György Kurtág

Kafka-Fragmente, for soprano and violin



Posted by kind permission of William Kinderman


From William Kinderman, The Creative Process in Music from Mozart to Kurtág (University of Illinois Press, 2012)


William Kinderman is a distinguished musical scholar and performer. He received a lifetime achievement award from the Humboldt Foundation in 2010. Since then, he has expanded his performance activities in new directions and, on the scholarship front, has published, in addition to The Creative Process in Music from Mozart to Kurtág, a book on the musical genesis, structure and interpretation of Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’ (Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’, 2013) and Beethoven: A Political Life (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming, 2020).

Like Franz Schubert’s Winterreise cycle, György Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments, op. 24 (1985–86), centers on the archetypal theme of wandering, the seeking of a path that remains profoundly elusive. Certain of the trenchant texts extracted by Kurtág from Kafka’s diaries and letters call into question or even deny the very existence of such a path, or Weg. Yet for Kurtág as for Schubert, the need to keep searching for the elusive goal is inescapable, an existential necessity. So central is this theme that it dominates the entire second part of the four-part structure of the Kafka Fragments as well as numerous other songs. In its overall length, taking approximately an hour in performance time, the Kafka Fragments is comparable to Schubert’s masterpiece, despite the intense compression of Kurtág’s style, which is often reminiscent of Webern.

Doug Frohman, Screens, 2015

Doug Frohman, Meeting of the Minds, 2011

Like many earlier song composers, Kurtág employs a single instrument to accompany the soprano on her journey, replacing the piano in this role by the violin. One trigger for his choice of the violin was the last song in part III, the ‘Szene in der Elektrischen’ (Scene in the electric streetcar), whose text is among the first entries in Kafka’s diary. In Kurtág’s setting of the text of this suggestive, almost operatic dream-vision, the dancer Eduardowa is accompanied by two different violinists, who are distinguished in performance by a change in instrument and tuning, with the single violinist changing position on the stage to signal the switch in role. The musical setting of the opening sentence has a floating, improvisatory quality, punctuated by a single bar line—the one placed after the words ‘a lover of music’ and preceding ‘travels everywhere.’ In what follows, two contrasting styles of music are offered by the violinist: a waltz of somewhat popular, sentimental character (as is especially noticeable at ‘E-lek-tri-schen’) and then a lively, fiery idiom strongly suggestive of a Romanian dance.

The Romanian dance is appropriately brash, fittingly unfitting (unpassend). These two styles are associated in turn with Eusebius and Florestan, respectively, the contrasting personality types used by Schumann, a composer whose legacy is especially important to Kurtág. The challenge of Kurtág’s style has much to do with his openness to the artistic legacy of the past. He does not profess to negate the past in achieving an artwork in the present; in Bartók’s terms, this music represents an evolution, not a revolution. Yet Kurtág is keenly sensitive to the pitfalls of composition in an age often beset by trends and oversimplification under the banner of slogans such as ‘modernism’ and ‘postmodernism.’ A distinguished performer and teacher, he is urgently concerned that his works be adequately conveyed in concerts and recordings.

Doug Frohman, End Game, 2011

Doug Frohman, Dream Map, 2011

In approaching the Kafka Fragments, we do well to recognize the indispensable tensional balance between sharply contrasting yet complementary aesthetic attitudes such as freedom and determination, imaginative fantasy and structural necessity. The oasis of the self; despair over human fallibility and vulnerability; skepticism about goals; the discernment of meaning in the apparently trivial; the wasting away of time; the unexpected presence of the uncanny: all of these soul-states surface in different ways in the pithy aphorisms from Kafka as set by Kurtág. In the architecture of the whole cycle, the prominent ideas of the path and its negation, on the one hand, and of a pair of wandering protagonists, on the other, are emphasized.

The processional ostinato of I/1, ‘Die Guten gehn im gleichen Schritt’ (The good march in even steps), with its straightforward, rigid alternation of C and D in the violin representing the overconfident steps of the ‘Good,’ provides a point of reference for the playful, capricious movements of the ‘others’ performing ‘dances of time,’ as conveyed in the vocal part. The steady steps of ‘Die Guten gehn’ also serve as springboard for the covering up of the ‘path’ with autumn leaves in I/2, whereas the extended setting of ‘Der wahre Weg’ (The true path), which forms the entirety of part II, submits the overextended notion of the ‘true path’ to decisive critique.

