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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
Der Coitus als Bestrafung des Glückes des Beisammenseins.
Coitus as punishment for the happiness of being together.
Meine Gefängniszelle – meine Festung.
My prison cell – my fortress.
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, 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.
Geschlafen, aufgewacht, geschlafen, aufgewacht, elendes Leben.
Slept, woke, slept, woke, miserable life.
Der begrenzte Kreis ist rein.
The closed circle is pure.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.