Péter Eötvös

From Unearthing The Music

Péter Eötvös in 2018. Photo by Gáspár Stekovics

Péter Eötvös (Hungarian: Eötvös Péter, born January 2nd 1944) is a Hungarian composer, conductor and teacher. Along with György Ligeti and György Kurtág, he is considered one of the greatest Hungarian composers of the last half-century. He is also recognized as one of the most significant and influential personalities on the international music scene.

Eötvös was born in Székelyudvarhely, Transylvania, then part of Hungary. At the suggestion of Zoltán Kodály, he was admitted to the Academy of Music at the age of fourteen, where he graduated as a composer. He studied composition in Budapest and Cologne. From 1963, he composed for film and theatrical scores in Hungary, working with several well-known filmmakers of the time such as Zoltán Fábri, Károly Makk, Zoltán Huszárik and István Szabó. Eötvös played regularly with the Stockhausen Ensemble between 1968 and 1976. He was a founding member of the Oeldorf Group in 1973, continuing his association until the late 1970s. From 1979 to 1991, he was the musical director and conductor of the Ensemble InterContemporain (EIC). From 1985 to 1988, he was the principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.


As a child, Eötvös received a thorough musical education, including in works by Béla Bartók. He felt a strong link between the Hungarian grammar and Bartók's music, claiming that the specific "Hungarian" interpretations of music by Bartók and Kodály (as well as other Hungarian conductors such as Szell, Fricsay, Ormandy, Solti, Reiner) show the subtle accents and rhythms of the Hungarian language.

His mother, a pianist, participated in the musical and intellectual life of Budapest and took her son to many performances and rehearsals of opera, operetta and theatre. He learned the piano, and also wrote plays and small pieces. He won a composition contest at age eleven and was then noticed in the Hungarian artistic world. He then met Ligeti, 21 years his senior, who recommended him to Kodály at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. He was accepted with honours at the Academy, where he studied composition with János Viski, on Kodály's advice.

In a 2019 interview, Eötvös discussed what it meant to learn composition and even listening to certain composers in the atmosphere of communist Hungary, which was full of censorship and prohibitions: “Prohibitions are very useful for a young person because what they prohibit becomes important: you need to know the reason for the ban. In my youth, the style of the second Viennese school―Schönberg, Berg, Webern―was forbidden in the department of composition, so we were terribly interested in this world of music.”

He and his fellow students were forced to meet with some of their teachers in order to listen to forbidden music although those recordings had already been distributed through private channels, as well. In a 1986 interview, Eötvös recalled what they knew about the musical life beyond the Iron Curtain in the early 1960s: “We wrote 1966. From the beginning of the sixties, i.e. from 1960-62, an opening tendency and the change of cultural life was perceptible in Hungary. Spiritual life became bubbly and more liberated. At that time, Rudolf Maros regularly went out to Darmstadt and brought home a lot of recordings. He and János Viski had invited us to listen, to discuss the works; and we knew exactly how the music developed abroad. […] Dr. László Végh, who was a doctor and who, by the way, was a fan of modern music, was also important to us. A company formed around him and we listened to his collection of recordings. There were eighty of us sitting in his apartment.”

In 1958, he was asked to accompany film projections with improvisations on piano and hammond organ. He was then asked to write scores for theatre and cinema. By 1970, he had composed several pieces of utilitarian music. He learned the importance of timing and synchronisation. He also discovered noise as a sound, which was the starting point of some later compositions. The work "Zero Points" begins with a countdown, as if destined to synchronise sound and image, the double bass then takes on a high-pitched sound reminding the cracks of an old magnetic tape.

During a period of ten years he developed his personal musical preferences, for Gesualdo (the idea of the madrigal returns in pieces such as Drei Madrigalkomödien and Tri sestry (Three Sisters)), American jazz of the 1960s, electronic music (of which Karlheinz Stockhausen's figure was inseparable), and Pierre Boulez, among others. He quickly distanced himself from other composers of the Academy.

