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Kylwyria - Kálvária

Hungarian composer György Kurtág remembers his lifelong friend, György Ligeti, a gesamtkunstwerk.

The speech below was delivered by Hungarian composer György Kurtág at a memorial session of the Ordre Pour le Mérite in Berlin. The section marked "Appendix" gathers thoughts and ideas he was not able to deliver in his speech for lack of time. Mr Kurtág has insisted upon our using Hungarian accents and diacritical marks. We apologise to any readers who are not able to view these.

Obituary, speech of mourning? For me he's more alive than ever. For months my small study in St. Andre has been filled with his compositions, writings and speeches, with essays, articles and commemorative texts about him. Again and again I read the scores and listen to all the recordings I can get my hands on.

György Kurtág. photograph: István Huszti. Courtesy BMC Records

In front of me is his life's work - perhaps even his life.

No end of things I'd like to tell him, including what I've finally understood about his music after decades. Perhaps there are correlations that only I've discovered now. So many things I'd like to ask. Sometimes his later works give answers, but other times it seems hopeless because he's not here to explain them.

* * *

I'd like to find out how you too might have known him. I must summon the help of those better equipped than me to portray him.

"You had to hear him speak, if possible see him," writes Wolfgang Sandner (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 17.06.06), referring to Ligeti's lively, expressive gestures. "He was a master of the rare art of linguistic polyphony. Anyone lucky enough to experience his wonderful way of expressing himself could understand his music far better afterwards. Because his language bore a striking congruence to his scores. The same lively, bustling sound configurations, the richness of associations, the far-fetched lightness of touch that nevertheless grew in some magical way into a complex linguistic architecture. Ligeti was a gesamtkunstwerk."

* * *

A recollection written by neurobiologist Gerhard Neuweiler, Ligeti's closest friend during the last six years of his life:

"He began asking me what I was doing at the moment... He questioned, and I answered, he probed, and I responded, he bored deeper and deeper..., he was like a volcano, always spewing new ideas, stimulations, doubts, questions... He forced me to reflect and inquire more closely, and through his inquisitorial curiosity he led me into new and unexpected aspects of my own discipline."

In my own private mythology I ascribe this kind of probing to the Socrates-Ligeti.

* * *

Yes, that curiosity!

Now I quote his words from 1993:

"As different as the criteria for art and science are, they are similar in that those who work in them are driven by curiosity. The key thing in both areas is to investigate coherences still undiscovered by others, and to create structures that haven't existed until now."

* * *

This "insatiable curiosity, the euphoria of discovering and understanding, the breath-taking speed of thought," as Hungarian composer László Vidovszky put it, which characterised the heights of the Renaissance, this never-being-content with what you've achieved, always on the lookout for new ways of expression...

György Ligeti (1989)
© Schott Promotion / Kropp

At the same time, the true Ligetian poiesis emerges from the experiences of musical history from Machaut to today.

Much has been written about how he profited from folklore research (that of Brăiloiu, Kubik, Simha Arom and of course, again and again, Bartók), but it seems that even he forgot that it was the young Ligeti (1950 - 53) who revealed in a seminal essay the functioning and harmonising patterns of Romanian folk orchestras.

For him, "the sciences were also a true source of inspiration" (Vidovszky). With Marina Lobanova he spoke about the "paradoxes and beauties of the mathematical way of thinking..."

And literature, the arts...

From Heinrich von Kleist to Gyula Krúdy, from Proust to Weöres, Hölderlin and Kafka, Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll, the Joyce of "Finnegan's Wake," from Beckett and Ionesco to the Borges of "Labyrinths", from Bosch to Piranesi, from Cézanne to Miro and Escher - so much is reflected in this music!

* * *

We met and became friends sixty-two years ago. In the first days of September in 1945, the entrance exam for the composition class at the Budapest Music Academy changed my life forever. We waited to be called. At the same time I flipped through his scores, and saw how far above me his knowledge, maturity and musical fantasy put him.

