My first book was commissioned for Ashgates ‘Landmarks in Music Since 1950’ series. It focuses on a piece of music composed in 1960s Hungary, still today uncompromisingly tough to listen to, even while it was rejected as ‘too 19th-century’ when it was premiered, in 1968, at the hothouse of progressive classical composers in Darmstadt, Germany.

My interest in the book was partly in showing aspects of Kurtag’s compositional process, in particular how he responded musically to the text – a collection of writings by a 16th-century Lutheran preacher. I was also interested in understanding how it was heard so differently in Hungary and outside – manifesting the ways in which the Cold War shaped musical thought and practice. My work was influenced strongly by having studied with Kurtag while a student at the Liszt Academy, Budapest. As I had been invited to perform this extraordinary work, along with Jane Manning, I spent many months in Budapest attempting to get it under my fingers, with all the difficulties that came with working with this notoriously demanding musician.


“It’s a fine portrait-in-depth of an amazing creative achievement.” — Arnold Whittall

“This is an expert, lucid and—by the standards of such things—highly readable account of what is beyond question a key work that deserves greater recognition. A generally first-rate piece of work, one which fills a shrieking gap in the literature.” — Stephen Walsh, Music & Letters.

“Rachel Beckles Willson’s impressive command of the Hungarian language and invaluable first-hand experience provide readers with a true insider’s perspective of a remarkable composer and, apparently, awatershed composition… Any book that illuminates the fascinating musical activities of Central and Eastern Europe, and the experiences of its composers during the dark decades of the 1950s and 1960s is a most welcome acquisition for any music library.” — Gregory Myers, Notes.

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