Forum Introduction:

Reading Kurtág, Reading with Kurtág: Musico-Literary Perspectives

Dina Lentsner, Karl Katschthaler, and Julia Galieva-Szokolay


Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 62, no.1 (Spring 2018), pp. 118-119


Works of many prominent modern writers are often described as being “musical”—an analogy that suggests that contemporary novels and essays rely on formal structures associated with music, or involve treatment of words as expressive tonal complexes, or employ syntactic procedures that allude to musical processes.

Similarly, scores of many distinguished composers are considered “literary.” In György Kurtág’s works, this quality is undeniable. Born in 1926 in the Bánát region of Romania, Kurtág has spent most of his career in Hungary. Kurtág is a recipient of numerous prestigious awards and an icon of the post-war Webern-Bartókian tradition. Among the characteristics that contribute to “literariness” of Kurtág’s music are the predominance of works with words, the abundant references to the corpus of written texts in several languages, and the unique aphoristic manner of organizing and developing musical discourse that shows affinity with some of the most advanced literary techniques and approaches.

The three essays of this forum on Kurtág consider the “literary” aspect of his music from different perspectives; yet, all three scholars concur on the ground that the composer’s literary sensitivity affects his work beyond the response to poetry as sung texts. Karl Katschthaler scrutinizes hermeneutics of Kurtág-reader and Kurtág-author as this phenomenon emerges from the setting of fragments from Franz Kafka’s diaries and notebooks. Dina Lentsner sees literature as an intertextual space, taking into account Kurtág’s use of poetic epigraphs and an epilogue in the cycles written to the texts by Rimma Dalos. Julia Galieva investigates the way Kurtág configures his authorial position in the setting of Lermontov by focusing on musical references which extend far beyond the immediate framework of the chosen text.

In recent years Kurtág, who is now 92, has been working on his first opera, based on the play Fin de partie (Endgame) by Samuel Beckett, one of his favorite authors. The opera will premiere as a coproduction of Teatro alla Scala and De National Opera, Amsterdam on November 15, 2018 in Milan. In anticipation of this event, the following essays explore how the examination of specific musical works through the lens of literary models, genres, or historic and aesthetic practices may enhance our understanding of Kurtág’s music.