Kurtág is another composer who studied Webern closely, and about the same time as Castiglioni. Although he has composed a wide range of instrumental music, the aphoristic song cycle is perhaps his signature medium. In the 1970s he became fascinated with Russian literature, learning Russian to be able to read Dostoyevsky in the original language. The work of Rimma Dalos, a Russian-born poet who has lived in Hungary since 1970, proved of particular interest. Kurtág first set her poetry in Messages of the Late R.V. Troussova, Op. 16, commissioned by the Ensemble InterContemporain and premiered in Paris in 1981, sparking a flood of international interest in Kurtág's music that has flowed unabated ever since.
Scenes from a Novel, completed in 1982, pared the Op. 16 ensemble down to just violin, bass, and cimbalom, from which Kurtág conjures a huge range of sound and emotion. Characteristically, several of the numbers allude to other musicians, such as No. 5, an homage to Mahler (with a middle section marked "tempo di Kamarinskaya," referring to a dance by Glinka). No. 9, the "Hurdy-Gurdy Waltz," is an homage to Schnittke, the voice dancing drunkenly over instruments stuck mechanically on an E-flat chord.
There is humor here, and at least the ironic imitation of lighter, more naïve spirits. But the prevailing mood of this cycle of fragile, confessional poems is bleak and sorrowing. The "Epilogue," subtitled "a dispirited wail" and marked "desolato," slowly sinks chromatically into enervated depths.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.