György Kurtág (Hungarian: [ˈɟørɟ ˈkurtaːɡ]; born 19 February 1926 in Lugoj) is an award-winning Hungarian classical composer and pianist. He was an academic teacher of piano at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music from 1967, later also of chamber music, and taught until 1993.
György Kurtág was born in Lugoj in the Banat region of Romania, to Hungarian parents. He became a Hungarian citizen in 1948, after moving to Budapest in 1946. There, he began his studies at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, where he met his wife, Márta, as well as composer György Ligeti, who became a close friend. His piano teacher at the academy was Pál Kadosa. He studied composition with Sándor Veress and Ferenc Farkas, chamber music with Leó Weiner, and theory with Lajos Bárdos and graduated in piano and chamber music in 1951 before receiving his degree in composition in 1955.
Following the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Kurtág’s time in Paris between 1957 and 1958 was of critical importance for him. Here, he studied with Max Deutsch, Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud. During this time however, Kurtag was suffering from a severe depression, saying "I realized to the point of despair that nothing I had believed to constitute the world was true...". Kurtág received psychological therapy from Marianne Stein – an encounter that revivified the composer and strongly stimulated his artistic development. During this time, he also discovered the works of Anton Webern and the plays of Samuel Beckett. The string quartet he composed in 1959 after his return to Budapest marks this crucial turning point; he refers to this piece as his Opus 1. He dedicated it to his therapist, Stein.
Between 1960 and 1968, Kurtág worked as répétiteur at the National Philharmonia in Budapest. In 1967, he was appointed professor of piano and later also of chamber music at the Franz Liszt Academy, where he taught until 1993.
Kurtág’s international reputation began to take hold with Messages of the Late Miss R.V. Troussova for soprano and chamber ensemble, which had its premiere in Paris in 1981. Since the early 1990s, he has worked abroad with increasing frequency: he was composer in residence at the Berlin Philharmonic (1993–95) and the Vienna Konzerthaus Society (1995). He then lived in the Netherlands (1996–98), again in Berlin (1998–99) and upon invitation by Ensemble InterContemporain, Cité de la Musique, and Festival d’Automne, in Paris (1999–2001). György Kurtág and his wife have lived near Bordeaux since 2002.
Kurtág's compositions prior to Stele, Op. 33 (written for the Berlin Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado), consist mainly of vocal solo and choral music as well as instrumental music, ranging from solo pieces to works for chamber ensembles of increasing size. Many of these compositions are made up of many very brief movements. Kafka-Fragments, for instance, is an approximately 55-minute song cycle for soprano and solo violin made up of 40 short movements, setting extracts from Franz Kafka's writings, diaries, and letters. Music journalist Tom Service writes that Kurtág's music "… involved reducing music to the level of the fragment, the moment, with individual pieces or movements lasting mere seconds, or a minute, perhaps two." Most extreme of all, his piano piece "Flowers We Are, Mere Flowers" from the eighth volume of Játékok ("Games") consists of just seven notes. Because of this interest in miniatures, Kurtág’s music is often compared to that of Anton Webern.
In addition, space plays an important role in several of Kurtág’s pieces. … quasi una fantasia…, premiered in 1988 at the Berlin Festival, is the first composition in which he explores the idea of music that spatially embraces the audience. Since Stele, a number of large scale compositions have been premiered, such as Messages Op. 34 and New Messages Op. 34a for orchestra, the Beckett settings pas a pas – nulle part Op. 35, the double concerto …concertante… Op. 42, and 6 Moments musicaux Op. 44 for string quartet. Kurtág's first opera, Samuel Beckett: Fin de partie, scènes et monologues, opéra en un acte, based on Samuel Beckett's Endgame, was introduced to the public at La Scala on 15 November 2018. Italian musicologist Enrico Girardi welcomed Kurtág’s opera with these words: "A masterpiece that will rewrite the history of modern music".
Kurtág often holds master classes in chamber music, and appears in concerts together with his wife Márta. The couple plays an always-renewing selection of pieces for two- and four-hand piano from Kurtág's nine-volume collection Játékok as well as transcriptions.
Kurtág is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Officier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1985, the Kossuth Award of the Hungarian government for his life’s achievement in 1973 and again in 1996, the Austrian “Ehrenzeichen” and the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize in 1998. In addition, Kurtág is a member of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts, Munich, and of the Akademie der Künste, Berlin (both since 1987), and he was named an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001. In 2006, he received the Grawemeyer Award for his composition …concertante… op. 42 for violin, viola and orchestra.
He received the 2014 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the category of Contemporary Music for in the view of the jury, its “rare expressive intensity.” “The novel dimension of his music,” the citation continues, “lies not in the material he uses but in its spirit, the authenticity of its language, and the way it crosses borders between spontaneity and reflection, between formalism and expression.”
Invited by Walter Fink, he was the 14th composer featured in the annual Komponistenporträt of the Rheingau Musik Festival in 2004. The Ensemble Modern and soloists performed his works op. 19, op. 31b and op. 17. On the occasion of his 80th birthday in February 2006, the Budapest Music Centre honoured György Kurtág with the celebration of a festival in his hometown. The same year’s editions of Musikfest Berlin, Vienna modern, Holland Festival and Festival d’Automne in Paris dedicated special programmes to György Kurtág.