Gábor Csalog, György & Márta Kurtág, András Kemenes Kurtág: Játékok (Games) – Selection 2

BMCCD139 2008

Kurtág once stated that Játékok is a ‘pseudo-pedagogical’ series. But if we believe in the earlier, broader interpretation of music-making, in which not only playing, but the artifice of composition has a place, then perhaps it can be said that on a higher level Játékok has no reason to deny its pedagogical genesis, because it tells the myth of the birth of music. In the search for the child within us it has retreated to the point where art and pedagogy have not yet parted – and foreshadows a world in which the two may once more join as one.

Miklós Dolinszky

The Roman numerals refer to the Volumes of Játékok, the Arabic numerals (and letters) in case of the First Volume point to the page number and the page position of the piece, in all the other Volumes show the serial number of the piece within the Volume. Roman numerals in brackets refer to the Volumes in progress, not yet in print.


All tracks played by Gábor Csalog

with the exception of:
György Kurtág - pianino (7, 16, 34, 52)
Márta Kurtág Márta and György Kurtág piano four hands (33)
Alíz Asztalos - piano and speaking voice (44)
András Kemenes - piano (48)

About the album

Selections by Gábor Csalog
Recorded at the Studio 22 of the Hungarian Radio, Budapest in 2003-2005
Recorded and mixed by Péter Aczél, except tracks * by András Wilheim
Sound engineer: Károly Horváth
Music publisher: Editio Musica Budapest

Portrait photos: István Huszti
Cover art by GABMER / Art-Smart by GABMER / Bachman

Produced by László Gőz
Executive producer: Tamás Bognár

The recording was sponsored by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, the National Cultural Fund of Hungary and the Artisjus Music Foundation


Dan Albertson - La Folia (en)

Paco Yáñez - Mundoclasico.com (es)

Manuel Luca de Tena - Diverdi (es)

Lesław Czapliński - Muzyka21 **** (pl)

Fittler Katalin - Gramofon ***** (hu)

Csont András - Revizor (hu)

3500 HUF 11 EUR

György Kurtág: Játékok (Games) – Selection 2 – Part One

01 III/14 Tumble-bunny 0:31
02 VII/26 In memoriam Attila Bozay (1999) 1:28
03 II/39 Knots (2) 0:25
04 I/12B2 Gallop 0:22
05 I/11A1 (the young boxer’s lighter moments) 0:23
06 I/5B1 a: C’s night song – I/5B1 b: (...and here is one of f-sharps) 0:54
07 VII/14 A flower to Márta (1997) 1:15
08 VI/5 Versetto: Dixit Dominus ad Noe: finis universe carnis venit... (1990) 1:00
09 III/12 Thistle 0:32
10 III/22 Stubborn Knots 0:32
11 II/1 Hommage à Endre Bálint 0:32
12 II/41 Antiphony in f-sharp 0:53
13 III/13 Elegy for the left hand 3:10
14 III/3 The mind will have its freedom... 0:49
15 V/33 Capriccioso-luminoso – for Jenő Szervánszky’s 80th birthday (1986) 0:26
16 IV/4 Bells (Hommage à Stravinsky) 1:35
17 V/18 Flowers we are... (from the Sayings of Péter Bornemisza, III.3) 0:56
18 V/19 Grassblades in memory of Klára Martyn (1982) 0:53
19 VI/25 Les Adieux (in Janáčeks Manier) (1992) 2:18
20 V/11 Prelude... (1979) 0:46
21 V/15 ...and Chorale (for Benjamin Rajeczky’s 80th birthday) (1981) 1:05
22 see 15. 0:26
23 III/26 Hommage à Ferenc Farkas (3) (evocation of Petrushka) 1:02
24 (IX) A Little Song for Yehuda (2004) 2:25