In 1970, at the age of 22, Eötvös requested a scholarship to go study conducting abroad, leaving for Cologne, Germany, following the examples of Kurtág and Ligeti.[1] The opportunity for further education was also important to him in order to avoid compulsory military service in Hungary. The Hochschule für Musik Köln and the studio of the broadcaster Westdeutscher Rundfunk worked together at that time, which allowed students to use advanced technology in one of the best studios in Europe. Eötvös worked there from 1971 to 1979[1] He studied composition with Bernd Alois Zimmermann, as well as conducting.

In Cologne he also met Stockhausen, already knowing his work really well. Stockhausen was the key figure in the electronic music studio of Cologne Radio at this time and Eötvös was also involved in the work of the electroacoustic music studio. He began composing with the so-called pure sound or sine waves (sine-tone). As later Eötvös recalled: “In the studio, they listened to the sine generator and said that what they were hearing was the core. The characteristic behaviour of this age was this root and seed search; these people worked to build a new world and sought the ‘germ’ of this new world. Remember: this was after the war, we are still in 1949/50 when ruins lie everywhere. . . The construction of the new world also involved finding a new voice. The ‘germ’ of the new sound was the sine sound.” Eötvös became Stockhausen's engineer and copyist (the score of Telemusik is copied by him), and his musician and conductor, conducting the La Scala premiere of Donnerstag aus Licht in 1981, as well as its Covent Garden performances in 1985, among others.

Beyond electronic music, he was also interested in jazz. Eötvös once said that he considers Miles Davis to be one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. His sensibility to Jazz awoke as early as the 1950s. At that time, listening to Jazz was only possible on shortwave stations, but since this was forbidden, the authorities always interfered with the radio broadcast: so how was it happened that until the mid-sixties Eötvös had not heard pure jazz without sizzling: “When the first happened [listen jazz] at a concert, I really missed something. Is that all? I was outraged. And where are the others? I missed the sizzling, which gave the jazz its smell and taste. Out of this sizzling, buzzing, confusing world of sound, my interest in electronic music could have grown [laughs].”

His fascination with jazz was conceptual rather than aesthetic: he admired the freedom of the direct musical communication between musicians, and which he found lacking in European music culture, where the author is only connected with the performer through the music sheet.

In 1978, Boulez asked him to conduct the opening concert of IRCAM in Paris.[2] He was then appointed musical director of the Ensemble InterContemporain, holding the position until 1991.[1][2] He performed at the Proms in 1980, and was regularly invited by the BBC Orchestra between 1985 and 1988.[1] This period also marks his first success as a composer with his "Chinese Opera" (1986), written for the 10-year anniversary of the Ensemble InterContemporain. The piece constitutes a reflection on the theatricality of sound, as the composer spreads the musicians through the stage, a process also found in "Three Sisters". Each movement is a tribute to directors he admired: Bob Wilson, Klaus Michael Grüber, Luc Bondy, Patrice Chéreau, Jacques Tati and Peter Brook.

Jean-Pierre Brossman, director of the Opéra National de Lyon at that time, admired his ability to take into consideration the work of artists and directors, and commissioned an opera in 1986: "Three Sisters", based on Chekhov's play. In 2008, he premiered two other operas, "Lady Sarashina" and "Love and Other Demons".

Eötvös was principal guest conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra from 2003 to 2007.[1] His recording of Luciano Berio's Sinfonia with the London Voices (DG) received the award for "Technical excellence in recording" by the BBC Music Magazine in 2006. He served as a member of the jury of the Tōru Takemitsu composition competition in 2014.

Eötvös was also active as a music teacher: from 1992 to 1998 he was a professor at the Karlsruhe College, and from 1998 at the Cologne College of Music. He established the “International Eötvös Institute” in 1991, and in 2004 the “Peter Eötvös Contemporary Music Foundation” in Budapest for young composers and conductors. Eötvös moved back to Hungary in 2004 and has spent a significant part of his time here ever since. He regularly teaches master classes around the world.

Composition style

Eötvös managed to break through as a composer only after his conducting success, although his first learned profession was composition. He described the reciprocity of conducting and composing as follows: “Composing and conducting are the same occupation from two sides: one is creative, and the other is performing, recreational work. The way I think as a composer is nourished by my performing experience.” Initially, he composed theatrical and film music. The real breakthrough was resulted by the Russian-language opera Three Sisters, presented in Lyon in 1998 which has an undoubted significance in opera history.

