This excellent book
is a major contribution to Kurtág
studies. For specialists it is illuminating
as it presents many perceptive observations
on the composer and his work. Ms Willson,
perhaps the best know Kurtág
scholar, knows the composer, his work
and his milieu extremely well. Indeed,
Kurtág himself co-operated in
the writing of this book. It is both
a first-hand source, as well as unusually
well informed and objective. For the
non-specialist, too, for it provides
plenty of background and also gives
a careful analysis of how the composition
works musically. Ms Willson's analysis
of the work is thought through clearly
and logically set out, each detail well
supported. This book is a shining example
of how music analysis can be written.
It spurs readers to listen with focused
attention, so they too can develop an
To cap all this, the
book includes a CD recording of the
concerto, which is not easily available.
The recording is an integral part of
the book, and is on its own merits superb.
It is performed by Erika Sziklay and
Lóránt Szucs who gave
the premiere. They speak about the experience
in the book
Ligeti, was shaped by his upbringing
in war-torn Romania and Hungary. Like
other penurious composers, he wrote
political music to get by. Nonetheless,
his Korean Cantata, for baritone solo
and choir, reflected his own feelings.
After the Uprising of 1956, Kurtág
suffered a crisis of self belief, which
led him to review his life and art.
He was permitted a sojourn in Paris.
He learned Webern, Messiaen and Milhaud,
and worked with the art psychologist
Marianne Stein. Willson explains Kurtág’s
return to Hungary, and how his music
developed a distinct, aphoristic style
under the conservative regime. The Sayings
is a work crucial to his creative growth.
"It was the first explicit formulation
of his most basic question", says Willson,
"namely how one can face one's mistakes
and reorient to one's true path".
In the sixteenth century,
Hungary was divided, part ruled by the
Habsburgs, part by the Turks and part
caught up in civil war. Péter
Bornemisza was a Protestant preacher
who responded to his turbulent times
by becoming a political activist. He
was imprisoned and went into hiding,
unlike Kurtág who was a public
figure, but reticent.
commentary on the music is a tour de
force, the central feature of the whole
book. The analysis is lucid and comprehensive,
reinforced by many quotations from the
score. The cycle starts with "Confession"
setting out the basic premise that God
sends temptations, which may be beyond
resistance. The music is so densely
scored that it seems almost impossible
to play. "How can a five-part monotone
canonic texture speak in five autonomous
voices?" It forces the performers to
achieve effects almost beyond their
abilities, since "the struggle towards
the unattainable is of defining character"
to the piece.
The Devil appears in
the ten parts of "Sin". In the first
three parts the voice paints the Devil
as a seductive tempter, but soon the
vocal line breaks into tiny syllabic
utterances. The piano follows with strictly
symmetrical sets of chords. The disintegration
of order in the voice enhances text
lines like "so man might recognize his
own inner ingrained corruption". The
third part of the concerto is titled
"Death". A Bulgarian Dance of Death
contrasts with a fugue on piano of extraordinary
complexity, and later, a funeral procession
is evoked. Then, a change in mood, with
"Spring". The soprano basks in the faith
that spring will bring rejuvenation.
Willson describes masterfully, though,
how the music hints at more equivocal
A further chapter charts
the changes in responses to the piece
since its first performance in 1968.
Learning how different people reacted
to this music over time is in itself
useful in coming to understand it.
By training, Willson
is a musician as well as a musicologist,
her insights honed by an understanding
of performance issues. Hence she discusses
the music with some of its leading performers.
Erika Siklay, the soprano who was first
to realise the piece, speaks about musical
life in Hungary in the 1960s, when "new"
music could only be heard in illegal
gatherings. Lóránt Szucs
recounts that the Sayings was still
being amended while rehearsals for the
recording began. Both described rehearsals
with the composer as gruelling. Pierre-Laurent
Aimard owns a score with numerous annotations,
and discussed them with Willson. He
describes in graphic terms how he feels
when preparing the piece for performance.
"Every time you feel this motif, you
should feel the knife carving your flesh".
As Willson explains, Kurtág's
method is to create within the performer
"experiences that he himself sees
as bringing the music to life."
Willson's deep feeling
for the music, the work of the composer
and the cultural background is quite
moving. I listened repeatedly to the
CD before reading the book, and was
formulating a response on instinctive
terms. Nonetheless, reading Willson
advanced my appreciation immeasurably.
This is not the easiest music to absorb,
so it is a pleasure to explore it guided
by the enthusiasm of a learned Kurtág
scholar and by performers like Aimard.
Willson's sensitivity and understanding
is a model of musical analysis and depth.
She has certainly made me feel close
to this work and develop my feelings.
A bibliography and
translation, written for performance
in English, make this a excellent reference
book. It would have helped, though to
give the original Hungarian text. It
would be interesting, too, to hear what
Willson says about how the Sayings fit
in with Kurtág's later compositions.