It’s possible to make music with practically nothing.”
If you’ve not already done so, you may like to look at the DVD Matchstick Man, Judit Kele’s biographical documentary of renowned composer György Kurtág. Among other things, Matchstick Man sheds light on Kurtág’s sessions in 1957 with psychoanalyst Marianne Stein, who led him to explore his creativity by putting matchsticks together. This simple exercise of arranging matchsticks made a strong impression. Kurtág avers that he still knows nothing about composing, but from time to time his muse or alter ego—some mysterious entity who does apparently know things about composing—pinch-hits for him. Empirical composing, using ‘found’ materials, including rhythmic materials such as poems: the epitome of minimalism.
Here in this DVD we have Kurtág as experimentalist, laboratorian, empiricist—here is Kurtág delighted by his ‘found objects’, fascinated by happenstantial relationships among them, passionately engaged by the symbolic connections that they suggest. The film enables us to see and hear how this self-effacing and modest composer creates. What matters to Kurtág is mostly the present, not the past. He rehearses two young players in Schubert’s ‘Arpeggione’ Sonata D.821 in A minor. Ideally, rehearsal is a paradigm in which all participants (the composer, the librettist, the conductor, and the performers) have a ‘say’ in the creative process. But it often doesn’t turn out that way, as this segment of the film suggests.
I understand music really only if I teach it.”
In Játékok, Kurtág finds freedom in minimalism. There are interesting enjambments—rhythmic staggerings and offsets between the parts; couplets and tercets; staggered lines. Just as in poetry where the appeal is partly in the visual instability that the enjambments cause for the eye as we scan the page, so too in this music the appeal is partly in the auditory/motivic instability that Kurtág sets in motion. A tercet always feels that it’s pulling toward the missing line, pulling the eye down with urgency to the next thing, to the thing that must happen. Such imbalance seems appropriate to poems about the human condition. Likewise, Kurtág’s instrumental enjambed phrasing feels like pulling, one line for the next, pulling the ear onward with urgency. The rhythmic ‘pull’ and imbalance are central to the beauty of the music. In that regard, these Webern-like miniatures interspersed with folk music-derived pieces and citations of Bach have something in common with rhythmic structure in hip-hop and rap.
Something in common, too, in terms of their aphoristic idiom, if you think about it. By now, the aphoristic song cycle is Kurtág’s signature. He has set a number of the poems of Rimma Dalos, a Russian poet who has lived in Hungary since 1970. Dalos grew up in the Ural mountains and studied German history at Lomonossow University in Moscow. She currently works at the Budapest office of the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation. Her works include the a volume of lyric poetry entitled ‘Ohne Dich’ (Without You).
Kurtág’s emphasis on metrical qualities of Russian is much broader than the Rimma Dalos settings, though. He borrows epigrams from a number of Russian poets, including Lermontov and Blok. In the 1970s he became deeply fascinated with Russian literature and took courses in Russian to be able to read Dostoyevsky in the original. His compositions are not all Russian gravitas, however. There is humor in Kurtág’s writing; it is not all confessional and dark and sorrowful. ‘O Love, the Edifier!’ (Omaggio a Luigi Nono, Op. 16) and other pieces are passionate and emphatic and and ironic and full of life. (Just the same, ‘Epilogue’, subtitled ‘A dispirited wail’ and marked ‘Desolato’, and other Kurtág meditations do not contradict their dour markings.)
Omaggio a Luigi Nono (poems in Russian, four of the six being by Rimma Dalos) and Eight Choruses to Poems by Dezső Tandori are comprised of short pieces, most of them less than two minutes long. Songs of Despair and Sorrow are much larger; the longest of the seven is about as long as the entire Omaggio a Luigi Nono, whose six movements take just nine minutes. Songs of Despair and Sorrow is scored for accordion, brass, strings, keyboards and percussion—a 28-member ensemble. This orchestration produces a narrative of alienation and angst that is social or ethnic in scale. By contrast, Omaggio is has a highly personal texture.