György Kurtág: Játékok (Games) – Selection 2 – Part Two

25 VII/22 ...eine Blume für Ulrike Schuster... (1998) 1:38
26 II/27 Fancifully 0:35
27 I/10B3 Fifths (2) 0:38
28 I/13B2 Jerking 0:22
29 I/13B1 Boisterous Csárdás 0:26
30 see 26. 0:35
31 see 5. 0:23
32 VII/18 Waltz (2) (1998) 0:52
33 (VIII) In memoriam György Sebők (1999-2000) 2:41
34 see 7. 1:15
35 I/3A1 Flowers We Are, Frail Flowers... (1a) 0:35
36 I/3B2 ...flowers also the stars... 0:29
37 III/16 Shadow-Play (3) 1:06
38 III/21 Signs in black 0:57
39 see 28. 0:22
40 I/21 Hommage à Tchaikovsky 1:18
41 I/12B1 Three-finger Play 0:16
42 see 4. 0:22
43 I/13A2 (five little piano pieces) No. 5: Presto 0:15
44 VI/13 Fundamentals (1) – für Marc André Fitze (1991) 0:48
45 VI/31 A Quiet Farewell to Endre Székely, version 2 (1991) 0:45
46 VI/37 Ernő Lendvay in memoriam (1993) 0:54
47 VI/42 ...humble regard sur Olivier Messiaen... version ‘b’ (1993) 1:44
48 I/1A1 Perpetuum mobile (objet trouvé) 1:46
49 VII/15 ‘Υμέναιος (Hymenaios) – für Susanne und Mark Sattler (1997) 0:30
50 VII/28 Hommage à Beatrice Stein (2000) 1:49
51 VII/16 Ligatura to Ligeti (1997) 2:57
52 (IX) Consolation sereine (2004) – für Renee und die ganze Familie Jonker 1:53
Total time 52:49

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“Tenderly yet vigorously”
Reclaiming the child

Album and intimacy

For scholars of Játékok (Games), a comparison of Kurtág’s series with Bartók’s Mikrokosmos is unavoidable. Kurtág himself, after all, makes a nod in the direction of his predecessor, when in the third volume he publishes ‘additions’ to certain pieces from Mikrokosmos. But the parallel is misleading. Bartók’s six volumes were planned in advance, and form a closed, encyclopaedic creation in the time-honoured didactic spirit of Gradus ad Parnassum. Játékok, however, is a freely structured, open-ended series, which could in theory continue ad infinitum. Though it is well known that the series started with a pedagogical purpose, in point of fact from the second volume on it succumbs to the allure of another tradition – that of the album. In its nineteenth-century form, the album was a collection of music reflecting the taste of a particular person, with all the unpredictabilities that taste entails. Albums were originally compiled by ladies of the bourgeoisie for their own use, and consisted of their favourite piano pieces as a kind of musical calling card. Before long publishers created a public genre out of the occasional, private compilations: one after another there appeared in print piano albums of original pieces and transcriptions, of complete works and extracts, of older and contemporary works, in stylised disorder, selections made by the publishers and ascribed to non-existent persons. Schumann’s Album für die Jugend is an example of the final artistic stylisation of this latter type, and is also, with the creation of a ‘tame’ version of pedagogy, the first to link a pedagogical aspect to the album, and in this sense it spawned a school. All this how-ever is merely a subordinate stream of the broader current of romantic anti-culture that fed on the cult of the fragment, the attraction to improvisation and chance, and the need for intimacy; a culture which set itself in opposition to the classical, the universal, and the public, and thus also to the representative nature of musical life and the genres typical of it.

