György Kurtág and the fulsome gesture

Photo of Kurtag at a keyboard
György Kurtág (b. 1926)

Long-time NCMF audience members are aware that I am an ardent fan of 98-year-old composer György Kurtág, last of the post-war (as in WWII) generation of composers that included Ligeti, Boulez, and Stockhausen. Kurtág was born in 1926.  Think about that for a minute: Marilyn Monroe was born the same year, the stock market crash was three years away, Babe Ruth hit a record three home runs in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Hemingway published “The Sun Also Rises.”

Babe Ruth hitting a baseball
Holy cow, he did it!

This summer we’ll be performing Kurtág’s string quartet “Officium Breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky.” The work is fifteen movements, but due to his ultra-distilled expression, it barely pushes eleven minutes in total. Some movements, such as the first (for solo cello), are mere seconds long. Cellist Steven Isserlis wrote “Kurtág’s music has a vulnerability to it, and information in every moment. You have to be absolutely convinced when you play it. What he’s taught me above all is just how much intensity there can be in each note.”

Photo of a Kurtág music score
Officium Breve” movement I (complete)

Here are program notes to the quartet, reproduced with the kind permission of music critic and post-apocalyptic fiction author John Keillor. My kind of guy.

David Yang, Artistic Director

György Kurtág completed Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky opus 28 in 1989. It is a string quartet in 15 concise movements and about eleven and a half minutes in duration. The composer required over ten years to come up with enough material for another string quartet; his last one was completed in 1978, and every tiny movement should be heard with great care. It is music that eschews development in favor of brief communications of atmosphere, which are more potent than many listeners may have realized possible. Kurtág is in many ways developing the ideas of Webern in his own music, taking some of the Austrian master's discoveries further just as Webern had done with the work of his former teacher Schoenberg. Webern had managed to successfully free the atonal and twelve-tone methods of the outmoded methods of writing. This crystallization of the language created a completely new and contracted dramatic curve. Kurtág takes this process further, realizing the impact of this direction, and effectively eliminates the dramatic curve. In its place is a hyper-intensification of the moment, so that he requires just enough time to demonstrate an idea that is so powerful that there is nothing left to be done with it once it has been heard.

Photo of a Kurtág music score

For many listeners, this innovation takes some time to absorb. Because no one else writes in this manner, there is no blueprint for writing one of these tiny "microludes," which is perhaps why it takes the composer so long to conceive of enough of them to constitute a complete piece of music. There is a finite amount of ways of distributing sounds among four instruments for a few moments, and to use this near non-arsenal to make especially effective bursts of sound requires genius. Beautiful moments in the standard quartet catalog are too many to count, but until Kurtág came along, the beauty of these moments required a great deal of context in order to make them significant. Just as a critical unveiling of a fact in a novel or film is given impact by the situation surrounding it, music has traditionally worked upon itself to give the subsequent moment value. This composer has done something different; he has injected the context, the significance, into the initial moment of its demonstration.

Budapest, Hungary

Only the American composer Feldman has done something comparable, but his works demonstrate a similar point over a great deal of time, and are the result of completely separate, New World musical investigations. Kurtág is through-and-through Middle European. He continues the traditions of Webern and Bartók. Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky opus 28 is a masterpiece of European music, as completely original and compelling as those who wrote memorable works from previous centuries. It is new for its time and completely grounded in the progress of the musical canon.


The operative word for this music is intense. There is something desperate and political about the sound, which allows itself to burst through for only a moment. No self-pity, no request or overt yearning is heard; it is simply too grave for that, demonstrating a clenched dignity that knows too well that violently thrashing about will not tame the outcome of something terrible. It is the courageous nature of this self-possession that ennobles humanity during its darkest hour, the least easily publicized form of valor. Officium breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky opus 28 shows us what quiet strength is made of, and is among the most inspiring quartets of its age.

John Keillor (notes used with permission from the author)

Photo of Kurtág score and link to his music on Youtube
“Officium Breve in memoriam Andreae Szervánszky.”

CALL FOR HOUSING: we could use some assistance with housing this summer. We’re looking for hosts for some of the festival artists between July 29th and August 11th. Requirements include a private bedroom and bathroom, and air conditioning. Proximity to downtown is preferred but not required. It is an opportunity to get to know one of the artists up close and support the festival's mission. If you are interested in sponsoring an artist in your home, please contact

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