György Kurtág contemplates his endgame

The 97-year-old is one of the last living links to the defining postwar composers of the European avant-garde.

György Kurtág’s Endgame performed at the Proms.
György Kurtág’s Endgame performed at the Proms. Credit: Sisi Burn

There are twenty-two references to Samuel Beckett in Bálint András Varga’s book of interviews with composer György Kurtág – the same number as Ludwig van Beethoven. For comparison, J.S. Bach appears fifteen times, and Béla Bartók – a huge influence on the Hungarian composer – over forty. Kurtág saw Beckett’s Fin de Partie Endgame in English – in Paris in 1957. The Irish writer’s work has been essential to him ever since. Kurtág’s love of Beckett culminated in his first opera, a long-gestated realisation of Fin de Partie in 2018, which received its UK premiere at the BBC Proms on 17 August in a spare staging from Victoria Newlyn.

It goes as follows. Four characters are confined to a single bare space. Hamm (bass, sung by Frode Olsen) is the blind wheelchair-bound master of sorts to Clov, his servant (baritone, Morgan Moody), who cannot sit down and limps about; they hate and depend on each other so cannot part. Hamm’s parents Nagg (tenor, Leonardo Cortellazzi) and Nell (mezzo soprano, Hilary Summers) have no legs and live in dustbins. Some unspecified cataclysm stops all four from going anywhere. Instead they variously recall times past or resignedly reflect on their etiolated state. Nobody goes anywhere – unlike the audience, who experience a steady trickle of departures.

Known, like Anton Webern, for ultra-compressed diamond-hard miniatures, Fin de Partie is Kurtág’s most substantial statement. The text comprises around two thirds of the original French version, with a prologue created from Beckett’s 1976 poem Roundelay. It is also regarded as the summation of his career. Therefore, its UK premiere was a big deal, though not exactly a lucrative one in commercial terms: the cavernous Royal Albert Hall was barely a quarter full. Cast in an unbroken two-hour span, it is a challenge for audiences and performers alike. One punter attracted considerable ire by making a phone call during the opera – perhaps some over-identification with the characters left them simply unable to leave.

Just as Beckett’s characters can’t get to an ending – personal, metaphysical, civilisational – so, too, did Kurtág find the seven-year germination of the opera interminable. ‘All I can say is that I have been working on it for four years’, he said in 2014, ‘and I cannot see the end of it. I may die before I finish it.’ The resonances with Clov’s opening lines in the play are obvious enough: ‘Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.’ Perhaps. Kurtág has said he may write new scenes for the extant version yet. In this respect, Fin de Partie is congruent with his Játékok (‘games’) for piano, which continues to germinate yet more brittle, crystalline flowers after forty years of work.

The title of Theodor Adorno’s essay Trying to Understand Endgame makes plain the difficulties in untangling this bleak and oblique tragicomedy. Philosopher Stanley Cavell saw it as a response to the atomic age, the characters blinded, maimed, and confined as the unenviable last survivors of a nuclear cataclysm. Adorno describes Endgame as work of post-Holocaust desolation, dramatising the end of a liberal-humanist consciousness, whose naive belief in progress, human dignity, and reason has been shown up as an act of supreme bad faith by the genocidal obscenity of the Lager. Kurtág’s piece vibrates sympathetically with this reading: the score makes reference to Leopold Bloom (from Joyce’s Ulysses, persecuted because of his Jewish background) and the antisemitic portrait of two Jews in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

His settings of Beckett’s poetry from the 1990s were key waypoints in the creation of Fin de Partie: …pas à pas – nulle part…, for baritone, string trio & percussion and What is the Word (soprano and piano). But the fit between Kurtág’s music and Beckett’s dramaturgy comes from a deeper aesthetic and thematic bond. Both have a feel for spare and minimal formations, as well as epigram and fragment. Kurtág’s piano pieces, tenderly performed by himself and wife of seventy-two years Márta, often last barely a minute or two. Melodies are razored down to evocative folk-like simplicity, with quietly radiant harmonies.

Testament to the Hungarian composer’s aphoristic sympathies are his Kafka Fragments for soprano and violin, forty tiny, fragmentary settings of Beckett’s existentialist-adjacent counterpart. The formal purity that finds its parallels in Beckett’s concise, restrained late works – Breath, Quad, Footfalls – is exemplified in transcriptions of Bach chorales for piano four hands, where the permanent use of the practice mute suffuses them with a prayerful, lambent beauty.