The personal character and randomness of contemporary selections, the improvisatory lilt of each piece, as well as the mixing of original works and transcriptions, complemented by the playful enigmas typical of Schumann, are features which all recur time and again in Játékok. Pieces in the series often address one or another person with the same openness as the Albumblatt, the romantic piano genre often as brief as a sigh, in which the gesture of proffering, of giving a souvenir, was more important than its substance, frequently based on actual musical recollections. The designations ‘message’, ‘letter’, ‘greeting’, ‘word’, ‘lines’ and most frequently, of course, ‘hommage’, describe the state of proximity in which the series so willingly abides. The hommages, like a ‘mini Hungarian waxworks’ conjure up our contemporaries, familiar and unknown alike. Játékok is closely linked to many pieces in Kurtág’s oeuvre: the Prelude (the first half of Prelude and Chorale) is a transcription of the first movement of the early Splinters, originally composed for cimbalom; Beating goes back to a Pilinszky song of the same title; one of the pieces from the sixth volume is from Songs of Sorrow and Despair. The Bornemisza experience, contemporary with the material for the first book of Játékok, condensed into the Sayings of Peter Bornemisza, and it weaves in and out of the series. The piece bearing the title The Mind Will Have its Freedom, another sentence from the confessional Sermons of the sixteenth-century Hungarian writer, also conjures up the nervous, excited sound of the opus magnum. Another sentence of Bornemisza’s: “Flowers We Are” recurs throughout the series like a wandering motto. This motto encodes Kurtág’s ars vitae and self-portrait, the indestructibility latent in fragility, the flexibility latent in inflexibility – which becomes an ars poetica as expressed in the motto for Elegy for the left hand: “tenderly yet vigorously”. His ‘lifting’ of his own pieces, his extending and rewriting of them, forms just one extreme of the richly nuanced range of relations to the broader and narrower musical environment. Dedications to actual people, notes referring to real-life situations, at times cryptic – “György Maros can revel in this” or “The very last conversation with László Dörnyei, (meanwhile I pluck strings, but it is your voice I listen to)” – disclosed and hidden literary citations and puns, and above all the remarks, often handwritten and impossible to set in customary musical typography, also point to the fact that Játékok makes no attempt to move beyond the living world described by its intimate relationship to people and musics. This is reinforced by the sub-title that appears from the fifth volume on: “Diary entries, personal messages”.

Play and creation

Yet the kinship with the album seems too distant. In order to know just what Játékok is, suffice it to ponder the title. Why do the majority of languages call the sounding of an instrument ‘playing’? And what does it mean, to play? Indeed, the duality to which Kurtág refers in the introduction, attached as a supplement to the series (“On no account should the written image be taken seriously but the written image must be taken extremely seriously”) refers to the essential duality of the activity of play. We consider play an asylum of freedom in a machinated and over-controlled society – and we take it “extremely seriously”. As an irrational activity, play is strictly separated from the rationality of everyday modern life, thus revealing its sacred origins. It has only been considered ‘frivolous’ since barren everyday life, usurping the sacred, has itself asserted its right to the rank of reality. So when we call music-making ‘playing’, we unintentionally conjure up its sacred origins. Now, a sacred act has no truck with the dichotomy between the serious and the frivolous. The sacred origin of music making is evident in the risk and freedom of its instantaneous nature: in music making, playfulness means that the musician should trust himself to the single moment. This trust makes it possible for the music-making to be creation, rather than reproduction. But in the 19th century, music became the stuff of refinement, that had to belong to everybody. For this, music education now required an impersonal institutional method that would be effective without any previous schooling. The instrumentalist no longer played, but reproduced; the creative risk of play was replaced by rote learning. The genres that conjured up the impression of improvisation (impromptu, moment musical, Albumblatt) merely kindled nostalgia for what had been lost. Music became ‘serious’, and its inherent playfulness was exiled to light genres. In music pedagogy the discarding of the gesture of play resulted in the technical element’s becoming independent and all-important; mechanics, after all, is nothing but a parody of play. This pedagogy was able to alienate entire generations of the middle class from music, because it did not trust in the treasure of knowledge the child brings with him; its starting point was man in the abstract, who has no musical home. So began the mechanisation of the musician’s body: just as education destroys the body of knowledge inherent in the child, so his body is considered the sum of the parts. Kurtág, by contrast, knows very well that we can only create from wholeness: the path to the Whole never leads from parts. He trusts in the little ones, and leads them immediately into the company of stars and the infinite, reinforcing the reality of the broader world from which they have come (Perpetuum mobile, ...flowers also the stars..., star-music, Play with Infinity). The music is not study material, but a treasury of secrets that leads to a higher world – the serene gravity and reverent serenity of the pieces mentioned reclaim for music pedagogy the air of the sacred. And just as intellectually the entire cosmos is present right at the beginning, through the immediate possession of the entire keyboard the child takes possession of his entire personality and range of emotions. The scouting around and taming of the instrument is itself a game to play, and the number of journeys is limitless. No manner of approaching the instrument is singled out by Kurtág for special distinction: striking the keys with elbows, fists or palms is just as legitimate a way of creating a musical event as the use of the fingers. “Our whole life is nothing but a pilgrimage, in order to reclaim the child lost within us”, confesses Kurtág, and from these words one must discern the modest composer’s programme: “I penetrate into the depths of the childlike core of my still untouched being, in order to seek out what is true in music, and I offer to adults my own creative knowledge: we are all children.”

