György Kurtág


Music and Opera

7th Edition

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Contemporary Music category goes in this seventh edition to the Hungarian composer György Kurtág, whose work stands out for its rare expressive intensity. The novel dimension of his music lies in its spirit, the authenticity of its language, and the way it crosses borders between spontaneity and reflection, between formalism and expression.


A composer who has come to us from another world, Eastern Europe after the Second World War, György Kurtág found his own voice relatively late, towards the end of the 1950s. However, his marginal voice was not recognized in Western Europe until the end of the 1970s through one of his masterpieces, Messages of the Late Miss R. V. Troussova for soprano and instrumental ensemble. Kurtág’s vocal work is a central part of his catalogue, as is his key relationship with poetry; a poetry that reflects his lyrical yet laconic music. The list of writers he has put to music offers a landscape of universal poetry, in a variety of languages where Hungarian rubs shoulders with German, Russian, Romanian, French and English.

Messages of the Late Miss R. V. Troussova revealed a music that did not conform to the canons of the musical avant-garde, and that concentrated the whole history of music, the whole spectrum of human expressions, into condensed forms. The novel dimension of Kurtág’s music does not lie in the material he uses, but in its spirit, the authenticity of its approach, the way it crosses borders between cultures, between art music and popular music, between spontaneity and reflection, and between formalism and expression.

For Kurtág, music forms part of an ongoing dialogue with the past; it wants to speak, it wants to express the universal forms of subjectivity. Its phrases are of an intense lyricism that reaches extremes, compressed into just a few notes; its forms are charged with complex meanings, compacted into just a few bars. There is no grandiloquence, but rather a rare expressive intensity. And there is no striving for effect: each note is essential. For Kurtág, the greatest imperative, the greatest difficulty is to find the right note, a note that carries within it a whole world, and with which a whole world springs into life.

It is not simply a musical imperative, but an ethical imperative also. It is present in the performance classes that Kurtág has given throughout his life, where each note, each indication, each gesture engages the musician completely. It is in this spirit that he created a collection of piano pieces for beginners. By involving children wholeheartedly in these ‘games’ (the title of his collection), he aims to free their gestures, their bodies and their imagination rather than lock them into an academic framework. Each interpreter of Kurtág has to rediscover these impulses.

His voice, which defies any system, which accepts no compromise, has traced a path independent from the mainstream. Today it stands as an alternative to a vision of history that appears limited to the opposition between innovation and a return to old models, between a music withdrawn into itself and a music that aims to communicate as broadly as possible.