Thursday, 5 November 2009

György on György

Bálint András Varga’s recently published György Kurtág: Three Interviews and Ligeti Homages is a compelling view of the composer at work and his unquenchable thirst for artistic and human impressions. Rather than trying to find a representative piece from the interviews to excerpt, we decided to use one of Kurtág’s pieces on Ligeti: these demonstrate the composer’s love and admiration for his great friend in terms that cannot fail to move the reader.

The following is taken from the opening of Kurtág’s speech read in the presence of Ligeti at a ceremony in Munich in May 1993, where Ligeti was presented with the Siemens Prize. Kurtág is inhibited about speaking in public, but put together a beautifully inventive series of memories presented as scenes in a kind of theatre, as he explains in his introduction.

Dear György Ligeti,
Honored ladies and gentlemen,

How to speak—when one is not a master of words? How can I evoke scenes from the time we spent with Ligeti without having a minimum of eloquence at my disposal to connect my narrative with what came before and afterward?

If I could compose my memories like music I would have to tell them simultaneously —the chief strands in the middle—as if on a podium—and then imagine the scenes—for example, what Ligeti experienced earlier and I only know from his or others’ descriptions—let’s say high up—in a back corner—the consequences of the central events also somewhere at the side or the top center; and a series of merely illuminating incidents over the course of many years—so to speak—all around us.

So, first scene (central—on the podium):

Christmas Eve 1957—according to a telegram I still have, at 11:02 p.m. — Paris—Gare du Nord. Ligeti arrives in Paris for the first time in his life. I wait at the station. The pianist György Szoltsányi, my friend and our host that evening, finds it strange that someone should want to travel so late on Christmas Eve. He invites Ligeti as well to his home at 48 Boulevard Garibaldi.
“The metro is still running,” I say.
“No, let’s walk!”
And without hesitating Ligeti leads me through the streets of Paris, I who have lived here for over six months—naming every intersection and the streets beyond.

(back corner, top, left):
Ligeti’s early childhood. His obsessive pastime: perusing maps and memorizing them by heart—among them the map of his dream city, Paris—while already working on his fictitious country, Kylwyria.

(front, top, right):
The spirit of the Kylwyria construct seems to be hereditary—also in his early childhood, his son Lukas spent years writing the encyclopedia of his invented planet, with examples from its scientific history, literature, fine arts, and music.

(front, top, left):
The musical examples from this encyclopedia will later form an important starting point for my Játékok—or Games—for piano (and now a summary—all around us): For a long time, a lifetime, Ligeti led me onward. No, I must correct myself immediately: I followed him—sometimes right behind him and other times years or even decades later. I call it my “Imitatio Christi” syndrome. The first years of our friendship were marked not only by his intellectual leadership. Without being immediately influenced, I oriented my taste—even steps in my private life—according to his example.

(podium, center):
The Budapest Academy of Music, twelve years earlier—the beginning of September 1945. The entrance examination in composition. A very serious looking, friendly but distant young man, perhaps also distant because of his glasses, waits beside me. He seems older, but as I flip through his compositions it strikes me that he is a generation older. Choral works, probably also the second Cantata. From the Latin text I assume not very logically that he is a Calvinist theologian. There are also instrumental works and I see, or rather feel intuitively, that these are no student compositions. They comprise a self-contained, mature world, reigned over by a striking order in the note texture. My feeling: I have met a master.

(still on the podium, center):
Early July 1958. Now it is I who arrive, and he who waits for me at the station in Cologne. He talks about Stockhausen’s most recent works on the way to the hotel and then straight on to the radio station where I would listen to the recordings over the next two days, telling me of the Groups for Three Orchestras with three conductors, and of its Alban Berg-like violin cadences and the segments with the dramatic, wildly jostling and quarreling brass instruments. These are the sections that strike me the most vividly when I hear the Groups in Stockhausen’s presence at the studio. Artikulation, also a new work, overwhelms me entirely. I experience the work as the first true Ligeti—marked by a density of events, a directness in its statement and a fine balance of humor and tragedy that still seem to me unsurpassed, even compared with his later development.

(top, back, right):
I speak of my impressions from those days, not of the absolute value of the compositions. But even later these two—Artikulation, Atmosphères—remain for me absolute masterpieces—representing two basic aspects of Ligeti’s work. Apparitions seemed to me rather a station on the way to them.

(top, front, left):
Today I view Apparitions entirely differently, but my loves nevertheless remain: Artikulation, Atmosphères.

(top, front, right):
After my return to Hungary—we would not see each other for ten years—I began my new life with Opus 1. From then on, my ideal and aspiration was to formulate in my language something similar to what I had experienced with Artikulation in Cologne.

(top, back, left):
He had written me in Paris: “You must get to know the studio in Cologne before you go back to Hungary”—knowing how difficult it would be for me to leave the country again. And in fact, these two days were musically far richer and more meaningful for me than the entire year in Paris. What I failed to see was that although he earned practically nothing for years, he underwent great sacrifices to pay for my room and board.

The piece continues in Bálint András Varga’s György Kurtág: Three Interviews and Ligeti Homages (one of ReadySteadyBook’s selections of the month for November 2009), available now from all good booksellers. It is followed by a speech given in 2007 in Berlin in memory of Ligeti. Kurtág begins, ‘Obituary, speech of mourning? For me he’s more alive than ever.’

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