Gesture and energy

Traditional methodology claims to know well in advance what music is. Its material is formed from previously fixed musical elements: note, interval, chord, step, jump. Kurtág is the man from far-off climes, who doesn’t know what music is; but he’s curious about it and happy to look into the matter. Music can be made of anything: here, notes are not a pre-given basic element, much rather the subsequent condensed (though far from inevitable) form of mood and gesture. In the first volume Kurtág practically forces the student and teacher to place the kick-off point not on the printed music, but on the gesture that mediates between movement and music, in other words, on the reality of one’s own bodily experience: more than one piece is on the A page a ‘game’ (with Kurtág-style notation), and on the facing B page a traditionally notated ‘piece’ (Palm Stroke / Wrong Notes Allowed, Flowers We Are, Frail Flowers 1a / 1b), while he speaks of the commutability between the two. By giving gesture priority over the note that carries it (that’s why wrong notes are allowed) Kurtág implants early on into his little players the fastidiousness in which the manner of playing is not some incidental task to be addressed after the correct reproduction of the notes, but is the risk itself. The authenticity of the gesture is measurable in the quality of what are known as dynamics and articulation; that is why it is crucial that right at the beginning (not after having ‘learnt’ the piece) the child’s ear open to the inexhaustible nuances of ways of playing. However, the pedagogical fruit of this only develops as it should if the pupil is not confronted with the classical piano repertoire until he has learnt that for authentic music-making every note must be matched to a gestural starting-point. In this way, Kurtág suggests that the true stuff of music is the energy of the mood. The crescendo-decrescendo sign under one single note of the famous first of the 12 Microludes is not a joke or a metaphor, but the logical corollary of the recognition that the true content of a note is the energy it conveys. Besides all this, Kurtág’s pedagogy has a Dionysian side too, which helps in handling the unarticulated animal energies dormant in children young and old: “What makes it [Játékok] difficult, though children have this experience, is that we have to live out our aggression,” warns Kurtág in a conversation. Why is it difficult? Because institutional pedagogy has for two hundred years drilled into us the idea that we must restrain our energy and inherent knowledge, because life, for which school prepares us, has no need of it. Technique-based music education actually served this aestheticising music-making, based on suppression. With Kurtág’s proposition then, another pedagogical taboo topples: the aestheticism of institutional music education is unmasked by Kurtág’s “tenderly yet vigorously”.

In fleeing from ideology (a tendency common to the most strikingly different compositional trends after the Second World War), Kurtág arrived at different results to those of the former Darmstadt avant-garde. The ideology-free, elemental level of music is for him not the sound in itself, but the link between two sounds – not the fait-accompli, but the tension; not the epic, but the drama. “Join two notes together,” suggested the Parisian psychologist Marianne Stein to the crisis-ridden young Kurtág. Thus the intimacy of Játékok unravels further: what was formerly the personal relationship between two people now appears as the link between two notes. Kurtág could well use the words of philosopher of dialogue Martin Buber: “In the beginning is the relationship”. The position taken in favour of gesture represents Kurtág’s support for the main current of European tradition: after all, modern European music from the 17th century on built on the very fact that music stands not in and for itself, but points beyond itself, it depicts and represents something which is not music – mostly events. That is why the “rappresentatione” (later called opera) was able to become one of the paradigms of European music. Many annotations in Játékok testify to the fact that for Kurtág the musical process is similarly a series of events. Instructions such as “touch the surface of the keys very lightly, without moving any of them” is only a step away from the expressly theatrical instructions such as those to be read at the beginning of the ‘letter’ addressed to Marianne Teőke (“Slowly, absent-mindedly, partly turned away from the piano, as if talking about something more serious”) or between the lines of music in Bored (“walk beyond the keyboard absent-mindedly, then return suddenly with rage”). This shows that following his artistic credo of music as event, Kurtág had to arrive at the rudimentary forms of the ‘happening’. The two grotesques that use the pianist’s speaking voice from the mini-cycle Fundamentals or the Hungarian Lesson for Foreigners make a move towards opera and the broader understanding of music found in ancient musiké, which served as a model for opera with its unification of sound, text and spectacle.


