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Profile of György Kurtág: Universal Edition

György Kurtág

Kafka-Fragmente, for soprano and violin: Part 3

Part Ten Chapter 13

In the spotlight on an all but empty stage they stand, the violinist and the singer. He is dressed in black. She’s draped in a white tunic. Fluid, the silk flows in a loose silhouette to the knees of her black leggings. Her high collar isolates her face; her red hair is pulled back into a ponytail. Listen! There’s anxiety in the violin’s elegy, restlessness in the soprano’s lyricism: the fecund tension of ambiguity.

You and Mara scored a triumph with your Munich recording, a triumph only outdone by your subsequent recitals. Is there enough variation now for you to make a comparison between your interpretations? Given the brevity of the pieces and the detail of the score, can one even speak of interpretation? The answer comes when I recall that every high-wire walker apprehends their fall in their own way, that every acrobat walks a tightrope differently. I think of my bedsit on Palmerston, the dark wood panelling, the damask wallpaper; I think of my lonely bed and late nights reading Franz: In becoming animal I became an artist.

Presentation of the album: ECM

Listen! The voice takes on an oboe-like drone while a tuning-peg glissando gives the violin a flute-like shimmer: In this music as in Kafka, there’s no place for complacency. I think of my bay window and the foreclosure of my future; I think of Franz’s answer to Felice when she asked him about his prospects: ‘Needless to say I have no plans, no prospects; I cannot step into the future’.

Listen! The violin’s left-hand pizzicati; the voice, resonant and staccato. With Felice, Franz was insufferable in his suffering. How could he ever have imagined he could be happy as her husband? And yet he was always lucid: ‘On the pretext of wanting to free you of me, I force myself upon you’. The better match was Milena: Franz just couldn’t overcome his fear.

Listen! The paring away of the inessential, the sculptural purity of concentrated sound: Fragment after fragment confirms the depth of the music, the depth of the darkness the spotlight lays bare. Kafka at Goethe’s house, flirting for days with the keeper’s daughter: Is there a link between his success with Greta and his failure with Milena? Might not his ease with girls be the other side of the coin of his difficulty with women? Could it be that girls, simply by accepting him as he was, gave him a sense of unconditional love that sexuality precluded women from giving? However great his lucidity about the world, it was not as great as his yearning for intimacy, a lasting intimacy with just one woman who—as he wrote to Milena—would enfold him. I think of you, I think of how you enfold me, and I feel the world falling away beneath my feet at the thought that you’re leaving.

Listen! Now fleeting as from afar, now full and familiar, the singer sings of two violinists making music in a tram speeding through the streets; now slow and sentimental, now fiery and free, the violinist plays, first on one violin, then on another: Capturing the charm of Kafka’s ‘Scene on a Streetcar’, the musicians remind us that all his life, Franz was moved by the most simple things. And I, Marietta, what moves me? I am moved by the child struggling to hold back his tears, not by the child who cries; I am moved by the dog on his last legs, his dignity when he steals away to die; I am moved by the wallflower who dances alone, not by the one who fades away. When you’re gone, I will try to be worthy of the child, the dog and the wallflower.

Egon Schiele, The Lovers, 1913


Kurtág’s selection of texts from Kafka’s diaries, notebooks and letters, trans. Jülia and Peter Sherwood

Haben? Sein?
Es gibt kein Haben, nur ein Sein, nur ein nach letztem Atem, nach Ersticken verlangendes Sein.
To have? To be?
There is no ’to have’, only a ‘to be’, a to be longing for the last breath, for suffocation.

Der Coitus als Bestrafung
Der Coitus als Bestrafung des Glückes des Beisammenseins.
Coitus as punishment
Coitus as punishment for the happiness of being together.

Meine Festung
Meine Gefängniszelle – meine Festung.
My fortress
My prison cell – my fortress.

Schmutzig bin ich, Milena
Schmutzig bin bin ich, Milena, endlos schmutzig, darum mache ich ein solches Geschrei mit der Reinheit. Niemand singt so rein als die, welche in der tiefsten HöIle sind; was wir für den Gesang der Engel halten, ist ihr Gesang.
I am dirty, Milena
I am dirty, Milena, endlessly dirty, that is why I make such a fuss about cleanliness. None sing as purely as those in deepest hell; it is their singing that we take for the singing of angels.

Elendes Leben
Geschlafen, aufgewacht, geschlafen, aufgewacht, elendes Leben.
Miserable life
Slept, woke, slept, woke, miserable life.

Der begrenzte Kreis
Der begrenzte Kreis ist rein.
The closed circle
The closed circle is pure.

Wassily Kandinsky, Angular, 1931

Wassily Kandinsky, Dull-Clear, 1928

Ziel, Weg, Zögern
Es gibt ein Ziel, aber keinen Weg; was wir Weg nennen, ist Zögern.
Destination, path, hesitation
There is a destination, but no path to it; what we call a path is hesitation.

So fest
So fest wie die Hand den Stein halt. Sie halt ihn aber fest, nur urn ihn desto weiter zu verwerfen. Aber auch in jene Weite führt der Weg.
As tightly
As tightly as the hand holds the stone. It holds it so tight only to cast it as far off as it can. Yet even that distance the path will reach.

Im Kampf zwischen dir und der Welt sekundiere der Welt.
Offensively Jewish
In the struggle between yourself and the world, side with the world.

Verstecke sind unzahlige, Rettung nur eine, aber Möglichkeiten der Rettung wieder so viele wie Verstecke.
There are countless hiding-places, but only one salvation; but then again, there are as many paths to salvation as there are hiding-places.

Staunend sahen wir das grosse Pferd
Staunend sahen wir das grosse Pferd. Es durchbrach das Dach unserer Stube. Der bewölkte Himmel zog sich schwach entlang des gewaltigen Umrisses, und rauschend flog die Mähne im Wind.
Amazed, we saw the great horse
Amazed, we saw the great horse. It broke through the ceiling of our room. The cloudy sky scudded weakly along its mighty silhouette as its mane streamed in the wind.

Szene in der Elektrischen
Die Tanzerin Eduardowa, eine Liebhaberin der Musik, fährt wie überall so auch in der Elektrischen in Begleitung zweier Violinisten, die sie häufig spielen Iässt. Denn es besteht kein Verbot, warum in der Elektrischen nicht gespielt werden dürfte, wenn das Spiel gut, den Mitfahrenden angenehm ist und nichts kostet, das heisst, wenn nachher nicht eingesammelt wird. Es ist allerdings im Anfang ein wenig überraschend, und ein Weilchen lang findet jeder, es sei unpassend. Aber bei voller Fahrt, starkem Luftzug und stiller Gasse klingt es hübsch.
Scene on a tram
The dancer Eduardowa, a music lover, travels everywhere, even on the tram, in the company of two violonists whom she frequently calls upon to play. For there is no ban on playing on the tram, provided the playing is good, it is pleasing to the other passengers, and it is free of charge, that is to say, the hat is not passed round afterwards. However, it is initially somewhat surprising and for a little while everyone considers it unseemly. But at full-speed, with a powerful current of air, and in a quiet street, it sounds nice.

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