One of the foremost musical voices of our time

Peter Eötvös, winner of the 13th Foundations of Knowledge Award in Music and Opera, dies aged 80

The Hungarian composer and conductor Peter Eötvös, Frontiers of Knowledge laureate in the 13th edition of the awards, died on Sunday, March 24, at 80 years of age. Eötvös was hailed as “one of the most important musical voices of our time” by the committee deciding the BBVA Foundation award, chaired by Joana Carneiro, Principal Conductor of the Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa and Teatro São Carlos.

26 March, 2024


Peter Eötvös

Among Maestro Eötvös’s defining characteristics, in the view of the committee, was that he “excelled” in all three areas of his musical endeavor, as composer, conductor and teacher. As remarked by Carneiro at the time, “his work in each is of unassailable quality, and what truly sets him apart is his generosity. As a writer, a musician and a conductor, he puts all his trust in his players and his public.”

Eötvös himself reflected on the importance of this recognition of all sides of his career in music: “I see these three professions as a unified whole, in that what I achieve in one, serves me for the other two. So what I compose I can conduct, what I learn by conducting I can apply in my writing, and the experience I acquire in these two professions informs my teaching work. This desire to share my knowledge with young people goes back to my own youth and the gratitude I feel towards the teachers who helped me learn everything, to understand it and to perform it.”

The themes of many of his operas were grounded in life’s hard realities, for which he turned to texts by contemporary writers like Tony Kushner, Alessandro Baricco or Gabriel García Márquez. His first major opera, in terms of critical and public reception, was Tri sestry (1998), in which he adapted Anton Chekhov’s celebrated Three Sisters to construct a sustained narrative in sequences, each devoted to one of the play’s main characters. Proof of his ability to synthesize the most avant-garde European musical tradition while still connecting with an audience was that the work premiered to great success at Opéra National de Lyon, has since been performed over 150 times and continues to be regularly programmed by leading opera theaters.

The same attention to the problems of his time was behind his 2016 orchestral piece Alle vittime senza nome – a commission from four Italian orchestras (La Scala, Santa Cecilia, Florence and Turin) – in memory of the African refugees who died trying to cross the Mediterranean. It also inspired him to tackle subjects in his operas like the hardships faced by undocumented immigrants struggling to earn a living (Der goldene Drache, 2014) or the problems of two couples living with AIDS (Angels in America, 2002-2004). In Oratorium balbulum (2015) he addressed the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the seeds of conflict sown by imposed borders.

Various facts stand testimony to the universality of Eötvös’ work. One is that “he is permanently being performed in the most prestigious opera houses and by the world’s leading orchestras,” said award committee secretary García de Gomar, Artistic Director of the Gran Teatre del Liceu. Another, that he wrote operas for librettos in German, Japanese, Russian, English, Italian, French and Hungarian.

On hearing of the award, the laureate explained that teaching was something deeply rooted in his psyche. In 1991 he founded the International Eötvös Institute for young conductors, and in 1992 took up a university professorship first at Karlsruhe then Cologne, teaching contemporary and chamber music. He then went on to found the Peter Eötvös Contemporary Music Foundation with a focus on “new music,” supporting not only conductors but also composers, musicologists and librettists.

Peter Eötvös bio notes

Peter Eötvös was born in 1944 in Odorheiu Secuiesc, Transylvania, now Rumania but then part of Hungary, and spent his early childhood in the Hungarian town of Miskolc. Son of a music teacher mother, he soon learned to play the piano, violin, flute and percussion instruments, and by the age of five had already composed his first works. It was in this period that he met György Ligeti, who would prove a lifelong influence.

As a fourteen-year-old newly arrived in Budapest, he was admitted to the School of Exceptional Young Talents at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music by no less a person than Zoltán Kodály. There he studied composition while working on film and theater productions, gaining not only ample experience in improvisation but also the ability to draw characters with a few deft strokes and an understanding of dramatic pace and timing. All these skills would have a profound impact on his later approach to composition and the operas he would go on to write.

In 1971 he moved to Cologne, where he worked with Karlheinz Stockhausen, expanded his composition studies under B.A. Zimmermann and graduated in conducting from the Cologne Conservatoire. He began to work with the Stockhausen Ensemble, leading it during the premiere of Donnerstag aus Licht at La Scala, Milan in 1981. In 1978, Pierre Boulez had invited him to conduct the opening concert of IRCAM – the famous Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique of which he was founder – and immediately asked him to stay on as artistic director of Ensemble InterContemporain, a position he held until 1991. Paris opened up a new world of experience. Not only did the ensemble provide a stage for hundreds of new works, it also gave Eötvös the chance to work shoulder to shoulder with the most important living composers.

He had his London Proms conducting debut in 1980, and from 1985 to 1988 served as Principal Guest Conductor with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. From then on he would appear regularly with world-leading ensembles in Europe (from the Budapest Festival Orchestra to the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra or the Munich Philharmonic), the United States, Japan and South Korea, as well as taking the helm with contemporary music specialists like Ensemble Modern, Musikfabrik, Klangforum Wien or the London Sinfonietta.

His compositional oeuvre is as wide as it is varied, comprising, among others, 34 pieces for film and theater, 4 for tape, electronics or multimedia, 31 chamber or soloist works, 12 for ensemble, 26 for orchestra or chamber orchestra, 6 for vocal ensemble or chorus, and 14 opera or musical theater scores. Eötvös received writing commissions from such institutions as Opéra National Lyon, the Bavarian State Opera and the Glyndebourne Festival. Secret Kiss, which had its Spanish premiere under Eötvös’ direction in the Auditorio Nacional de Música on 17 April 2019, was commissioned jointly by the BBVA Foundation and other institutions. This was Eötvös’ second Spanish premiere as part of the BBVA Foundation Contemporary Music Concert Seasons. The first was in the 2013-2014 season, when he conducted his own work Steine in its world debut.

In 1992 he began teaching conducting and contemporary chamber music at the universities of Karlsruhe and Cologne. One year before he had set up the International Eötvös Institute and in 2004 would establish the Peter Eötvös Contemporary Music Foundation for conductors and composers, leading an international mentoring program there from 2018 onwards.