is a kind of ritual taking up a full concert. The composer has yet to make up his mind about its definitive shape – until he does so, the work cannot be printed in its entirety. That is why UE has published Fourteen Fragments from Rückblick, covering the pieces that are originally its copyright. The Fragments have a duration of some 17 minutes and are scored – like the rest of Rückblick – for trumpet, double-bass and keyboard instruments.
Kurtág recently wrote a brief piano trio which he says is one of his best compositions. Varga Bálint ligaturája ("The Ligatura of Bálint Varga") is published by Universal Edition. Hopefully it will be expanded by a second movement.
On 1 December 2013 Kurtág was honoured with the Royal Philharmonic Society Gold Medal at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. In 2015, he received the BBVA Foundation “Frontiers of Knowledge Award”.