I hooked up with him for life. Until 1956, as long as he lived in Budapest, we were bound by a close friendship. I had the privilege of witnessing the creation of his works, and participating in his life. I was there when he met Vera, and best man at their wedding in 1952.

I see his life as a single entity, his oeuvre as endlessly ramified, held together by LOYALTY, fidelity. Above all to childhood.

a) His early childhood Urtraum: motionless textural blocks transform gradually and imperceptibly, squirming and writhing from inside, on the verge of building musical structures. For decades this will be one of his fundamental musical typologies, appearing in its purest form in the immense chromatic clusters and micropolyphonic meshes of his "Atmosphères". Then later in the beseeching voice fascicles of the Kyrie fugue in "Requiem" (1962 - 1965), unapproachable in its perfection.

György Kurtág. Photograph: István Huszti. Courtesy BMC Records

b) Kylwyria, his imaginary country, which he built up between the ages of five and thirteen. He drew colourful orohydrographic maps which could pass for Miro paintings, invented the Kylwyrian language and grammar, geography and history, describing in naive Utopian terms Kylwyria's legal and social systems.

Out of Kylwyria come his "Aventures" and "Nouvelles Aventures" (1962 - 1965). They articulate his second fundamental musical typology: abundant humour, dramatic twists and turns, unexpected tremorous flashes and equally unexpected moments of pause, aggression and apprehension. The three singers develop very human relationships on the basis of non-existent phonetic (Super-Kylwyrian?!) linguistic material. His intention was to unite the two "Aventures" in a single opera entitled "Kylwyria". Happily, "Le Grand Macabre" was born instead!

Equally, in the "Dies Irae" of the "Requiem" a Medieval sequence of images unfurls from desperation to anxiety, from the tragic to the grotesque, as if intoning the flash point of a "Last Judgement" by Hieronymus Bosch or Hans Memling.

c) Sometime in his childhood he read the novella by Gyula Krúdy about an old widow whose apartment is bathed in twilight and stuffed full of antique clocks which beat confused, irregular time, creating a unique atmosphere. From this childhood memory and his experience with the "Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes," Ligeti developed a new type of scherzo whose tempo and character notations already disclose much: "Come un mecanismo die precisione" (String quartet Nr. 2, III) or "Movimento preciso e meccanico" (Chamber concerto III).

The 1962 world premiere of the "Poème symphonique for 100 - mechanical - metronomes" was a scandal. The title, harking back to the heyday of Romanticism, together with the mechanically oscillating metronomes was like a provocation, an attempt to "épater le bourgeois." But later concerts showed the sheer poetry of the piece over and above its daring novelty. At first the metronomes, all set at different speeds and set in motion at the same time, build an impermeable mesh of sound. But then the structure becomes increasingly clear as the quickest machines run to a halt. The beats of the two slowest, the two 'soloists' remaining at the end, are like a moving, lyrical farewell.

* * *

The last minutes. Vera and Lukas are by his side.

His breathing slows, halts, starts again, becomes even slower.

Lukas: "Like the end of the metronome piece."

... the breathing slows even more and then... - stops.

* * *

On the afternoon concert on the day of the funeral service the "Poème symphonique." Astounding, tragic, Beckett-like.



Remarks with no claim to completeness or system...

... on the theme of "loyalty." Symmetries in work and life.

Again and again he comes back to the poetry of Sándor Weöres. After 1956, Weöres is the sole Hungarian poet whose work Ligeti sets to music.

1946: For me "Táncol a Hold" (The moon is dancing) and "Kalmár jött nagy madarakkal" (A peddlar came with large birds - 2 songs with piano accompaniment) are explosive, courageous, surrealistic madness, both self-discovery and promise for the future, incomparable with anything in his oeuvre right up until the electronic "Artikulation" of 1958. I would almost say that I count the "true" Ligeti from this point on.

2000: His last completed work, again setting poems by Sandor Weöres to music: "Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel" (With pipes, drums and fiddles).