Kurtág takes each haiku-like aphorism/poem, assimilates its meter, and creates instrumental enjambments that nicely complement the text. Kurtág’s attention to rhythm is extreme. The first foot of the Lermontov piece that opens Songs of Despair and Sorrow, ‘So Weary’, matches the rhythm of the Russian text very closely. The music has a rise and fall that evokes the idea of world-weariness. The Russian rendering is perfect. It’s hard to imagine this being quite as effective in translation into any other language.
The rolling rhythm, the assonance of it, is one of the built-in features of the Russian language. Technically, assonance is the acoustic mimickry between vowels followed by different consonants in two or more stressed syllables. But here the assonance is architectural for the vocal part and the instrumental parts. The voice is an instrument among equals, and no instrument is sentenced to merely accompany. Kurtág delivers these rhythmic features with crystalline perfection. The stresses are dovetailed between the parts, capturing an important slice of what it means to be Russian.
In other words, these poems—and Kurtág’s setting of them—are perfect icons for the thoughtful use of enjambment, or ‘run-on’ lines. Normally the end of a verse is marked by a syntactic break – the end of a sentence or clause. But with enjambment, the break occurs within the line rather than at the end. In one enjambment in a Dalos poem, the words ‘snow’ and ‘blanket’, linked to form a composite ‘snow-blanket’, are separated by an internal prosodic-syntactic pause. The second line contains a carry-over from the first line, the word ‘pokrova’ (blanket), as well as the first word of a second phrase, ‘came’.
In stanza No. 13, the phrases ‘snow-blanket’ and ‘guest-sorrow’ are structurally parallel, but they also take each other’s metric place in the poem. The enjambment separation of ‘blanket’ from ‘snow’ is deliberate and destabilizing. But blanket-of-snow is a commonplace idiom in a way that juxtaposing ‘guest’ and ‘sorrow’ is not. Dalos doesn’t split them but instead puts them next to each other in the same line. The phrase ‘кo мнe гocтья—тocкa’ (sorrow) is an interesting poetical choice—it easily could’ve been something else: ‘gost’ia-pechal’ (guest-sadness), ‘gost’ia-odinochestvo’ (guest-loneliness), ‘gost’ia-pustota (guest-emptiness). But the rhythm of ‘toska’ is what Dalos selected, and what Kurtág respected.
я pyкy пpoтянy.
твoй xoлoд пpoгoню.
O, кaк дaвнo
я в yгoлкax дyши
Xpaню нeнyжныe гpoши.
пpoлeг мoй бaбий вeк.
зa cлaбocть мoю жeнcкyю,
зa тo, чтo пoлюбилa я
пpикocнyтьcя к тeбe,
И дocтaлacь мнe любoвь
Cнитcя oдин и тoт жe coн:
близocти твoeй пpoшy.
я oттaлкивaю тeбя.
Зa тyмaнoм тex днeй
нe видaть aлыx зopь
зa минyтaми cчacтья—
Былo cчacтьe y нac,
и paзлyкa былa…
и yбeгy из paя.
И в пик-чacы
кaтитcя бeз пoмex
тpaмвaй дyши мoeй.
Xoтeлocь явитьcя тeбe
в cиянии звeзднoгo нимбa,
a пpишлocь oтвopить двepь
c вeникoм в гpязнoй pyкe.
Я cнoвa ждy тeбя.
нe пpиxoдит пocлeзaвтpa.
Знaчит, нacтyпит cлeдyющee.
B бeлoм xoлoдe cнeгa—
кo мнe гocтья—тocкa.
A y тeбя в caдy
пpoлeг мoй бaбий вeк.
here’s my hand:
with my warmth
I melt your frost.
Too long I’ve kept
in my soul’s depths—
these useless cents.
—that was my woman’s lot.
Merciful ones, forgive me
this woman’s weakness,
that I so loved
this holy fool.
to touch you;
to melt, to dissolve in you.
