- György Kurtág: The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza, Op. 7, A 'Concerto' for Soprano and Piano
Described in the preface by series editor Wyndham Thomas as a "specialist book on [an] individual work composed since the end of the Second World War," (p. xiii) this is a concisely written tome on a single composition by a single composer. In this case the composition in question is György Kurtág's The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza, Op. 7, a work begun in 1963 when the composer was 37 years old and completed by 1968.
Rachel Beckles Willson's impressive command of the Hungarian language and invaluable first-hand experience provide readers with a true insider's perspective of a remarkable composer and, apparently, a watershed composition. However, for those unfamiliar with Kurtág, his cultural milieu, and the Hungarian historical landscape in general, vital points of reference are lacking. For example, we must read twelve pages into the first chapter to learn of Kurtág's relationship with György Ligeti, a more familiar figure to Western readers. Perhaps mention of compositions from some of Kurtág's contemporaries could have been mentioned for the sake of comparison, at least to provide much needed context. It leads one to conclude that the author is completely immersed in her subject and is perhaps somewhat too close to it. This is evident in the number of Hungarian dramatis personae that she is remiss in identifying.
The book is in three parts: "Part I. Prehistory, Context and Earlier Works;""Part II. The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza;" and "Part III. Reception," with two copiously illustrated chapters in each section. Chapters 1 and 2, titled "1926–1956" and "1957– 1968," respectively, provide the reader with an important timeline for the composer's creative development. We learn of Kurtág's difficult beginnings in Romania, his arrival in Budapest, and how he came to music later in his life. Willson paints an accurate picture of the musician's struggles against the oppressive political backdrop of the time and poor living conditions endured by Kurtág and his countrymen, not to mention the disillusionment born out of the same misguided optimism shared by his artistic counterparts in neighboring Eastern European countries. More importantly we realize how much artists and musicians living in Communist Eastern Europe were cut off from the West, with extremely limited access to Western developments and innovations. Here and throughout the book, Willson tends to digress from her narrative. Indeed one tends to wonder about the relevance of some of the material she introduces (for example the poem by Attila József on page 20). Time and again, there is a serious need to better identify the many personalities that appear throughout. The flow of her narration is further complicated by the abundance of Hungarian in her text, most of which should have been relegated to her citations.
Part II deals with Kurtág's setting of the Bornemisza poem; its two chapters address the words and the music respectively. As a pretext for Kurtág's choice of the Bornemisza work, Willson attempts to draw a difficult parallel between Bornemisza's sixteenth century and Kurtág's time:
Despite the obvious differences brought by the passage of four hundred years, it is not difficult to recognize characteristics of Hungary which persisted between the life of Bornemisza and Kurtág's birth in 1926. The Ottomans were long gone and [End Page 393] the Habsburg Empire had dissolved, but Hungary was shortly to align itself with Nazi Germany and would slip smoothly into the grasp of the Soviet Union thereafter. The country was as caught up in the battles of greater powers in the twentieth century as in the sixteenth.(p. 60)
Such an argument could be made for any pair of centuries. The fact remains that there...