Right away in the first song it moves mountains with a few strokes, instilling the grey wolves with fear and horror. The enchanting instrumentation of the "Bitter sweet" in the 6th movement is a revival of North-Transylvanian folk songs. Its harmonies integrate Kodály - heard through Bartók - and are reminiscent of the Ligeti of the 1940s and early 50s.

It may be a coincidence, but then again it may not, that his life's work closes with Sándor Weöres and his mother tongue.

In 1955, Weöres: "Éjszaka" (Night) and "Reggel" (Morning) for mixed choir. Perhaps the most perfect composition of this kind in his years spent in Hungary.

"Éjszaka" foreshadows the meshwork of "Atmospheres", without however pointing clearly in this direction. The author of this work could follow brilliantly in Bartok's footsteps. (His first string quartet, "Metamorphoses Nocturnes," is just as alive to me as if it were Bartok's unwritten 7th. And apart from Bartok's six, this work remains the most important string quartet ever written in post-WWII Hungary.)

In 1955-56, he worked on Weöres' "Istar pokoljárása" (Istar's descent into hell). True, all that remains of it is a few sheets of sketches, but we talked about it so much at the time that it has fixed itself in my memory as a special, major work.

In 1983, Weöres once more with the "Magyar Etüdök" (Hungarian Etudes). The first, the "mirror canon," displays breathtakingly virtuosity. The third, "Vásár" (The Fair), arranges five choir groups, each one set apart from the rest. Every group sings five different poems, each in a different tempo. Their melodies refer to Hungarian folk music in ever-changing ways, without being direct quotations. Dizzying, teeming, fairground business, in all its density.


Ligeti's knowledge of folk music didn't come from books. From the age of three he was surrounded by the living reality of Hungarian and Rumanian folklore. As a small child enjoying the summer freshness in Csikszereda (Rumanian: Miercurea-Ciuc) in the Transylvanian mountains, he listened to the bucium, the Romanian alpenhorn.

Its special sound (which immediately attracted him to this instrument measuring several metres) derives from its ability to form only natural overtones. These sound false, yet attractive, to our ears accustomed to a tempered tuning.

1949 to 1950, he studied in Romania. He worked at the Bucharest and Cluj Institutes for Folklore, listening to and making many recordings.

1951: "Concert românesc" for orchestra. The horn solo in the third movement demands a bucium-like natural sound of the soloist.

1998-99: "Hamburg concerto" in 6 movements. In 2001 he added a seventh. The work is a horn concerto for soloist, 4 differently-tuned natural horns and orchestra. This is the most decisive progression to a new harmonic world. Each horn plays its own natural tones. But their different tunings interfere with the harmony. In this way he transgresses the tempered tone system with the simplest means.

Whether the composition is finished remains an open question. In any case, he spoke at the time of more movements.

But perhaps it wasn't sickness that hindered him; he may have considered the piece finished with 7 movements. In any event, the consequences of the work could not have been fully exhausted. For those who come after it is seminal, opening up new ground for their quests.


Hölderlin could have said of this person, this bundle of nerves and movement with a restless, fervent imagination:

... Gewaltig hat ihn Apollo geschlagen! - ... Apollo has struck him resoundingly!

Step by step:

a) At first pains in his legs, growing stronger. Then increasing difficulty walking and moving. At the same time, in 2001, he wrote the acceptance speech for the Kyoto Prize. This is full of important biographical details, containing at the end professional and professional-ethical advice which young composers would do very well to heed. He writes the 7th movement of the "Horn Concerto."

b) In 2002 he moves back to Vienna. For good. Vera cares for him.

c) At the concert celebrating his 80th birthday he is already in a wheelchair.

d) Then years bedridden. He stops composing altogether, telling Vera: "If I can't move, I can't give form or shape to something either."
Leg operations result from faulty diagnoses.
Two more operations follow the discovery that his afflictions stem in the brain, or rather the central nervous system.

e) For a year all he does is read, almost 24 hours a day, increasingly turning to works of science.

f) Then his hands fail him as well. Vera puts on music for him: Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, but above all Bach. And she reads to him for hours at a time, entire books.

g) As the perspective of recovery fades: restrained indignation and anger, depressions, but also severe pains. He can no longer even bear to hear music.
Night for night he watches the Bavarian television station's scientific channel "Bayern Alpha" with intense interest: academic lectures in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and astronomy, but also philosophy, geography, history and politics. And he attentively follows the scientific lecture series on Budapest's Duna TV.