Both Beckett and Kurtág craft artworks for the ruins. Stele, written in 1994 for the Berlin Philharmonic, trudges through a blasted landscape. Like Endgame, it sounds a knell for liberal humanist ideals, articulated in an opening distortion of Beethoven’s Leonora overture, his great paean to freedom. (Simon Rattle described the piece, whose title is Greek for memorial tablet, as ‘a gravestone on which the entire history of European music is written’.) When the tumult of the second movement suddenly clears, Kurtág imagines War and Peace’s Prince Andrei lying wounded on the battlefield of Austerlitz, staring up at the sky.

This music of frozen immobility is an ideal stepping stone to Fin de Partie. Kurtág’s score is an accumulated history of opera. An opening monologue and pantomime from Clov, the clown with a limp, might allude to the address to the audience from Tonio, similarly-maimed, at the beginning of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. There are no vocal ensembles, preserving the integrity of Beckett’s text and also reminding us that although these people are technically together they are fundamentally alone.

Claudio Monteverdi looms large – Kurtág has spoken of his fascination with Ottone’s opening aria in L’incoronazione di Poppea, another late work, like Fin de Partie. Accordingly Kurtág’s writing uses highly-ornamented melismatic figures, as well as word-setting that preserves the patterns of normal speech, sitting mostly in a somnolent space between aria and recitative. Nell’s short opening aria concludes with a final ornamental flicker exactly like those Monteverdi used for sighing and weeping.

In this respect it also evokes the flickering unease of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, a touchstone for Kurtág’s teacher Olivier Messiaen. Fin de Partie keys into a post-Wagnerian tradition that is ruminative and psychological rather than spectacular and climactic; in works like Tristan, Parsifal, or Alban Berg’s Wozzeck recollection and reflection are forms of action as dynamic as the climactic murders and suicides of Puccini’s Tosca, even if their prevailing rhythm is more like that of performance art or installation than traditional theatre.

As with eighteenth-century opera, there is also a continuo section made up of keyboards and strings: grand piano, pianino (a small keyboard, always muted), cimbalom, harp, and twinkling celeste. His orchestra favours woodwind and brass over the gentle warmth of massed orchestral strings; brawny trombones open the piece. A pair of woozy Russian accordions called bayans frequently intercede with a banal, circling folk melody, the last surviving smithereen of European cafe music from before the calamity. A clarinet microlude after Nagg’s joke about a pair of trousers story does a klezmer-ish variation on it.

The opening setting of Roundelay is in English, which recalls Beckett and Kurtág’s polyglot habits. There, as throughout the piece, Beckett’s finely-wrought words are fastidiously backlit by Kurtág; every syllable is not just audible but luminous. ‘…on all that strand / at end of day’ is framed by Kurtág’s favourite interval of the perfect fifth, preparing the musical ground of the whole opera. Kurtág hears Beckett’s long vowels and underlines them with a wave-like rise and fall, sitting atop low flutes, with clarinets and bassoons; on ‘day’ there is a sudden gleam from cimbalom, harp, triangle, and vibraphone, as if light suddenly flashes across the water’s surface. ‘Steps sole sound’ follows, with the energetic sibilance and taut consonants underlined by a staccato rasp from trumpet, cimbalom, and the pop of three bongos. Next is ‘long sole sound’. Woodwinds and vibraphone return; the line is more sustained – ‘long’, indeed.

Kurtág sets words like he is annotating a poem. It is this that achieves the impossible task of fitting Beckett’s writing, which appears so transparent and self-contained, to a musical armature. Kurtág’s music runs an electric current through Beckett’s text, which powers its background dramaturgical hum; its expressionistic quality opens up the emotional life of the characters more sympathetically than can happen in the play, with its blackly-wry ironic detachment and coolness. Conversely, Victoria Newlyn’s direction, helpfully understated bar some redundant projections, got somewhat lost on the vast Albert Hall stage. It is an opera that needs the discipline of a proscenium arch to stay taut.

The 97-year-old is one of the last living links to the defining postwar composers of the European avant-garde – Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, and Kurtag’s great friend György Ligeti (the vaudevillian Nagg to Kurtág’s introspective Nell, perhaps). Kurtág’s catalogue of works is a litany of the dead: Játékok and Signs, Games and Messages (for solo strings, also unfinished) are made up of tiny memorials to friends and colleagues; Grabstein Für Stephan, for guitar and groups of instruments, is another preternaturally hushed tribute.

Kurtág could have hardly chosen a finer vehicle for his own endgame. Characters give knowing soliloquies about their overwhelming sense of unbearable belatedness. Fin de Partie closes with a titanic chorale from woodwinds and brass, before the dead, muffled strokes on bass drum and tam-tam. ‘This is what we call making an exit’, says Clov, before he puts on his hat and coat to go.


Benjamin Poore