Of the peculiar form of notation in Játékok Kurtág writes in the foreword referred to above: “We should trust the picture of the printed notes and let it exert its influence upon us.” This intention is undoubtedly proven in for example the pieces Tumble-bunny or Legato, where the motion suggested by the notation is obviously more important than the pitch of the notes. More important than the conventional meaning of the signs, then, is the direct suggestion of the image of the music, and the notation fashioned in Játékok seems to pare back the conventional meanings of familiar signs: only two of the vast range of rhythmic values remain, as a utopia of musical practice which knows only long and short notes, in their infinite variety. To indicate the nuances of rhythmic refinement, signs customary in the notation of Hungarian folk music are used. This is no coincidence: after all, one of the main musical sources of Játékok is Hungarian folk song and music. Apart from pieces inspired directly by folk music, this group includes pieces like Fifths, Jerking and Fancifully, whose music, though not folk-like, is shot through with the four-line structure of the Hungarian folk song. And all through this, the set of signs in Kurtág’s notation is able to adapt to the music to be notated, if necessary to grow and change, to refine and correct itself. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the notation of each individual piece needs to be deciphered separately: Kurtág does not permit the performer to read the music without interpreting the piece (traditional notation, incidentally, encourages us to do just that). As guarantee that in spite of this there be no risk of misunderstanding, inaccuracy, or wildly differing interpretations; that Kurtág’s notation, far more than traditional notation, match his motto “music should belong to everyone”, stands the common musical experience within the performers, of which Kurtág says: “We should make use of all that we know and remember of free declamation, folk-music parlando-rubato, of Gregorian chant and of all that improvisational musical practice has ever brought forth.” Kurtág merely says here ‘out loud’ what modern interpreters of traditional notation shy away from: that in fact even traditional notation plays upon the keyboard of the performer’s store of experience. The five settings of dirges in the series, for example, each approach the same manner of performance with different notation; but whether any of them can achieve their purpose in the absence of direct experience of a folk dirge remains an open question.

Avoiding the Opus

The fact that Játékok does not have an opus number can be considered symbolic: in eschewing canonisation the series once more reveals its intimate nature. Kurtág sees the closure of the work as endangering the nature of music as a live event. The opus number, albeit symbolically, would wrench the games from the state of immediacy they have created through the cryptic references to music, people and events. Until the piece goes forth from its creator to start its independent life, it is not vulnerable to ideological interpretations, and it preserves music as an action and as the risk of instantaneity of action. This is why Kurtág tries to keep control of the future fate of his works through teaching them himself, in order to prevent the unavoidable alienation concomitant with the canonisation of the work. His ‘teaching’ is thus not the reproduction of the finished work, but the closing act of the creative process. Yet the performer himself composes, when he compiles in infinite variations the tailor-made, ‘use-once-only’ opus, not only with freedom to choose the order, but (as this recording testifies) with the repetition of certain pieces at his discretion.

Kurtág once stated that Játékok is a ‘pseudo-pedagogical’ series. But if we believe in the earlier, broader interpretation of music-making, in which not only playing, but the artifice of composition has a place, then perhaps it can be said that on a higher level Játékok has no reason to deny its pedagogical genesis, because it tells the myth of the birth of music. In the search for the child within us it has retreated to the point where art and pedagogy have not yet parted – and foreshadows a world in which the two may once more join as one.

Miklós Dolinszky
Translated by Richard Robinson

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