He still dreams of music. And a new piano etude. Yet he no longer has the strength to write it down or even give it form.

h) Then long silences, sometimes lasting several days. He lies motionless with his eyes closed, but he still reacts to the scientific lectures now and then with a few words. Occasionally he throws in the key term before it's said!

i) Wordlessly and without complaint, already far along the path of despair, he learns that his friend Gerhard Neuweiler is severely ill: Ligeti weeps!


My wife Márta and I followed the last years of his illness through faxes and telephone calls to Vera.

We saw him for the last time in Vienna at the end of February 2006. We were filled with trepidation beforehand - we knew he lay on his bed with his eyes closed, motionless and silent, signalling "yes" and "no" with small movements of his head.

From time to time he was clearly overcome by anguish. He spoke just a few words per week, but always to the point. Even those at night, to Vera. Marked by deep despair.

The meeting - a surprise.

He lay there motionless with a full beard, his eyes closed. He even had a "crise d'angoisse," not long it's true, nevertheless we got the impression of someone entrückt and verklärt - transported, transfigured, I don't want to say reconciled with his fate, but existing in another dimension. He was neither unhappy nor happy – it was something else with him.


At this moment I would like to stop and sing a hymn of praise to Vera-Penelope, who in the last years - in addition to her twelve to thirteen hour schedule as psychoanalyst - spent entire nights with Gyuri, practically without sleep. She fed him, put on music or the television. And when he could no longer move his hands, she read to him for hours on end.

And she kept his body so clean (on weekends she had no help and single-handedly rolled his heavy, will-less body from side to side) that she managed the impossible: He didn't have a single bedsore!

Although she herself had to have a knee operation, Vera would walk up the stairs in the five to ten-minute pauses between analysis sessions to Gyuri's bedroom:

Superhuman -
so movingly human!


a) Our last telephone conversation: He was already bedridden, spent his whole time reading. I had agreed to try to convince him to write at least a short composition for a pedagogical collection of medium-difficult piano pieces that was being put together (Boulez and I had both agreed to participate). I wanted to give him the feeling he could still compose without an instrument, even lying down.

"No! I want to write 'Alice', he said resolutely. (He was planning scenes for his second opera based on "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the looking glass" by Lewis Caroll He'd been thinking about it for at least ten years. For me the "Nonsense Madrigals" are the Wesendonck Lieder - the studies - for this opera.)

b) Vera relates his last attempt at composition. He sat down at the piano and wrote out one tact for the 8th movement of the "Horn Concerto" (the draft is still on the music stand). Then he gave up, commenting that it needed no further movements. Was that really what he thought? Or was his sickness stronger after all? We will never know.

VII. a)

And now my Ligeti-Ulysses mythology:

Dante, Inferno, Canto XXVI

(Ulisse:) ... Quando
mi diparti'da Circe...
nè dolcezza di figlio, nè la pieta
del vecchio padre, nè'l debito amore
lo qual dovea Penelopè far lieta,
vincer potero dentro a me l'ardore
ch'i'ebbi a divenir del mondo esperto
e degli vizi umani e del valore:
ma misi me per l'alto mare aperto,
sol con un legno e con quella compagna,
picciola, dalla qual non fui diserto.
Io e i compagni eravam vecchi e tardi
- O frati, dissi, che per cento milia
perigli siete giunti all'occidente,
a questa tanto picciola vigilia
de'nostri sensi ch'e del rimanente,
non vogliate negar l'esperienza
diretro al sol, del mondo sanza gente.
Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e conoscenza.

