György Kurtág – Scenes from a Novel

by 5:4

A profound sense of melancholic introspection pervades the next piece in my Lent series, György Kurtág‘s song cycle Scenes From a Novel. Kurtág composed the work in 1982, setting 14 texts by the Russian writer Rimma Dalos, texts that are in perfect sympathy with the composer’s penchant for exceptionally short but highly expressive music. The 15 songs (one of the texts is used twice) project loneliness above all else, but not resulting from unrequited affection or imagined reciprocity; on the contrary, this is a loneliness born out of experience, the product of a love both lived and celebrated, but that has ultimately been blanched, torn and downright thwarted. Yet the texts betray a deeper complexity, and as the songs progress their message becomes increasingly conflicted; desire is undermined by disappointment, temptation yields to regret. Contrast the texts of the 11th and 12th songs (titled Again and Sundays Without End respectively), where impatient expectations dissolve into blank, monotonous boredom:

I’m waiting for you again.
How slowly comes
the day after tomorrow.

That’s another
Sunday over.
That means the next will come.

It soon becomes clear that these are the sentiments of an unreliable narrator, that the loneliness explored here is as much to do with the subject of these poems as the object of their affection. Kurtág’s music fully embraces this unsettling aspect, accompanying the soprano with an unconventional but highly evocative trio of violin, double bass and cimbalom. Together, they become a decidedly cool ensemble, which is not to say there’s no lyricism in these pieces, only that it has more than a whiff of desperation to it. Frequently, both voice and strings eschew vibrato, rendering practically inanimate material that would otherwise leap from the page in an entirely different fashion. Kurtág begins and ends the cycle like that, but it’s especially telling in the 13th song, a lifeless miniature about sorrow. Yet even that is surpassed in the remarkable third song, Supplication, where the soprano’s smidgeon of vibrato only makes her seem more adrift, the strings forever tilting her surroundings as the cimbalom taps out its notes with ominous detachment. Most quiet of all is the central eighth song, intoned by the soprano alone; one of the most troubling and troubled songs, it contains more meaning and implication in its 9-second duration than would seem possible.

There’s vigour here too, though, and Kurtág often allows the repressed, omnipresent passion to erupt. Bridging the gap between these two attitudes are the sixth song, Dream (which bears some resemblance to the second of Berg’s Altenberg Lieder), and the tenth, Tale, in both of which the vocal line gradually loses its cool with frustration. Elsewhere, both the second and penultimate songs focus their resentment into a narrow pitch space, folk allusions lend a grotesque sarcasm to the fifth and ninth songs, while the two songs quoted above opt for fretful nervousness and material that absurdly keeps restarting in different configurations. The seventh song, Rondo, is the wildest of all, where the soprano really does go off her rocker; her refrain, “I said; it cannot be, I said: it will pass” ends each time with her repeating the phrase “I said” again and again, each time more crazily than the last.

Personally, i find the most moving song to be the fourth, Allow me. It’s the one occasion where a vestige of warmth remains, and the instruments here bring a real frisson of excitement to the soprano’s words, which positively ache with desire:

Allow me
to touch you:
to melt, to dissolve in you.

As the instruments’ music also dissolves, the suggestive nature of their gestures captures just the barest hint of the all-encompassing love that once burned with such ferocity, and which ultimately impels all of these songs. Together, they’re a deeply thought-provoking collection, both capturing and indeed inviting introspection of what was and what might have been.

This performance dates from a Birmingham Contemporary Music Group concert from October 1997, conducted by Thomas Adès; the soprano is Valdine Anderson, whose sparkling voice only makes Kurtág’s muted palette sound all the more heart-rending.

1. Come

     here's my hand:
with my warmth

     I melt your frost.
Too long I've kept

     in my soul's depths
these useless cents.

2. From meeting to parting
(A desperate lament)

From meeting

     to parting
from leave- caking

     to awaiting
– that was my mother's lot.

3. Supplication

Merciful ones, forgive me
this woman's weakness,
that I so loved
this holy fool.

4. Allow me

Allow me
to touch you:
to melt, to dissolve in you.

5. Counting-Out Rhyme

Here and there I picked and chose

     till all my chances slipped away
and I was left here with this love

     so ragged and tattered, torn and frayed.

6. Dream

Every night the same dream:
I beg you to come near,
You approach –
I push you away.

7. Rondo

I said; it cannot be,
I said: it will pass,
I said, I said...
Beyond the mist of days
the purple dawn cannot be seen,
nor can the pain of parting
beyond the moment's bliss.
Bliss we had,
a parting coo.
I said: it cannot be,
I said: it will pass,
l said, I said...

8. Nakedness

I cover my soul
with a fig-leaf
and flee paradise.

9. Hurdy-Gurdy Waltz
Even in the rush-hour
the tramcar of my soul
cheerfully rolls along.

10. Tale

I wanted you to see me
     like some goddess
in the glory of the starry sky:
but then I opened the door

     all ragged,
a broom in my dirty hand.

11. Again

I'm waiting for you again.
How slowly comes
the day after tomorrow.

12. Sundays Without End
(Perpetuum mobile)

That's another
Sunday over.
That means the next will come.

13. Visit

In a cold blanket of snow
a visitor called:

14. True Story

The love
     conceived amid

     the haste of spring

     is dying.
But in your garden


     the grass

     of oblivion.

15. Epilogue
(A dispirited wail)

From meeting

     to parting
from leave-taking

     to awaiting
– that was my mother's lot.

Translations ©1982 by Editio Musica, Budapest

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Thank you for this, what an amazing piece! I have had the pleasure of meeting Kurtag, hearing him play in concert and watching his master classes but this is still a revelation. Keep up the good work.

[…] many years but had never heard anything quite like the intensely dramatic and colourful song cycle Scenes from a Novel. Many thanks to the excellent contemporary music blog 5:4 for sharing this wonderful work. Share […]

Click here to respond and leave a commentx