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Home Culture Péter Eötvos, the last great Hungarian composer, dies at 80 | Culture

Péter Eötvos, the last great Hungarian composer, dies at 80 | Culture

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The Hungarian composer and conductor Péter Eötvös, on September 29, 2019 at the Reina Sofía Music School in Madrid.Jaime Villanueva

It seems that bad news has a tendency to cluster together. On the same day, yesterday March 23, we received the sad news of the death of the great Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini and the composer and conductor Péter Eötvos. I am going to talk about the second, surely less known to the general public, despite the fact that, with him, one of the greatest names in European music passes away at the age of 80, one of those personalities who transmute with their era until they define it and that leave us a tremendous void.

Pierre Boulez, the legendary French composer and conductor, defined Eötvos as one of the exportable Hungarians, like Béla Bartók, Zoltan Kodaly, Giörgy Ligeti, Giörgy Kurtág or Georg Solti. As it is an old expression, he did not point out that he was perhaps the last of that saga capable of increasing the artistic gains of a country to the top, leaving a void if there is no replacement. I don’t know that difficult country that is today’s Hungary well, not even in the musical field that corresponds to me, but I don’t think of anyone capable of replacing Eötvos on that list of greats.

Péter Eötvos was born in Transylvania on January 2, 1944, that confusing region that, after the partition after the First World War, became part of Romania, despite its Hungarian majority. Eötvos always pointed out that his native musical language was that of the Székely community, a language that he shared with the intense legacy of his mother, a pianist, or his multi-instrumentalist grandfather in the rich local tradition.

After his musical studies in Budapest, he obtained a diploma in composition and, as he confessed, he began conducting orchestras so that he would not be enrolled in the army. He must have been very good at it, because he immediately left the country with a formidable musical backpack.

In the mid-sixties he arrived in Germany, aged 22. He defined that moment as the beginning of the second part of his life. Orchestral conducting and composition merge and allow him to immerse himself in new musical languages ​​with remarkable ease. A video by the artist and director Judit Kele that circulates on YouTube, The seventh door, shows him with a cordial and joking Stockhausen, and a comfortable and familiar Eötvos in some difficult rehearsals. Stockhausen speaks of Eötvos with real affection: “Péter is probably the most peculiar director in the world. He knows how to direct everything, especially because he thinks like a composer, that he can get into the smallest details of a very complex score and make it audible through his very personal technique. I would say that he is loyal, first of all, but, in addition, he is always in a good mood and likes nature, he loves children and is never tired, he is a charming man.”

He became familiar with all the avant-garde techniques and made them his own from a directorial style that was rare in those years among those who opted for modernity. He soon made himself noticed and in 1978 Pierre Boulez commissioned him to perform the inaugural concert at the Pompidou Center and the newborn Ensemble Intercontemporain de Paris (EIC). And, after the performance, he chooses him as the head of this hopeful specialized orchestra for the next 13 years. Eötvos was then 34 years old. These are years in which it is known that he composed, but the direction absorbs him. Starting in 1991, upon leaving the EIC, he began a frenetic career in three directions: as a conductor he began to collaborate with the most prestigious orchestras in the world, but it was as a composer that Eötvos exploded. In 1993 alone he signed six works in a progression that reached its culmination in 1997, when he presented what was his second opera, but which achieved significant notoriety: Three sistersabout Chekhov’s play.

Shortly before, in 1993, Eötvos presented a piece dedicated to Franz Zappa, for whom he had enormous admiration. Zappa had recently died and shortly before he had invited him to Los Angeles to present a concert dedicated to Varèse for whom the rocker felt devotion having begun his musical career with Ionisation, the famous solo percussion piece that had set a trend at the beginning of the century. The song that Eötvos dedicated to Zappa was titled Psalm 151 In memoriam Franz Zappa.

It is one work among many, but it confirms the versatility that Eötvos has shown in his long career; always oscillating between avant-garde and popular airs, perhaps as a consequence of that Transylvanian heritage collected from his grandparents; between orchestra conducting and creation; between a theatricality always present even in his purely instrumental works; between electroacoustic music and instrumental sophistication; a dedication to opera that led him to sign nine titles; and, above all, between both aspects of his career and a unique pedagogical dedication. Proof of this is that, in 1991, the year in which he left the EIC’s leadership, he founded the International Eötvos Institute and Foundation, dedicated to young conductors and composers. From 1992 to 1998 he taught at the Hochchule für Musik in Karlsruhe and later taught at the Hochschule für Musik in Cologne. In recent decades, Eötvos has supervised musical creation and direction at the Reina Sofía School in Madrid, being the highest level reference of this institution created by Paloma O’Shea, to which, by the way, he dedicated a short piece for violin in 2015.

Among his numerous awards, the last two stand out: the Goethe Medal of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2018 and the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge award in 2021.

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