Feldman and Kurtag: Radically Different, Shockingly Similar

In 1926, two stars were born: one a brusque, Jewish New Yorker, and the other a sophisticated, Hungarian intellect. At first glance, these two stars—composers Morton Feldman and Gyorgy Kurtag—seem like they could not be more different from each other, both personally and compositionally. However, Axiom, one of Juilliard’s new-music ensembles, is hoping that its February 24 concert will illuminate the musical, dramatic, and conceptual relationships between the composers and their works.

Morton Feldman, standing at right, at the premiere of Rothko Chapel, in 1972.

(Photo by Courtesy of Rothko Chapel)


As Axiom’s music director Jeffrey Milarsky explained in a recent interview, the concert began as a “dreamy birthday celebration for two drastically different composers. I love the idea that composers are born in the same year, but are so different. And yet there are more similarities than people give them credit for.” For Milarsky, the biggest overlap between Kurtag and Feldman lies in the singularity of their “unbelievable voice[s].” That is, both composers have unique and distinctive sound worlds. 

“These are two composers you can’t possibly mistake for anybody else,” Milarsky continued. “Whenever I hear one note of Kurtag, one note of Feldman, I know exactly where I am. That is why I think they are actually related, and that was part of the idea of the concert. We are going to contrast them, of course, but I hope people see some similarities of their efforts.”

The program is structured around Kurtag’s Messages of the Late Miss R.V. Troussova and Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. These are not only significant masterworks of both composers, but are also “dramatically amazing vocal pieces,” though in different ways, Milarsky said. 

Written from 1976 to 1980, Kurtag’s Messages of the Late Miss R.V. Troussova bears superficial structural resemblance to Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire: it is comprised of 21 emotionally charged songs for solo soprano, accompanied by shifting combinations of instruments from the chamber ensemble. However, that is where the similarities end. Kurtag’s work, based on Russian texts by poet Rimma Dalos, takes the soprano on a journey of unrequited love, “through all of these emotions from bliss to anger to severe let down. A woman looks back on her life, her happy and unhappy love,” Milarsky explained. 

Sonically, Messages will take the audience to a new world, Milarsky believes. The work is “very expressionistic, even though it sounds very Hungarian. It is so distended and distorted in places and other times very sardonic and metered.” The chamber ensemble also includes a mandolin and cimbalom (a Hungarian hammered dulcimer), as well as percussion players breaking glass in a trash can. 

Though it will be a new aural experience, in many other ways, Milarsky thinks the piece is all about tradition. “It’s very connected with the text. There are symbolically amazing things. It’s like Schumann—all his piano parts inDichterliebe really reflect the poetry. Same thing with Kurtag.” The traditional and Schumannesque quality ofMessages also connects to the accompanying Kurtag work on the program, Hommage a R. Sch. (1990) for clarinet, viola, and piano, which is a tribute to Schumann and recalls his own trio Fairy Tales for the same instrumentation. 

For Milarsky, the “highbrow modernism of Kurtag” will be countered with “everything you could possibly reject about music in Feldman.” His Rothko Chapel for chorus, viola, percussion, and celesta was written in 1971 after the death of painter Mark Rothko, who was a very close friend of Feldman’s. Dedicated to the artist, Rothko Chapelwas written to be performed in the chapel of the same name in Houston, where 14 of Rothko’s meditative paintings are housed.

The theme of the work is one of lament—not only for Rothko, Milarsky said, but also for Stravinsky, for Feldman’s parents, and possibly for victims of the Holocaust. “This is a very personal, affecting work. There are fleeting echoes of past music—dissonant chords reminiscent of Moses und Aron of Schoenberg, a thin, quasi-tonal melody that echoes the Requiem Canticles of Stravinsky, a Hebraic melody in the end of the viola part. The emotional sphere is too vast to be connected with the mourning of only one individual. It’s this overtone of sadness and serious quality. It’s bigger picture than just Rothko dying.”

Rothko Chapel will be paired with Feldman’s sparse Bass Clarinet and Percussion from 1981. “It’s one of the quietest works I’ve ever programmed,” Milarsky said. “The entire work is barely a whisper.” But he hopes that its astonishingly quiet qualities will stand out loudly. “This piece is tremendously beautiful, and it’s actually harrowing to see people be so tender. It’s kind of a transcendent listening experience, like listening for the sound that a leaf or a branch makes in the wind. It’s very esoteric, but you sure hope that people lean in, metaphorically, to listen and to really understand the process that is going on.” Additionally, Milarsky proposes that Bass Clarinet and Percussionwill oppose Kurtag’s Hommage a R. Sch. in an interesting way: the extreme avant-garde nature of Bass Clarinet and Percussion responds to the concrete, traditional idea of the Hommage.

For Rothko Chapel, Stephen Fox’s Clarion Choir will join Axiom, and master’s student Lauren Snouffer will sing the virtuosic soprano solo in Messages. The concert is co-presented by Lincoln Center’s new Tully Scope festival as part of its “For Morton Feldman” series celebrating the life and work of this iconically downtown New York composer. 

Undoubtedly, this concert’s programming is intellectual and unique, and Milarsky is extremely excited about it. “I think it is going to be an amazing listening experience. Both these composers achieve such potent things in such different ways,” he says. “These pieces are rarely done and are chancy things to do in the public, but I’m hoping that this grand experiment works.”


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