John Richard Fox, Untitled 7903, 1979

John Richard Fox, Untitled A, 1983

As we have seen, the last piece in part III, ‘Szene in der Elektrischen,’ employs the pair of violinists associated with Eusebius and Florestan, whereas the final piece of part IV and of the entire cycle, ‘Es blendete uns die Mondnacht’ (The moonlit night dazzled us), culminates with the image of a pair of snakes creeping through the dust, an ironic image with autobiographical resonance for Kurtág and his pianist wife, Márta Kurtág (although in no way limited to this personal association). The slithering of the snakes once more evokes the notion of a quest for an elusive path, while the scene is illuminated from an unearthly remove through moonlight.

Kurtág’s Jewish cultural background (which he shares with Kafka) surfaces in pieces like the ‘Hasidic Dance’ ‘Einmal brach ich mir das Bein’ (Once I broke my leg) (I/13) and ‘Penetrant Jüdisch’ (Insistently Jewish) (III/10). Kafka’s diaries only survived because his friend and literary executor, Max Brod, refused to destroy them as specified in Kafka’s will. Instead he published them after having fled from Prague to Israel in 1939, after the annexation of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany. In Kurtág these precious fragments found a reader who knew what it meant to live a clandestine, partial existence in the shadows.

Katherine Parker, Obscura, 2017

Katherine Parker, Fathom, 2016

Kurtág’s original engagement with the Kafka texts reaches back to the 1950s: ‘I received the writings of Kafka for the first time from Ligeti. I could at first not do much with them. The Trial remained foreign to me, but it was in Paris in 1957/58, I believe, through The Metamorphosis, that I found access. Gradually Kafka became more and more important for me. Over a long period I simply wrote out and collected fragments from diaries or letters, which seemed to me suitable for composition on account of their poetic qualities or complex content.’

Sustained composition of the cycle began in the summer of 1985. Kurtág was then occupied with the writing of a piano concerto, a work for which he made sixty pages of sketches and assigned the opus number 21, although the concerto has remained unfinished to the present day. Displacing his labors on the concerto, the Kafka project assumed priority, and Kurtág recalled how ‘almost by accident I began to sketch the music to a few of the selected texts, like a little boy relishing a forbidden treat.’ A trace of the unrealized piano concerto is preserved in Kurtág’s inscription under the title of I/17 of the Kafka Fragments, ‘Stolz’ (Pride): ‘Promise to Zoltán Kocsis: there will be a piano concerto.’ During that summer of 1985 Kurtág interrupted his work on the concerto for Kocsis while he was engaged with courses and performances at the Bartók seminar held at the ancient town of Szombathely in western Hungary; it was there that the Kafka texts exerted their hold over him and that some of the songs were conceived in rapid succession.

Elvire Ferle, Untitled 3, 2014

Elvire Ferle, Sans Titre VI, 2002

Kurtág’s compositions often harbor allusions as well as messages and homages, which absorb moments of the biographical context drawn from real life into a rich and subtle artistic world. At Szombathely that summer were two musicians who played key roles in the genesis of the Kafka Fragments: Adrienne Csengery, the soprano who first performed and recorded the cycle, and András Keller, the violinist who joined Csengery in those performances and in the initial recording of the Kafka Fragments. Csengery’s wide vocal range accommodated the challenging low register of parts of the Kafka Fragments, such as ‘Der wahre Weg,’ while her operatic experience and dramatic verve prepared her for the vivid contrasts and dark humor of other songs.

Keller assisted the composer with the elaborate violin part, which tests the limits of artistic realization. As Kurtág himself put it, referring to the violinist in a published interview: ‘I sometimes think: Keller has proven to me that the Kafka Fragments is a work of genius.’

Elvire Ferle, Sans Titre XVI, 2006–08


Alice Teichert, Interview, 2014

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.

Alice Teichert, Way of Being, 2018

Alice Teichert, Talking Winds, 2018

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.

Alice Teichert, Letters of Life, 2018

Alice Teichert, Elemental F, 2018

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.

Alice Teichert, Elemental E, 2018


Mirka Šćepanović, Violin

Céline Wasmer, Soprano | Mirka Šćepanović, Violin

Céline Wasmer, Soprano


Juliane Banse, soprano

Kurtág, Kafka Fragments | Banse & Keller | ECM

András Keller, violin



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

Pierre Soulages, Painting, 2013

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.

Pierre Soulages, Painting, 2012

Pierre Soulages, Painting, 2013

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.

Pierre Soulages, Painting, 2013

Pierre Soulages, Painting, 2013

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.

Pierre Soulages, Painting, 2013

Pierre Soulages, Painting, 2013

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.

Pierre Soulages, Painting, 2013

Pierre Soulages, Painting, 2013

Penetrant jüdisch


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 unzählige, 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.

Pierre Soulages, Painting, 2014

Pierre Soulages, Painting, 2013

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 violinists 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.

Pierre Soulages, Painting, 1990











Nina Hagen

Mara Marietta