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“A Kind of Quest for a Tie with Infinity”

Updated: Nov 20, 2019

(Photo of Márta and György Kurtág by Felvég Andrea, 2016)

The pianist Márta Kurtág died at the age of ninety-two two weeks ago. The wife of the Hungarian composer György Kurtág, she could be seen by his side playing the transcriptions for piano the couple made of Bach’s cantatas or just behind her husband’s shoulder watching as he played his own compositions alone. The interviews György Kurtág gave with Bálint András Varga over the 1980s and through the first decade of 2000 give some idea of the creative depth of their partnership.

In one exchange, the interviewer asks György Kurtág about his India ink drawings and the question of simplicity. Márta Kurtág jumps in and asks if she might say something. Her husband doesn’t oppose—does he have any choice?—, adding that her thoughts will help him develop his own. She speaks about how he would pick up a pencil or pen in the palm of his hand and make a sign as a point of departure. But then he would throw his entire body into the act of drawing, which she finds characteristic of his whole teaching and which one might summarize as follows: one cannot play without the body (Kurtág 2009, p. 36).

“Playing involves the body,” Winnicott reminds us in Playing and Reality, “because of the manipulation of objects; because certain types of intense interest are associated with certain aspects of bodily excitement” (p. 52).

In another interview, Márta Kurtág discusses one of her husband’s piano compositions containing but seven notes, Virág az ember (“Man is a Flower” or “Man as Flower”), saying that when he teaches this piece, he shows the student that he or she can play, as it were, beyond the length of the keyboard. To which she adds, this is “a kind of quest for a tie with infinity” (Kurtág 2009, p. 79). She likens this to Daniel Barenboim’s suggestion that music doesn’t begin when the performer starts to play it, nor does it end when the performer moves aside: it continues to resound even when the last movement of the hand is over. And yet we find the beginning of playing to be fundamental. Here she’s bringing out a paradox, or a complication: the performance of a piece neither begins nor ends, even if it has to start somewhere, sometime. Performance, as well as the experience of listening, is at once finite and infinite, contained in space and time and yet beyond them.

Space and time, then, were also of the essence. In a later interview, she made this point by recalling how her husband would regularly revise his pieces that were already prepared for a recital or performance. They nevertheless required further elaboration, even though they were supposed to be completed for the premiere, and so the two would set about working on them together with György starting over and Márta adding her ideas. Such was the case for …concertante… (opus 42, 2003), recalled György Kurtág. But Márta Kurtág couldn’t remember any of the suggestions she’d made. All that came to mind was that at that moment her husband began to suffer, as he worked through the scattered manuscript notes, from an irritating skin allergy. Márta Kurtág wonders (mischievously, it would seem, and somehow fitting her character) if there is a relationship between the two—between the pressure to revise and the allergic outbreak—, though she can’t think of one, which prompts her husband to give but a simple explanation: “in the end,” he says, “I’d lost track” (Kurtág 2009, p. 113).

Yes, then, as Winnicott says, you play with the entirety of your body, skin included, driven by mind; and vice-verse, surely, as bodily excitation feeds into mind.

And so here the trail to infinity trails off, falling into infinity.


Remarks (revised) given on October 31, 2019 at the Hus Gallery, Paris in memory of Márta Kurtág (October 1, 1927, Esztergom, Hungary-October 17, 2019, Budapest, Hungary).


Kurtág, G. (2009). Entretiens, textes, dessins. Chêne-Bourg, Geneva: Éditions Contrechamps.

Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock.

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