Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

György Kurtág's Hungarian Identity and the Sayings of Péter Bornemisza (1963-1968)*

Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

György Kurtág's Hungarian Identity and the Sayings of Péter Bornemisza (1963-1968)*

Article excerpt

In his essay, Kurtág, Modernity, Modernisms Alan Williams hints at the most peculiar feature of György Kurtág's music, namely the composer's attraction toward having double meaning in his works.1 This ambiguity manifests itself equally in his relation to tradition and avantgarde, as well as in the use of tonality and atonality or in the unanimity of the content and in the obscure references. Besides these features, as Williams put it, it was Kurtág's unusual individualism that crossed the succès of Kurtág's first opus magnum, The Sayings of Péter Bomemisza in Darmstadt in 1968.2 For Rachel Beckles Willson the concerto's complete failure was due to its seeming conservatism,3 while Stephen Walsh held that Darmstadt composers, if they had known that the composition represented an unparalleled radicalism in self-examination, they would have felt ashamed instead of neglecting the piece.4 I intend to give a different answer to the question why The Sayings have failed in Darmstadt. My point is, that the concerto for soprano and piano written between 1963 and 1968 stands strongly in the Hun- garian tradition, not only because its text is in Hungarian, thus one cannot fully understand the work without understanding the text, but because its compo- sitional devices and solutions were inherited - besides European music history and Western avantgarde - from the Hungarian musical tradition of the 20th cen- tury. Furthermore, the composition wouldn't have been born outside of the con- text of politics and cultural policies in the early Kádár-era. The ambiguity of Kurtág's musical language is connected to the practice of double speech in the Hungary of the 1960s.

Kurtág put together the libretto of The Sayings from different writings of the 16th-century poet-preacher, Péter Bornemisza, and created a four-part cycle from it, titled Confession (I), Sin (II) Death (III) and Spring (IV). The four parts reflect the structure of the classical symphony, with the second part, Sin, representing the scherzo, while the third part, Death, is a lyrical slow part including a funeral music.5 However the parts - except for the first - are built from shorter move- ments following the short texts, and are sometimes separated by intermezzi for the piano. Kurtág calls his cycle concerto alluding to Heinrich Schütz's Kleine geistliche Konzerte (written between 1636 and 1639), where one or more solo voices are accompanied by a keyboard instrument. Kurtág's main model must have been Schütz's Eile mich, Gott, zu erretten (SWV 282), to the text of which Zoltán Kodály's Psalmus Hungarians is related. One of the first analysts of The Sayings, György Kroó pointed out, that Kodály's Psalmus must have been a ref- erential point for Kurtág when writing The Sayings. Kurtág used the writings of a 16th-century preacher, as Kodály had done with the paraphrase of Psalm 55 by Mihály Kecskeméti Vég (also a 16th-century Hungarian preacher). Kroó also maintained that Kurtág's composition fulfilled a role in the Hungarian new music of the 1960s similar to what Kodály's Psalmus had played forty years earlier.6

Certainly, Kodály's choice of text was personally motivated. By setting the words of King David's Psalm no. 55, Complaint about the friend's treachery, Kodály narrated the calumnious trial at Academy of Music after the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919. Notwithstanding, the Psalmus Hungarians became a symbol of the insulted, broken Hungarian nation after the Trianon Treaty which caused the loss of huge territories of old Hungary. There might be a simi- lar personal background in Kurtág's choice of Péter Bornemisza. Margaret McLay assumes, that the concerto is in part an autobiographical composition.7 Kurtág characterizes himself as a lazy man, and the only sin mentioned concretely in The Sayings is laziness.8 Kurtág recalls the notion of idleness in the fourth movement of the second part, depicting it with a yawn-like glissando (Example l).'1 Apart from this autobiographical reference it is conspicuous that the text, mainly in the first three parts, is full of a general disgust with the world and the life. …

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