Like his great friend and contemporary György Ligeti, György Kurtág was born in the 1920s into a Hungarian Jewish family living in Romania. Both Györgys began their studies close to home, and both moved after the war to the Liszt Academy in Budapest, where they eventually met. Ligeti was three years older, and much faster to find himself; by the time Kurtág graduated in 1955, Ligeti was on the faculty. Meanwhile, life in Hungary had changed. Open and cosmopolitan in the immediate postwar era, the country had become absorbed into the greater Russian empire several years before Soviet hegemony was reinforced in 1956. Ligeti left soon after these events, but Kurtág stayed.
In 1957 Kurtág went to Paris for further studies with Milhaud and Messiaen, though more important were the psychiatric sessions he had with Marianne Stein, who helped him remake himself as a composer. Withdrawing his earlier compositions (apart from a viola concerto already in print), he began to work on a small, Webern-like scale, but with his own vivid rhetoric and Hungarian (Bartókian) accent. Intensity of utterance became his guiding ideal, whether in songs or short instrumental pieces, and Kurtág kept his music as pithy and compact as possible. Fiercely self-critical, he also kept his output small. By age 45 Kurtág had reached only Opus 8 in his official catalog, which mostly comprised sets of instrumental epigrams. His only composition of greater length was a setting for soprano and piano of fragments from the sermons of a Hungarian Reformation preacher: The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza, a work of scalding power and keen solace on which he worked through most of the 1960s.
Then, in the early 1970s, Kurtág discovered the challenges and possibilities of writing short pieces for young pianists, and he has since gone on to produce occasional volumes of these Játékok (Games). By allowing the composer to be simultaneously earnest and playful, and to make more or less oblique references to all kinds of music, Játékok provided the key to Kurtág’s entire later compositional output. He has focused on songs and brief chamber pieces, no doubt because of his experience in training young performers at the Liszt Academy, where he was professor of chamber music for almost two decades (1967–1986). Many outstanding Hungarian musicians, including pianists András Schiff and Zoltán Kocsis, came under his exacting influence, and as a revered teacher-composer he became a national treasure.
Kurtág was, however, little-known outside Hungary until the 1980s, when a commission from Pierre Boulez brought Kurtág international attention. This larger recognition encouraged him to write for grander forces—often for groups scattered around the performing space—and to engage with wider European literature, as in his Kafka Fragments for soprano and violin (1985–1987) or more recent settings of Hölderlin and Beckett. Kurtág also started traveling widely to coach musicians (he is known to be demanding in rehearsal) and give occasional four-hand recitals with his wife Márta, playing Játékok selections and Bach transcriptions.