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This article is taken from PN Review 198, Volume 37 Number 4, February - March 2011.

Samuel Beckett What is the Word, by György Kurtág Gabriel Josipovici
The quiet and reticent Hungarian composer György Kurtág (born 1926) has emerged in the last twenty years as one of the great artists of the post-war era. This is rather surprising when one recalls how diffident and faltering were his first steps in composition, how marginal he has been for much of his life, stuck away in Communist Hungary, and how modest his music-making has been, with no operas and no vast choral and orchestral works to his name. It is, though, perhaps this very modesty, this marginality, that has made him such a potent artistic force in our confused, fragmented and disillusioned world.

On his first visit to Paris, to study with Olivier Messiaen, in 1957-8, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, he experienced a kind of breakdown and found that he could no longer compose. As had happened to Hofmannsthal's fictitious Lord Chandos sixty years earlier, the creative act, which had until then seemed so natural to him, suddenly became impossible. He no longer knew how or where to start, or how to go on. He fell into a depression. He was saved from this, he says, by a wonderful psychologist, Marianne Stein, who helped him recover by suggesting he go back to the most primitive building blocks and simply put down one note and then, if possible, another. One note, after all, is a noise; two notes are already a composition. At the time, too, he encountered the music of Anton Webern and ...


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