In 1946, he began his studies at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, where he met his wife, Márta, and also György Ligeti, who became a close friend. Following the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Kurtág’s time in Paris between 1957 and 1958 was of critical importance for him. Here, he studied with Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud, and worked with the psychologist Marianne Stein – an encounter that strongly stimulated his artistic development. During this time, he also discovered the works of Anton Webern and the plays of Samuel Beckett. The string quartet he composed in 1959 after his return to Budapest marks this crucial turning point; he refers to this piece as his Opus 1, the major work of this period.
Between 1960 and 1968, he worked as répétiteur at the National Philharmonia in Budapest. In 1967, he was appointed professor of piano and later also of chamber music at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music, where he taught until 1993. Kurtág’s international reputation began to take hold with Messages of the Late Miss R. V. Troussova for soprano and chamber ensemble, which had its premiere in Paris in 1981. Since the early 1990s, he has worked abroad with increasing frequency: he was composer in residence at the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (1993‑95) and the Vienna Konzerthausgesellschaft (1995). He then lived in the Netherlands (1996‑98), again in Berlin (1998‑99), and in Paris (1999‑2001). György Kurtág and his wife settled at St André de Cubzac (near Bordeaux) in 2002. Since 2015 they have lived again in Budapest.
The compositions before Opus 33, the orchestral work Stele dedicated to Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, consist mainly of vocal solo and chamber music, and of instrumental music, ranging from solo pieces to works for ensembles of increasing size. Since Op. 33 a number of large-scale compositions have been premiered, such as the Beckett settings … pas a pas — nulle part … Op. 36, and the double concerto … concertante … Op. 42. In 2017 Kurtág finished his opera on Samuel Beckett’s text Fin de partie that was premiered 2018 with a worldwide success in La Scala, Milan.
Kurtág is the recipient of numerous awards, including the French title Officier des Arts et des Lettres in 1985, the Kossuth Award of the Hungarian government for his life’s achievement in 1996, the Ernst‑von‑Siemens‑Music Prize in 1998. In 2006 he received the Grawemeyer Award for his composition …concertante… Op. 42 for violin, viola and orchestra, in 2015 he received the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Contemporary Music category, and in 2020 the Rolf Schock Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music.
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