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Interview with composer György Kurtag

Sunday, 29 March 2009 , ora 12.35
On March 29th 2009 at 18:30, Radio Romania Music will broadcast live parts of the "Modern Cluj" Festival, the concert of the "Transylvania" Philharmonic Orchestra Chorus from the "Gheorghe Dima" Music Academy in Cluj-Napoca. The programme includes works of Romanian composers, but also a first world audition signed by György Kurtag, the Romania-born Hungarian composer. The concert is also broadcast live in the network of the European Union turning this event into a European one.

Maestro György Kurtag, this year you are the guest of honour at the "Modern Cluj" Contemporary Music Festival. On this occasion, the audience will have the chance to listen for the first time to the work called The Ballad Carol. Which is the genesis of this work and how is it connected to Romanian traditions?

It is definitely connected to Romanian traditions and to my life until the age of twenty, age until which I had lived in Romania. The Ballad Carol has the following dedication: "in memory of professor Felician Brânzeu". He was our teacher of Romanian language and literature from the second to the fourth grade at the "Coriolan Bradiceanu" High School, in Lugoj. The recollection of the professor came back to me when professor Constantin Stan from Lugoj wrote to me one day and told me that together with some intellectuals from Lugoj had nominated me as citizen of honour of Lugoj.

I must mention that I am not interested at all in these honours, but it was very important for me to see Lugoj in action. Back then - about two years ago - professor Stan was preparing for Ph.D. in the music history of Lugoj. He took the advice of professor Francisc Laszlo from Cluj, whom I had met long before and who, at the same time, sent me a work of my teacher, Felician Brânzeu, about the vocative in music. This finding was so important to me because this essay was as profound and serious as the folklore studies signed by Bartok or Ligeti, who were a sort of role models for me. However, I was very moved and my whole past, my entire childhood, which I had long forgotten came back to me. Professor Stan explained to me what was the connection with the Vidu' Choir from Lugoj and this made me remember a lot of things; as a child I used to listen to this choir singing and the choir sonority was present in my mind. The Vidu' Choir meant that, if I went to Lugoj to receive the honours, I could not go there empty-handed. I wanted to bring a composition.

And I worked a year and a half on this composition. A year and a half on a carol found in Bartok's corpus - "Romanian Carols from Ardeal", a carol from the Hunedoara county, which became very important to me as a mythology. It is one of the most important compositions for me. I also worked a lot on it (at this point, maestro Kurtag recited for us the entire carol with humor). I have not mentioned two important facts. Adrian Pop, the present dean (of the "Gheorghe Dima" Musical Academy, Cluj -Napoca), was a composercolleague of mine. I was familiar with his remastered carols and I sent him the choir score during my composition process, score on which he gave me some astonishing advice. He was very harsh and, at the same time, he really helped me. Therefore, I want to thank him for my composition. And another thing: I worked with the Choir from Cluj and maestro Cornel Grozea for five days; he is indeed a great person, with humour, imagination and tenacity, which are simply amazing. Rehearsals are never a joke to him.

Not long ago, more precisely on January 31st several of your works, among which Four poems by Anna Ahmatova, were performed at Carnegie Hall in New York for the first time. And the next day you gave a four hand piano recital together with your wife. How did the American audience receive the composer and performer György Kurtag?

I felt good. I must mention that when performing - me and my wife (we have been married for sixty-two years and we have been performing together for sixty-two years) - we are very happy to perform and, as far as I am concerned, if I feel that my wife enjoys what I do, I am very content.

Let's go back in time and, please, tell us about the '50s, when you were living in Paris. Apart from meeting and studying with Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud, another meeting that influenced your artistic development was that with psychoanalyst Marianne Stein, about whom you once mentioned that "she helped you to discover yourself".

She did. She was indeed a very important person in my life. At first, my pedagogical model was Felician Brânzeu. Later on, my pedagogical model was my piano teacher from Timisoara, Magda Cardos, who later became a teacher at the Academy in Cluj. And Marianne Stein... after the year spent with her I felt I was going to change my life. I had the feeling that I had found what I should look for. Both ethically and artistically.

Talking about pedagogy, you are also a piano and chamber music teacher, and your students say that you are not a nice teacher. You used to be very hard on your students.

Indeed. I am very strict, but only with the aim of making music happen. But there is more to it, though it may be selfish, it is simply the inspiration that it gives me. It is a passion. I could say that pedagogy is a hobby of mine. I can analyze a composition, a quartet from Beethoven's last period of creation or a quartet by Bartok, but I truly understand it only when I work with it. That very moment I have ideas and I simply take advantage of the fact that I work with quartets.

You mentioned Beethoven and Bartok and I know that you admire very much these two composers. What do you appreciate the most about their personality? Maybe the rebellious character?

I do not know. But I must mention that although Beethoven and Bartok are the most important personalities for me, I discovered music for myself at the age of eleven or twelve by listening to Schubert's Symphony No.7, the unfinished symphony. His lieder as well, all his music is important to me. At the same time, when I got closer to music, Monteverdi and Schutz were very important to me, Gregorian music was very important to me. Unfortunately, I discovered folklore only through the works of Bartok, not directly. Even though, in my district, I would have had the chance to listen to folklore.

Your composition style was often described as pure, even monastic by some critics. Do you agree with this view?

What does monastic represent? I do not know, it is the critics' business to tell how it is. I cannot define it... it is simply ... I wanted to understand the music; I have learned how a sonata is written and when I started to write work no. 1 - after the studies in Paris - I wanted to find its shape by myself. I found something very primitive, but it was my shape. Later on, when I started The Games for piano, I discovered that I no longer wanted a system - I have only one truth: a C in the middle of the keyboard and around it I could design a "nest", such as, for example, a folk song or a Gregorian song.

An artist is supposed to travel a lot and you are no exception. You lived in Romania, in Budapest, you studied in Paris and Berlin, you perform in the US, and you have lived for a short period of time in Holland; now you live in France. Still, where do you feel "at home"?

I have discovered that home is where I am with my wife. I work very well in France. We settled there because my son left Hungary for France in 1980 and we wanted to be closer to him and our grandchildren. We live in a small city near Bordeaux, but we also have an apartment in Budapest, so we also consider Budapest our home. And we were very happy when we got to Lugoj and Cluj for the first time and I felt at home there as well.

In conclusion, "home" is rather a state of mind. Is the environment more important than the place where you are in a specific moment?

The environment and all the memories connected to the place.
Irina Vasilescu
Translated by Ana Maria Comes
MA Student, MTTLC, Bucharest University