Here and there I picked and chose
till all my chances slipped away
and I was left here with this love so
ragged and tattered, torn
Every night, the same dream:
I beg you to come near,
I push you away.
I said: it cannot be,
I said: it will pass,
I said, I said…
Beyond the mist of days,
the purple dawn cannot be seen,
nor can the pain of parting
beyond the moment’s bliss.
Bliss we had,
a parting too.
I said: it cannot be,
I said: it will pass,
I said, I said…
I cover my soul
with a fig-leaf
and flee paradise.
Even in the rush-hour
the tramcar of my soul
cheerfully rolls along.
I wanted you to see me
like some goddess in the glory
of the starry sky:
but then I opened the door
all ragged, a broom in my
I’m waiting for you again,
How slowly comes
The next will come.
In a cold blanket of snow
a visitor called: sorrow.
But in your garden
—that was my woman’s lot.”
poems by Rimma Dalos, music by György Kurtág,
СЦЕHЫ ИЗ POMAHA:
15 ПЕ СЕH HA СTИXИ
In stanza No. 13, ‘gost’ia’ and ‘toska’ are closely connected through the sibilant ‘s’ sound, which is also present in the first line of the poem—the word ‘cнeгa’ (snega, snow). So we get ‘snow’, ‘guest’, and ‘sorrow’ in one evocative metric group. The metaphor ‘gost’ia-toska’ is beautiful, but if the two words were separated from each other on the page, Dalos would have made the reader wonder. If the cimbalom and violin and double-bass parts were separated from the voice in Canto No. 13, Kurtág would’ve made the listener wonder. So Dalos transmutes words: she pairs ‘blanket’ with ‘snow’ and comingles ‘warmth’ with the image of snow and cold; she uses enjambments to separate two opposites while simultaneously uniting them. And Kurtág’s writing can be regarded as doing the same thing—transmuting meanings; pairing cool phrases with warm ones; juxtaposing a phrase that evokes doubt with a phrase that doubts the very validity and worth of the act of doubting.
Maybe Sofia Gubaidulina’s composition ‘Jetzt immer Schnee’ (a setting of poems by Gennady Aigi) is a close comparable in terms of a felicitous pairing of composer and poet and in terms of a composition’s respecting a poem’s enjambment and other metrical features. These enjambments function like the conduction system in the heart. The heart is under a compulsion to beat, up until the moment we die. Diastole on one line leads to a systole when we begin the next line of the poem, the continuation of the phrase in Kurtág’s music or Gubaidulina’s music. Our understanding and enjoyment of Kurtág’s music—especially these existential and rhythmic qualities of it—are significantly enhanced by this Kele film. Our understanding and enjoyment of Kurtág’s music were also enhanced by Marino Formenti’s exquisite performance last April at the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco, and by studying the scores from Editio Musica Budapest, in which the rhythmic linkages are readily apparent. Beautiful!
T he only political duty ... is a duty to translate the fiction and poetry of other countries so as to make them available to readers in his/her own language. I consider translation a political act because the relations between any two countries are not determined by economic and political interests alone, but also by the degree to which the inhabitants of each are able to understand what the inhabitants of the other are thinking and feeling, and the novelists and poets of this country are the only people who can give one this understanding.”
W.H. Auden, The Plough and the Pen, p. 10.
