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Peter Eötvös (1944 - 2024)

“I do not wish a work to resemble any other” 

The composer and conductor Peter Eötvös has died in Budapest on 24 March 2024 at the age of 80. This was announced by his family on Sunday. With his death, the music world has lost one of the most frequently performed opera composers of our time. 

 “Individuals are shaped by all forms of culture and I would be happy if at the end of my life I had the feeling that I had allowed the world to pass through me, and that something had been retained within me, like in a sieve.”  (Peter Eötvös) (1) 

Peter Eötvös was born in Transylvania on 2 January 1944 during the war, but spent less than a year there before the family was forced to flee to the West to escape the approaching Soviet army. Despite his early relocation, Eötvös still likes to define the old cultural landscape of Transylvania as his true provenance: “I feel that I really belong there, particularly from a musical perspective. […] We must have the cosmopolitanism and underlying multicultural atmosphere of this area in our genes. A variety of different peoples have lived together in this part of the world and their cultures have mutually enriched each other.” (2) Although the formerly Hungarian region was transferred to Romania after World War I, composers such as Eötvös and his more senior colleague György Ligeti have always viewed Siebenbürgen both as an anchoring point for their Hungarian identity and as a symbol of general cosmopolitanism – ultimately as the antithesis of the repeated resurgence of Hungarian nationalism. 

“Individuals are shaped by all forms of culture” comments Eötvös – but at the same time, they also have to possess the broadmindedness and pleasure in experimentation with which the composer extends his interest in cultural diversity in almost every one of his compositions. While performing with the Stockhausen Ensemble at the World Expo in Osaka in 1970, he became acquainted with Japanese culture which influenced his music not only through moments of stylisation and ritualisation and the precision of gestures and phrases, but also in content, for example in his first opera Harakiri featuring the spectacular seppuku death of the poet Yukio Mishima, and the pair of music theatre works based on the diary of the Japanese lady-in-waiting Lady Sarashina from the 11th century. In his opera Tri Sestri (based on Chekhov), he immersed himself in Russian culture and his percussion concerto Speaking Drums was inspired by the traditions of Indian and African percussion. He embarked on a study of Basque culture for his orchestral piece The Gliding of the Eagle in the Skies in response to a commission by the Basque National Orchestra, and his third violin concerto entitled Alhambra composed for the violinist Isabelle Faust features evocations of Spanish and Arabian music. More examples for the cultural permeability of Eötvös’ compositions could be provided by his enthusiasm for jazz (exemplified by the trumpet concerto Jet Stream) and his sentimental predilection for the French chanson which defined the character of his opera Le Balcon based on the play by Jean Genet. 

Despite all these influences on his works, Eötvös considers himself essentially as a Hungarian composer – not least in the recognition that the culture of his native country has achieved a certain uniqueness within a European context due to the isolation of the Hungarian language. Mese [fairy tales], his first composition for tape, incorporates stock elements from 99 Hungarian folk tales, and later works including the piano concerto CAP-KO (2005) and the subsequent versions of this composition for chamber ensemble (Sonata per sei) and piano duet (Concerto for two pianos) constitute direct homages to Béla Bartók whose tonal cosmos is described by Eötvös as his “musical mother tongue”. Dances originating from Transylvania in his large-scale orchestral work Atlantis dating from 1995 serve as the symbol of a lost culture which Eötvös associates with renewed hope. Interestingly enough, the most recent of his thirteen operas, the pessimistic tragi-comedy Valuska (2023), is actually the first to utilise a Hungarian libretto, although two earlier compositions – Die Tragödie des Teufels (Imre Madách) and Halleluja - Oratorium balbulum (Peter Esterházy) – were based on original Hungarian texts. With the exception of Valuska, the librettos of all other works for the stage have been translated into other languages. 

 Hungary’s isolation also had political repercussions for the young composer. After his parents’ divorce, Eötvös grew up with his mother in Miskolc in northern Hungary and was accepted by Zoltán Kodály to study at the Budapest Music Academy at the age of 14 on the strength of his precocious musical talent. During this period, he discovered western contemporary music and jazz on short-wave transmitters which were scrambled by the Communist authorities, but it was the allure of forbidden fruits which only increased the desire for new experiences. Eötvös attended the contemporary music summer course Darmstädter Ferienkurse for the very first time in 1965, and a year later received a German scholarship which permitted him to study in Cologne with Bernd Alois Zimmermann. He also found work as a repetiteur at Cologne Opera and subsequently joined the Stockhausen Ensemble as a keyboard player, additionally working as a technical assistant at the electronic studio of the broadcaster WDR. At a much later point in time, 1998, he would be appointed as professor for composition at the Musikhochschule in Cologne as the successor of Mauricio Kagel. The vision of music dominated by electronics which was shared by numerous composers within Stockhausen’s circle of course never actually became reality within their envisaged radicality, but it did have consequences for the later compositions of Eötvös, not only in the incorporation of electronic processes and feeds but also in its characteristic sound. 

