Thursday, February 09, 2006
The Kurtág Klub Konvenes
Last Tuesday I had a wonderful lunch with Profs. Stephen Blum of the CUNY Graduate Center and Rachel Beckles Wilson of Royal Holloway in London. Blum is an ethnomusicologist specializing in Iranian music, and Beckles Wilson is a musicologist specializing in twentieth-century Hungarian music. Both have published on Kurtág.
After completing piano studies at the Royal Academy of Music, Beckles Wilson went to Hungary to study with Kurtág himself. She had prepared the piano part from the first of his major song cycles: “The Sayings of Peter Bornemisza.” The part being very dense and extraordinarily difficult, she was hoping to be illuminated by the Great Man’s genius and infected by his incredible musicality.
She was. But it was a nightmare.
Kurtág comes from a tradition of musicians who are ruthlessly dedicated to the cause of Art. No sacrifice is too great, no effort too strenuous in the service of Music. We are its slaves, and, should we fail to meet Music’s demands, we must strive even harder, push ourselves even more in an impossible quest to achieve what we, as musicians, have promised to do for Music by choosing the life we have chosen.
Kurtág, as a steward of art, is brutal in rehearsals and lessons. He has no sense of what is physically impossible for players and has no sympathy for those who shrink from the demands he and other composers make. He is unafraid to destroy or to humiliate. Beckles Wilson occasionally shows her students videos of him in rehearsal devastating musicians who, one can imagine, are just trying to do their baffled best. Her own students look on in shock.
While Kurtág is regarded in Hungary as a supreme genius, this alone does not account for his tyrannical behavior toward students. He is from a long line of such merciless coaches, and he has inherited his mantle from musicians before him who were similarly “abusive.”
My first reaction upon hearing this was to wonder how Kurtág could “get away with it.” Sure, one hears about how blunt Steve Reich can be and how exacting Pierre Boulez is in rehearsal. But surely no composer in the United States could sustain a career while being so seemingly callous toward his fellow musicians.
Am I wrong?
What is it in our disposition that refuses to accept such tyrants? Why would such demeanor be unacceptable in England and the United States (and, presumably, many other places)? Why is “Art” (with a capital A) an insufficient excuse to engage in the sort of behavior Kurtág does? Is it a question of how much one culture “values” Art or Music? Or is it that we do not see music as something above the politics of being human? That, in the end, music is the tool of people – not the other way around?