As a composer, he was never content to merely compose music but always wanted to make his audience a participant of a complex artistic experience, a ritual event. He contrasted this with such trendy abstract musical aspirations in the 20th century. According to his own account, music is a ceremony as it is interpreted in ancient cultures. When composing operas, he starts from the theatrical environment. He sees the essence of the relationship between theater and music in the fact that music in the theater must be heard in a language that everyone understands: “Music characterizes and creates the situation at the same time. […] Every opera composer must find out why and how he writes opera. In the case of the Balcony, I wanted to recall the atmosphere of the Berlin-Paris cabaret. When writing it, I placed the sounds of the plot into the fifties, the age of the creation of the piece. That is why it contains the sounds and noises of my childhood, the dominant dance music atmosphere: the sound of chansons. Every decade has its own sound. In my experience, the voice of the world around us changes every decade.”

Eötvös's music shows the influence of a variety of composers. As director of the Ensemble InterContemporain, he was exposed to styles, as is evidenced in the variety of timbres and soundworlds within his music. Extended techniques such as over-pressure bowings coexist with lyrical folk songs and synthesized sounds. Eötvös provides detailed instructions on how to mix instruments for electronic manipulation or amplification. His first large-scale compositions were for film. This often reflects on his later pieces in moments of atmospheric airiness. Two of his compositions for orchestra and voice, "Atlantis" and "Ima", were inspired by Sándor Weöres' poem "Néma zene".

Most of his works are published by Schott Music in Mainz.[3]


  • Prize Bartok-Pasztory (1997)[1]
  • Kossuth Prize (2002)[1]
  • Budapest Honorary Citizen (2003)
  • Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres (2003)[1]
  • Grand Prix Antoine Livio from the Presse musicale internationale (2006)
  • Frankfurter Musikpreis (2007)[4]
  • Grand Cross Order of Saint Stephen of Hungary (2015)[5]
  • Grand Prix artistique (composition musicale) de la Fondation Simone et Cino Del Duca (2016)
  • Goethe Medal (2018)[6]


Stage works

  • Senza sangue, opera (2015 Cologne, 2016 Festival d'Avignon)
  • Der goldene Drache, opera (2013/2014, for Ensemble Modern)
  • Paradise Reloaded (Lilith) (2012/13)
  • The Tragedy of the Devil (Die Tragödie des Teufels), opera (22 February 2010, Bavarian State Opera)
  • Lady Sarashina, opera (4 March 2008, Opéra de Lyon)
  • Love and Other Demons, opera (10 August 2008, Glyndebourne Festival)
  • Angels in America, opera (2002–2004)
  • Le Balcon, opera (2001/02)
  • As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, opera (1998–99)
  • Three Sisters, opera (1996–97)[8]
  • Radames, chamber opera (1975/97)
  • Harakiri, opera (1973)

Orchestra works

  • Alhambra (Violin Concerto No. 3), violin and orchestra (2018)
  • Per Luciano Berio (2018)
  • Reading Malevich (2017–18)
  • Multiversum, for organ, Hammond organ and orchestra (2017)[8]
  • Alla vittime senza nome (2017)
  • Dialog mit Mozart (2016)
  • Halleluja – Oratorium balbulum, four fragments for mezzo-soprano and tenor solo, narrator, choir and orchestra (2015)
  • Hommage à Domenico Scarlatti, for horn soloist and string chamber orchestra (2013)
  • Speaking drums, percussion concerto (2012/13)
  • DoReMi (Violin Concerto No. 2), violin and orchestra (2012)
  • The gliding of the eagle in the skies (2011)
  • Cello Concerto Grosso, for cello and orchestra (2010–11)
  • Levitation, for two clarinets and string orchestra (2007)
  • Konzert für zwei Klaviere (2007)
  • Seven (Violin Concerto No. 1), violin and orchestra (2006)
  • CAP-KO, concerto for piano, keyboard and orchestra (2005)
  • Jet Stream, trumpet concerto (2002)
  • IMA, for soloists, choir and orchestra (2002)
  • zeroPoints (1999)
  • Two monologues, for baritone and orchestra (1998)
  • Replica, viola concerto (1998) – recorded by Kim Kashkashian on ECM Records
  • Atlantis, for solo baritone, boy soprano, zymbalom, virtual choir and orchestra (1995)
  • Psychokosmos, zymbalon concerto (1993)
  • Chinese Opera (1986)