At first however, the composer Eötvös disappeared into the background to permit the conductor to come to the fore. As the musical director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris (1978-1991) and the radio chamber orchestra Hilversum and permanent guest conductor of orchestras in London, Budapest, Baden-Baden/Freiburg and Göteborg, Eötvös learned how to master the difficulties involved in the rehearsal of contemporary music and the logistics of rehearsal organisation, thereby developing an unerring sense for communication with musicians, both in the unconditional collegiality expressed at the conductor’s stand and in his scores in the realisation of his musical visions of what was technically feasible. It is fascinating to watch film extracts of his masterclasses across the world in order to comprehend the birth of music from the spirit of imagination, craftmanship and discipline as envisaged by Eötvös. 

Unlike his mentor Boulez, whose career as a conductor and functionary only permitted him to create a small body of compositions, Eötvös plunged himself into a period of compositional activity which remains unparalleled within the contemporary music scene after leaving the Ensemble Intercontemporain at the age of 47. While still based in Budapest, he had already written music for films and spoken theatre; now, he channelled his enthusiasm for theatre into a whole series of large-scale opera projects. As in his early phase, his wife Mari Mezei remained a significant artistic partner as both dramatic advisor and the author of many of his librettos. These operas were primarily based on works by living authors – among them, Gabriel García Márquez (Love and Other Demons), Tony Kushner (Angels in America), Albert Ostermaier (Paradise reloaded [Lilith]), Roland Schimmelpfennig (Der goldene Drache), Alessandro Baricco (Senza sangue), Jon Fosse (Sleepless) and László Krasznahorkai (Valuska). In the composition of these works, Eötvös adhered to the principle of unrepeatability: “They are deliberately varied and so am I. I do not wish a work to resemble any other: it must possess an individual content. Each opera must have its own language, its own cosmos and its own stylistic tonal language.” (3)  

Since the mid-1990s, opera has represented the gravitational core of Peter Eötvös’ compositions, even though a multitude of chamber and ensemble pieces, solo concertos and orche4stral works have accumulated around this body of works – some of them in direct relationships to his stage works, but many also inspired by completely different regions of artistic imagination. They can be prompted by events such as the first manned space flight by Juri Gagarin (Kosmos) or the crash of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003(first violin concerto Seven), the contemplation of a painting by Casimir Malevitch (Reading Malevitch), the Northern Lights over Alaska (Aurora), the figure of the Hungarian pianist György Cziffra (the piano concerto Cziffra Psodia), the mythical songs of the Sirens (The Sirens Cycle) or take the form of a political accusation as in his symphony Alle vittime senza nome dating from 2016 which is dedicated to the innumerable refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean. For Eötvös, diversity is necessity. “I live in a time in which all these events have taken place,” he comments and establishes the aesthetic justification for the equality of diverse musical styles from the simultaneity of events: “I define myself as a continuum and feel myself as an element of music history. […] I love the avant-garde and love Asian music to the same degree as I love [the music of] Miles Davies.” (4) 

Eötvös lived in Cologne, Paris und Hilversum for three decades. He returned to take up residence in Budapest in 2004, in the year of the country’s accession to the EU, establishing the private Eötvös Contemporary Music Foundation the same year. This move represented a deliberate geographic approach to his cultural homeland which means so much to him – even though Eötvös as an artist has remained a citizen of the world. 

Michael Struck-Schloen 

Translated by Lindsay Chalmers-Gerbracht 

More about Peter Eötvös:



(1) Klangbildaufnahmen wie von einem Fotografen. Wolfgang Sandner in conversation with Peter Eötvös, in: Identitäten – Der Komponist und Dirigent Peter Eötvös. Symposium 2004, Alte Oper Frankfurt/M., ed. by Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich, Mainz 2005, p. 62 

(2) ibid, p. 59 

(3) ibid, p. 65 

(4) Conversation between Peter Eötvös and Wolfgang Schaufler on the world premiere of Halleluja at the Salzburg Festival, Magazine of the Friends of the Salzburg Festival, March 2016