(Beginning at age 14, Kurtág took piano lessons from Magda Kardos and studied composition with Max Eisikovits at Temesvár. When he was 19 he moved to Budapest in hopes of studying with Bartók at the Franz Liszt Academy, a hope that was preempted by Bartók’s death. Kurtág and György Ligeti became friends during their time together as students in Budapest. At the Budapest Academy, Kurtág studied the piano with Pál Kadosa, composition with Sándor Veress and Ferenc Farkas, and chamber music with Leó Weiner. Kurtág graduated in piano and chamber music in 1951 (at age 25), and received his graduate degree in composition in 1955 (age 29). In 1957 Kurtág worked in Paris with the Hungarian psychologist Marianne Stein and did coursework with Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud. Between 1960 and 1968, he worked as répétiteur for the Hungarian National Philharmonia. In 1967, he became Professor of piano and chamber music at the Budapest Academy. He retired from those positions in 1986. )
W as wissen wir von Rußland und den Russen? Daß die Russen eine »bipolar Mentalität« besitzen, die in sich die widersprüchlichsten Gefühle der »rätselhaften russischen Seele« vereinigt und widerspiegelt, und zwar mit einer Spannweite des Verhaltens, die »von Sanftmut bis zum Zorn, von der Erstarrung bis zum Aktionismus, von der Entsagung bis zum zügellosen Genuß, von der Entwicklung großer Ideen bis zum Phlegma« reicht? Und daß diese Widersprüchlichkeit und Zerrissenheit, die Koexistenz extremer Polaritäten, ein immerwährendes charakteristisches Merkmal der russischen Kultur sind? Dies alles kann man auch heute in verschiedenen westlichen »Reiseführern durch die Labyrinthe der russischen Seele«. Da findet man wieder die beliebigen Stereotypen und Klischees vom ewigen exotischen Russen, eine alte Erfindung des Westens.
[ What do we know of Russia and the Russian? That Russians possess a ‘bipolar mentality’ that unites and is reflected in the contradictory feelings of the ‘mysterious Russian soul’ and expansive behavior, from meekness to wrath, from stiffness to berserking, from self-mortification to unrestrained hedonism, from big ideas to the phlegmatic picayune? Is the coexistence of extreme polarity a fundamental characteristic feature of the Russian culture? One can read this and more in different western guides through the mazes of the ‘Russian Soul’. There one finds again the perennial stereotype and cliché of the eternal exotic Russian, an old invention of the West. ]”
- Kurtag scores at EMB
- Harte T. Game, Set, Stanza: Modern Sport in Russia and the Poetry of OsipMandel'shtam. Russian Review 2000;59:353–70.
- Szirtes G. Formal Wear: Notes on Rhyme, Meter, Stanza and Pattern. Poetry Magazine, FEB-2006
- Duczynka I. The Plough and the Pen: Writings from Hungary, 1930-1956. Owen, 1963.
- Jakobson R. Pushkin and His Sculptural Myth. Mouton, 1975.
- Jakobson R, Pmorska K, Rudy S, eds. Language in Literature. Belknap, 1990.
- Kele J. The Matchstick Man. (Juxtapositions, 2006.)
- Kurtag G, Kurtag M. Jatekok. (ECM, 2000.)
- Kurtag G, Kurtag M, Csalog G, Kemenes A. Jatekok. (BMC, 2006.)
- Lake S, Griffiths P, eds. Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM. Granta, 2007.
- McHard J. The Future of Modern Music. Iconic, 2006.
- Parker M. String Quartets: A Research and Information Guide. Routledge, 2005.
- Scherr B. Russian Poetry: Meter, Rhythm, and Rhyme. Univ California Press, 1986, p. 263.
- Wachtel M. The Development of Russian Verse: Meter and its Meanings. Cambridge Univ, 1999.
- Willson R. Ligeti, Kurtág, and Hungarian Music during the Cold War. Cambridge Univ, 2007.
- willson R. The Mind is a Free Creature. Central Europe Review, 27-MAR-2000.
- Marino Formenti plays Kurtag at De Young in SF, 15-APR-2007-1
- Marino Formenti plays Kurtag at De Young in SF, 15-APR-2007-3
- Marino Formenti plays Kurtag at De Young in SF, 15-APR-2007-4
- Marino Formenti plays Kurtag at De Young in SF, 15-APR-2007-5
- Marino Formenti plays Kurtag at De Young in SF, 15-APR-2007-6
- Marino Formenti plays Kurtag at De Young in SF, 15-APR-2007-2
- Marino Formenti website
- Arpeggione lute webpage
- 15 Songs to Poems by Rimma Dalos (score)