(Ulysses:)...When I From Circe had departed,
Nor fondness for my son, nor reverence
For my old father, nor the due affection
Which joyous should have made Penelope,
Could overcome within me the desire
I had to be experienced of the world,
And of the vice and virtue of mankind;
But I put forth on the high open sea
With one sole ship, and that small company
By which I never had deserted been.
I and my company were old and slow
'O brothers, who amid a hundred thousand
Perils,' I said, 'have come unto the West,
To this so inconsiderable vigil
Which is remaining of your senses still
Be ye unwilling to deny the knowledge,
Following the sun, of the unpeopled world.
Consider ye the seed from which ye sprang;
Ye were not made to live like unto brutes,
But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.'
(English translation: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

VII. b) 1.

1993: An interview with Ligeti in the Vienna newspaper Der Standard on his 70th birthday:


Making music
Making love - those are
the two major things in life!

Yes indeed, Ulysses wandered far and wide, straying far from home. Even Ligeti himself may not have been aware of the extent to which the impulses behind his motivation for "ardore," the passion for questioning and discovery, for Socratic exetase, as well as for love-making and music-making were identical.

VII. b) 2.

Finally, his hour-long, mostly long-distance telephone calls with Vera. A whole life long. Almost every night. They discussed everything of importance that had happened during the day. I too must say: "Yes, Ulysses wandered far and wide, travelled through foreign countries, discovered worlds, without ever leaving Ithaca."


The legacy

When I started copying Webern in my thirties, I had to stop in the first movement of his Symphony Op. 21 to deconstruct and analyse the mirror canon in its separate parts, and recast it in a multi-coloured four-voiced score. I felt that studying this music complemented the analysis of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (which we took very seriously at the Music Academy), and should be made obligatory for all composition students (which is now the case in Budapest).

Recently, when I once again took up the study of Ligeti's work, one of the first sources I came across was Simon Gallot's outstanding analysis of the 5th movement of the "Nonsense Madrigals," the "The Lobster Quadrille" (Simon Gallot: "György Ligeti populaire et savant - aux origines du style." Doctoral thesis, 2005, Universite Lumiere, Lyon).

My first reaction was: if I weren't eighty-one years old, I would have to get to work copying and analysing Ligeti's "model pieces."

That would mean, it turned out, taking a close look at many compositions. Not just one or two. Almost like with Bach. Above all I would have to analyse the Kyrie of "Requiem", but also "Atmosphères", "Lux Aeterna" and "Lontano". Of the etudes at least "Desordre" and "Automne de Varsovie." But also the first movement of the Violin Concerto (both versions; after the first in 1990 he wrote another in 1992), as well as the mirror canon of the first movement of the "Hungarian Etudes", "Continuum" and "Aventures."

Numbers 1, 5 and 6 of the "Nonsense Madrigals" also open up the task of once gain looking closely at Josquin and Ockeghem. But it's too late for that, it seems completely hopeless.

Yet it's not inconceivable that I should get to work: "Io e i compagni eravam vecchi e tardi" - "I and my company were old and slow." I could at least copy, analyse and get through "Kyrie" and "Lux Aeterna."

But it's hard to imagine what it could mean for young composers to immerse themselves in these works, to be versed in the problems posed by the "Hamburg Concerto." What's important for me could mean life itself to them.


On the etymology of Kylwyria.

Vera says that as a five year old, Ligeti had seen a poster for a film called "The ordeals of a mother," using the Hungarian word "kálvária" for "ordeals". The word "kálvária" in the title pleased him, but so did the letter Y, which is why he called his country Kylwyria.

As he planned the fusion of "Aventures" and "Nouvelles Aventures" into an opera, the first draft was to be called "Oedipus" (see: Egy anya kálváriája, in English: The ordeals of a mother!). But then he decided in favour of Kylwyria. In the end he wrote "Le Grand Macabre."


A shorter version of this speech was published in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on August 4, 2007.

Translation: John Lambert

More information in the web: a Ligeti biography, Alex Ross writes about a concert where Fredrik Ullen played Ligetis Etudes, Ligeti on youtube.

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