Ensemble works

  • Secret kiss, melodrama for narrator and 5 instruments (2018)
  • da capo (Mit Fragmenten aus W. A. Mozarts Fragmenten), for cimbalon or marimba and ensemble (2014)
  • Dodici, for 12 cellos (2013)
  • Octet (2008), for flute, clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones
  • Sonata per sei, for two pianos, three percussion and one sampler keyboard (2006)
  • Snatches of a conversation, for double-bell trumpet solo and ensemble (2001)
  • Paris–Dakar, for trombone solo, brass and percussion (2000)
  • Shadows, for flute, clarinet and ensemble (1996)
  • Psy, first version for harp, alto flute/piccolo and viola; second for harp, alto flute/piccolo and violoncello (1996)
  • Triangel, percussionist and ensemble (1993)
  • Brass – The Metal Space, actions for 7 brass players and 2 percussionists without conductor (1990)
  • Steine, for ensemble (1985–90)
  • Windsequenzen, for ensemble (1975/1987)
  • Intervalles-Interieurs, ensemble and electronics (1981)
  • Windsequenzen (1975/1987)

Vocal music

  • Goretsch! Goretsch!, for mezzo-soprano solo (2017)
  • Die lange Reise, for soprano and piano (2014)
  • Herbsttag, for female choir (2011)
  • Schiller, energische Schönheit, for 8 singers, 8 wind instruments, 2 percussion and accordion (2010)
  • Octet Plus, for soprano, flute, clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones (2008)
  • Solitude / Egyedül, for children or women's choir, in memoriam Kodály (1956/2006)
  • Drei Madrigalkomödien, for 12 voices:
  • "Insetti galanti" (1970–90)
  • "Hochzeitsmadrigal" (1963–76)
  • "Moro Lasso" (1963–72)

Chamber music and solo works

  • Lisztomania, for piano four hands (2018)
  • désaccord 2, for 2 violas, in memoriam B.A. Zimmermann (2018)
  • Joyce, for clarinet solo (2018)
  • Joyce, for clarinet and string quartet (2017)
  • Sentimental, for trumpet in E-flat doubling flugelhorn (2017)
  • "Now, Miss!", for violin and cello, based on Samuel Beckett's "Embers" (2016)
  • The sirens cycle, soprano and string quartet (2015/16)
  • Molto Tranquillo, trio for piccolo doubling alto-flute, cello and piano (2015)
  • para Paloma, violin solo (2015)
  • O rose!, piano solo (2015)
  • a Call, violin solo (2015)
  • Lectures différentes, saxophone quartet (2014)
  • New Psalm, percussion solo (2012/13)
  • Dances of the Brush-footed Butterfly, piano solo (2012)
  • Cadenza, flute solo (2008)
  • Natasha, soprano, violin, clarinet and piano (2006)
  • Erdenklavier-Himmelklavier nr. 2., piano solo (2003/2006)
  • Encore, string quartet (2005)
  • Un taxi l´attend, mais Tchékhov préfère aller à pied., piano solo (2004)
  • Erdenklavier-Himmelklavier nr. 1., piano solo (2003)
  • Zwei Promenaden, percussion, keyboard and tuba (1993/2001)
  • Derwischtanz, for 1 or 3 clarinets (1993/2001)
  • Kosmos, solo or two pianos (1961/99)[8]
  • Two poems to Polly, solo cello (1998)
  • Psalm 151, for percussion (1993)
  • Thunder, solo timpani (1993)
  • Korrespondenz, for string quartet (1992)
  • 5 Klavierstücke, piano solo (1959/60/61)

Electronic music

  • Psy, tape (1996)
  • Elektrochronik, tape (1974)
  • "Now, Miss!" violin, synthesizer with tape (1972)
  • Music for New York (1971)
  • Cricketmusic, tape (1970)
  • Mese (Märchen /Tale/Conte), tape (1968)

