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Composed: 1994
Length: c. 13 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (4th = piccolo), alto flute, bass flute, 3 oboes, English horn, 4 clarinets (4th = E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 Wagner tubas, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bongos, claves, chimes, cymbals, suspended cymbals, logdrums, marimba, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, tom-toms, triangle, vibraphone, xylophone, whip), cimbalom, 2 harps, pianino, piano, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: May 12, 2000, Markus Stenz conducting (West Coast premiere)

Until the creation of Stele – Greek for an inscribed memorial slab – for Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1994, the Hungarian composer György Kurtág was chiefly known as a miniaturist, meticulously crafting small pieces, often of profound emotional scope, for small forces, among them Kafka Fragments (1986) for soprano and violin (performed last month on the Green Umbrella series), Grabstein für Stefan (1989) for solo guitar and ensemble, and numerous of the ongoing Játékok (“Games,” by no means all playful ones) series for piano.

Stele, in three brief, connected movements, is an elegy of crushing weight and impact dedicated to a fellow Hungarian, the composer-conductor-teacher András Mihály (1917-1993), whom Kurtág had already memorialized a year before, shortly after his friend's death, in the piano miniature Mihály András in memoriam, one of the Játékok. The final section of Stele incorporates the theme of said piano piece.

Kurtág, in one of his several, sometimes contradictory, descriptions of Stele – the composer himself was conflicted in his thoughts on such emotional complexity as the listener might be – has said, it is music “of someone lying wounded on a battlefield. The fighting rages all around him, but he sees only a very clear, very blue sky... His feeling is that nothing is as important as this sky.”

In his superbly penetrating recent book The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, comments on the kinship between Stele and the music of the imprisoned Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio: Stele begins with octave Gs, “an unmistakable reference to the opening of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 [with its Fidelio themes] – a representation of the topmost step of the staircase that goes down to Florestan’s dungeon... Kurtág, too, leads us to a subterranean space but [unlike Florestan] we never get out. The final movement, muted and maximally eerie, fixates on a spread-out chord that repeatedly quivers forth in quintuplet rhythms. At the very end the harmony shifts to the white-note keys of the C-major scale, all seven of them sounding in a luminous smear... Beethoven’s overture marches off into C-major jubilation. Stele, by contrast, limps through a parched, depopulated landscape...” ending, as Kurtág stated in a conversation with Claudio Abbado, with “the rhythm of a gaunt figure staggering on.”

Those opening octave Gs lead via slowly-moving glissandos and shuddering vibrations into darkest lamentation, with falling minor seconds suggestive of hopelessness. At the end of the adagio Kurtág employs to striking effect a quartet of Wagner tubas – “Feierlich [solemnly] Homage à Bruckner,” as the composer writes above the notes. Where movement I (the introduction, in effect) is all downcast, movement II, which follows without a break, is marked by snarling, explosive anger and battering sonorities. But there is a transcendent moment after the deafening climax: a brief silence, then, as if beamed in from far out in space, the gentle sound of six flutes, before the full orchestra resumes its attack. The finale, with its ritual repetition of a bell sounding through the orchestra, is an elusive mix of despair and ultimately, as suggested above, that hobbled figure moving on into... what?

Kurtág has stated, “My mother tongue is Bartók, and Bartók’s mother tongue was Beethoven.” Words spoken well before Stele was written, but unavoidable in the context of this work, with its clear allusions to Fidelio at the outset and more subtly, in the finale, with its reference to the “Lake of Tears” episode in the young Bartók's opera Bluebeard’s Castle.

Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival for more than a decade.