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Composed: 1989 (final version)
Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: oboe, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (vibraphone, bells, low cymbal, gongs, tam-tam, whistles, stadium horns [plastic trumpets]), harp, pianino, guitar, cimbalom, 3 violas, 3 cellos, and bass
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 31, 1997, Markus Stenz conducting
In the words of British critic-composer Malcolm MacDonald, “Memorials and homages – to friends, fellow musicians, and artists in other spheres – punctuate the landscape of György Kurtág's output… The arts of the aphorist and epigrammist, which he has displayed in so many brief, pregnant, perfectly-formed works… are closely related to the skills of the lapicide, who must slowly incise an enduring, summary inscription within a limited space, upon a hard, recalcitrant material. This almost literally describes the Grabstein (Gravestone) which is listed as his Op. 15/c.”
Kurtág initially intended his Op. 15 as a group of short pieces for solo guitar, beginning work on it in 1978. But it was never finished in this form. Instead, he broke off chunks and formed them into new works, the first being his Op. 15/b, in which he added piccolo and trombone to the guitar. Then came a first version (Budapest, 1979) of the present work, scored for guitar, with trombone, alto flute, harp, piano, and harpsichord – in memory of the singer Stephan Stein, whose wife, Marianne Stein, in biographies of the composer is referred to variously as an “art psychologist” and a “psychotherapist,” seems successfully to have treated Kurtág for severe depression when he arrived in Paris after the Hungarian revolution of 1956 to study with Messiaen and Milhaud. Biographical sketches of the composer tell us that he also “studied” with Mrs. Stein – his Hungarian compatriot, by the way; but what he studied with her is not – in my reading experience, at any rate – clearly indicated.
A decade after the first chamber version of Grabstein für Stephan the composer decided that to make its full effect the piece required a much larger ensemble, and he recomposed it, so to speak, for the present complement of solo guitar and “groups of instruments,” the groups spatially arranged on the stage, with sounds coming from different directions, creating eerie antiphonies and juxtapositions, the listener kept in suspense as to where the sounds will emerge from next. The instrumentation of Op. 15/c is, it should be added, based on that of the sextet version, but substantially expanded by the addition of low strings, wind instruments, percussion (including various gongs), keyboards, and whistles. But, again from Mr. MacDonald, “the music seems to take its entire being from the gentle strumming on the guitar’s open strings, which at first is all there is to hear. Variously resonated, very quietly, by keyboards, gongs, and strings, these hypnotically tolling chords begin, by their very reticence and refusal to unfold, to suggest unfathomable depths of emotion, perhaps too intense to be expressed. But other features express it, or try to: hints of a funeral march in the timpani, a keening phrase on the strings, broken utterances in solo brass and woodwind.”