Arriving in Budapest, I receive a summons I cannot refuse. Gyorgy Kurtag wants to see me. Famously elusive, the last of the living avant-gardists is about to present his first opera at La Scala Milan this month and, if past form is anything to go by, he’s unlikely to utter much about it beyond a cryptic Magyar aphorism.
Kurtag is 92 and his Scala opera — Fin de Partie, after Samuel Beckett’s Endgame — is a hefty 450 pages long, which may be as much music as he has written in half a lifetime. So why is this master miniaturist — famous for compressing his ideas down to a few chords — submitting a vast opera to the unforgiving glare of an Italian first-night audience? It’s a bit like Beckett turning up at the Folies Bergère with a two-act cabaret.
I meet him that evening at the Budapest Music Centre, a corner house with two concert halls where the composer and his wife Marta live as guests of Laszlo Goz, a jazz musician who couldn’t bear to see them struggling up three flights of stairs to their old flat. It’s a Sunday and the centre is shuttered and silent as we take the lift up to the third floor. Kurtag is seated at a light-wood upright piano.
‘I want to play you my new piece,’ he says, after introductions.
‘How new?’ I ask.
‘I wrote it yesterday. For Marta. For her birthday.’
What follows is four minutes of unblinking concentration underpinned by an acute awareness that I am hearing a great composer play his music while it is still wet. The piece has a punning French text by Attila Jozsef, a suicidal Hungarian poet — Je n’ai point de thème/ excepté que je t’aime (I have no view, except that I love you) — quavered by Kurtag in a voice that barely breaches the pauses between his piano notes. Kurtag makes you listen more intently than any composer before or since. I know from the opening phrase that no one but Kurtag could have written it. His music falls like rain on a parched field, each drop finding a receptive patch. Even the silences are recognisably Kurtag. Silences, in Kurtag as in Beckett, are the foundations of his work.
When the piece is over Marta turns to me and asks, in German, ‘Do you have questions?’
The new opera is, by my rough count, the third work he has composed on Beckett. Why Beckett? Kurtag gives an affectionate shrug. ‘Ligeti,’ he smiles, ‘Ligeti once said I should go to see Beckett.’
Hungary’s two most important modernists met in a Budapest college corridor after the war and became instant friends. ‘I knew Gyorgy Ligeti before he did,’ interjects Marta, ‘we were refugees in Bucharest in ’44. Kurtag came later.’ The three of them spent every Saturday singing Mozart operas at the piano, Marta taking the female parts, Ligeti the male, Kurtag the orchestra. When the Russians invaded Hungary in October 1956, Ligeti and his wife decided to cross the Austrian border at night. The Kurtags were meant to join them but failed to show up. A year later they were reunited in Paris after Kurtag got permission to study there. He fell into depression and sought psychiatric help. Ligeti sent him to see a Beckett play in French. It became his composing breakthrough.
Had he, I wonder, ever considered James Joyce? ‘The last scene of Finnegans Wake!’ he cries, exultant at the memory. ‘Boulez gave me a commission for the London Symphony Orchestra,’ he chuckles. ‘But I needed to write it with a complicated female chorus. He told me that it had to go on tour and they could not afford to take so many women.’ There must have been another reason. No amateur English chorus could surely assimilate a new Kurtag piece in limited rehearsal time. I start to realise that his fragments of speech contain as many pauses as his music. He has more to say about Finnegans Wake: ‘Possibly I was afraid of it.’
He made his living for eight years as a repetiteur with the Hungarian national orchestra before being appointed professor of piano at the Franz Liszt Academy, teaching there for a quarter of a century. Marta was a concert pianist, performing across eastern Europe. Since 1973 Kurtag has been composing Játékok, a series of ‘pedagogical performance pieces’ inspired by the noise of kids in a playground. Reminiscent of Bela Bartok’s Mikrokosmos, the series harks back and forth to Bach, the composer they both revere. A private video of the nonagenarian Kurtags playing Gyorgy’s Bach transcriptions side-by-side at home has scored almost a quarter of a million hits on YouTube. This domestic double act has proved an unlikely triumph on tour, too.
How long has he been working on Endgame. ‘Five years before I accepted the commission [from La Scala and Dutch National Opera]. I don’t like commissions,’ he explains. ‘I like to see where a piece is going.’ Why did he wait so long to write an opera? He confides that there was one other idea that caught his imagination. ‘It was a Hungarian translation of a 16th-century version of the Elektra story, but there was already one Elektra…’
He is tiring, but his eyes are sparkling and he is keen to chat. Andras Keller, professor at the Guildhall School and a Kurtag pupil since he was 14, whispers in my ear, ‘He’s not always like this… he can be very quiet and severe.’ After a major premiere he will berate an orchestra for its faults, telling the principal flute that she alone played the right notes.
In recent weeks the La Scala cast — Frode Olsen, Leigh Melrose, Hilary Summers, Leonardo Cortellazzi and conductor Markus Stenz — have been visiting him to rehearse their parts. There is an archive downstairs containing all of his works for ready reference, as well as an impressive Mahler collection. Kurtag has Mahler’s ninth symphony — a kind of Endgame — open on his stand. His room — huge windows, chaotic work-tables — reminds me of Ligeti’s in Hamburg. I once heard Ligeti orate for an hour on a millennium of history as seen through his friendship with Kurtag. Since Ligeti’s death in 2006, Kurtag is all we have left.
Friends drop by daily to make sure the couple have all they need and the staff of the music centre will run up at the touch of a bell. Using a Zimmer frame to get about, Kurtag is kept sprightly by the woman he married 70 years ago. As he escorts us to the lift, Marta calls over, ‘Come on, you can do quicker than that.’ The last of the musical revolutionaries gives a huge grin and pretends to skip toward his beloved, whose birthday he has just celebrated in a minute new masterpiece.