Opportunities to hear György Kurtág's music are all too rare, although the Aldeburgh Festival did something to rectify this last summer: Pierre-Laurent Aimard is clearly a fan. Our next project features Kurtág's Signs, Games and Messages , when we will be performing six selected movements:
I: Hommage à J.S.B.
III: Jelek VI
IV: Panaszos nóta
V: Hommage à Ránki György
VI: The Carenza Jig
Jo Kirkbride has written: 'Born in Romania in 1926, Kurtág’s musical career began with piano and composition lessons from the age of 14, and it was not long before Kurtág began dreaming of joining Béla Bartók’s composition class at the Lizst Academy in Budapest. Sadly, news of Bartók’s death came shortly before he was able to join the Academy, but this disappointment brought Kurtág closer to a fellow student who was also lamenting his loss: György Ligeti. The two composers developed a lifelong friendship, built upon a shared outlook on music and an insatiable curiosity for life. Quoting Ligeti after his death, Kurtág noted their shared ambition, which rested on a desire to inspect and question at all times: ‘As different as the criteria for art and science are, they are similar in that those who work in them are driven by curiosity. The key thing in both areas is to investigate coherences still undiscovered by others, and to create structures that haven't existed until now.’
While typically concise and elegantly executed, Kurtág’s music sets out to explore the complexities of life and to distil these ideas into musical form. As Zoran Minderovic writes: ‘Spellbinding, expressive, mysterious, and deeply engaging, Kurtág's music is a constant effort to describe the indescribable, to explore the human microcosm, to shed light on the human experience.’ His fascination with the fragility of life derives in part from his interest in the works of Samuel Beckett, a trait which is reflected throughout his oeuvre by a fascination with musical games and signs, and with the potential expressivity of silence.
Signs, Games and Messages is itself a game, playing upon the titles of Kurtág's earlier works: Signs, Op. 5 is a work for viola written in 1961, Games for piano was begun in 1973 and Messages of the Late R V Troussova, Op. 17 was written between 1976-80 for soprano and chamber ensemble. Kurtág's ‘reuse’ of earlier works also extends to the musical material – a number of the movements from Signs, Games and Messages also appear elsewhere in earlier works, though Kurtág hoped that by ‘reassembling’ them into an alternative work he might draw attention to similarities and connections that would otherwise go unnoticed. This unusual approach to compositional development extends forwards as well as backwards: as well as reusing earlier material and ideas, Kurtág also leaves compositions ‘open’, so that they might be expanded upon and developed far into the future. As such, Signs, Games and Messages does not have an Opus number, nor a date of completion.
Among the movements being performed in this project is the ‘Hommage à J.S.B’: a musical tribute to J.S. Bach, whom Kurtág admired greatly for his finely-wrought, intricate compositions. Initially written for flute, piano and double bass as part of Kurtág’s Bagatelles, Op. 14d, the movement is built around a single melodic line by Bach, whose structure implies the coexistence of two different voices within a single part. Fascinated by this kind of structural game, Kurtág explores the developmental possibilities of the melody throughout the movement, effectively carrying out an analysis of Bach’s melody through his own composition.'
You can hear this work in Cambridge (19 March), Norwich (20 March) and in Inverness (22 March), during our Bach Plus concerts with Alina Ibragimova (violin).