Kurtag, Gyorgy: ‘Hommage a Robert Schumann’

The Hungarian musical tradition is enormously rich up to the middle of the twentieth century, but in the chill of the Soviet occupation, after Bartok and Dohnànyi had left – and especially after Kodàly had died – there was much silence outside of Socialist realism. GYÖRGY KURTÁG is one of very few Hungarian composers to have survived the Soviet era and gone on to make a mark in international contemporary music.

The music for which he has become known descends most evidently from Bartok and speech-pattern on the one hand, and from Anton Webern’s intensely aphoristic expressionism on the other. His match of extreme brevity to the patterns of speech (rather than patterns of tones and gesture, as in Webern) points to intense moments of personal or intrapersonal memory, and to splintered memories of people and voices. His many ‘homage’ works show a complex and persistent interest in the mnemonic, historical, and personal. To name a few: Hommage à Nancy Sinatra, Homage to Tchaikovsky, and In Memory of a Just Person (all from Games); Omaggio a Luigi Nono; Grabstein für Stephan; In memoriam Zilcz György; Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervanszky; S.K. Remembrance Noise; Hommage à Robert Schumann; and others. For a composer whose opus numbers go only to 40, these titles constitute a defining tendency.

In using the instrumentation from Märchenerzählungen for his Hommage, Kurtàg refers both to the fantasy-memory of fairy tale (‘Once upon a time…’), and to the actual historical death of Schumann. Kurtàg’s movements also refer to the pseudonymous characters Schumann created for himself as composer and critic: Johannes Kreisler, Florestan (F.), Eusebius (E.), and Meister Raro. (These characters simultaneously constitute Schumann’s own personal fairy tales and fragments of his own fragile character. They were borrowed, to a greater or lesser degree, from characters in the literature of Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffman.) Into this already complex memory of Schumann and his character(s), Kurtàg blends elements of his own life and work, including references to his own Kafka Fragmente and …Quasi una fantasia….

The first five movements are extremely fleeting – gone in a matter of three or four minutes. The effect of the more extended sixth movement, an imagined meeting of Meister Raro (who served as a mediator between Florestan and Eusebius in Schumann’s psychological narrative) with the medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut, is strange and powerful. At the unmistakable end of Schumann’s life, we are left with memories of an historical character filtered through his own fractured fairy tales, given too briefly to hold, but too affectively to forget. As Ezra Pound described, imprisoned in Pisa, and looking to (bird)song and Medieval music for aid:

      nothing matters but the quality
of the affection –
in the end – that has carved the trace in the mind
dove sta memoria

— Ezra Pound, Pisan Cantos, Canto LXXVI

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