Theater and film music

  • Sándor Sára: Könyörtelen idök – Relentless Times (1991)
  • Judit Elek: Tutajosok Raftsmen (1990)
  • Sándor Sára: Tüske a köröm alatt – Thorn under the Nail (1987)
  • Károly Makk: Macskajáték – Cat´s play (1974)
  • Mihály Szemes: Az alvilág professzora – The professor of inferno (1969)
  • Ferenc Kardos: Egy örült éjszaka – A Crazy Night (1969)
  • János Tóth: Aréna – Arena (1969)
  • Zoltán Huszárik: Amerigo Tot (1969)
  • Shakespeare: Téli rege – The Winter´s Tale (1969)
  • Shakespeare: Athéni Timon – Timon of Athens (1969)
  • Katona: Bánk bán (1968)
  • Foltos és Fülenagy – Spotty and Bigears (1966)
  • János Szücs: Szomjuság – Thirst (1965)
  • Gábor Oláh: Három kivánság (1965)
  • Hét szem mazsola – Seven Raisins (1965)
  • Ellopott bejárat – Stolen Entrance (1965)
  • Anouilh: Becket (1965)
  • Madách: Az ember tragédiája – Tragedy of Man (1964)
  • Lermontov: Hóvihar – The Storm (1964)
  • Pirandello: Hat szerep keres egy szerzöt – Six characters in search of an author (1964)
  • István Szabó: (1964)
  • Iván Lakatos: Mozaik – Mosaic (1964)
  • Twist Oliver – Oliver Twist (1963)
  • Tennessee Williams: Üvegfigurák- The Glass Menagerie (1963)
  • O'Neill: Amerikai Elektra – Mourning becomes Electra (1963)
  • Pál Gábor: Aranykor – Golden Age (1963)
  • Zoltán Fábri: Nappali sötétség – Darkness at noon (1963)
  • István Bácskay-Lauro: Igézet – Spell (1963)
  • János Rózsa: Tér – Space (1962)
  • Pál Gábor: Prometeusz – Prometheus (1962)
  • Pál Gábor: A megérkezés – The Arrival (1962)
  • Károly Esztergályos: Ötödik pozicióban – In fifth position (1962)
  • Büchner: Leonce és Léna – Leonce and Lena (1961)
  • Sean O'Casey: Az ezüst kupa – The Silver Tassie (1961)

Portrait-film and documentary film

  • The seventh door
  • En souvenir de Trois Soeurs
  • Talentum
  • Trois Soeurs – opera film
  • Le Balcon – opera film
  • Angels in America – opera film


  1. "Musik Mitglieder: Peter Eötvös". Akademie der Künste. Berlin. Retrieved 18 November 2019.
  2. Rohde, Gerhard (2 January 2014). "Komponist, Dirigent und Psychoanalytiker". Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (in German). Retrieved 13 October 2018.
  3. "Peter Eötvös". Schott Music. 2018. Archived from the original on 28 January 2015. Retrieved 13 October 2018.
  4. "Frankfurter Musikpreis zur internationalen Musikmesse Frankfurt". Online-Ausgabe des Handbuchs der Kulturpreise (in German). 2013. Retrieved 12 October 2018.
  5. Zrt., HVG Kiadó (20 August 2015). "Polgár Judit és Eötvös Péter kapta a Magyar Szent István-rendet". Retrieved 25 February 2018.
  6. "Komponist Péter Eötvös erhält Goethe-Medaille". Musik Heute. Berlin. 14 June 2018. Retrieved 8 September 2018.
  7. "Peter Eötvös". Schott Music. 2019. Retrieved 18 November 2019.
  8. Mayer, Gregor (2 January 2019). "Schöpfer kosmischer Klangwelten – Komponist Peter Eötvös wird 75". neue musikzeitung (in German). Regensburg. Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  9. Angyalok, falak, Liszt Ferenc és a 360-as klub [Angels, walls, Ferenc Liszt and the club 360]. Intrview with Péter Eötöves by Gergely Fazekas., October 1, 2009.
  10. Tamás Váczi. Beszélgetés Eötvös Péterrel - Az elektronikus zenéről [Discussion with Péter Eötvös about the electronic music] Muzsika 29, no. 12 (1986)
  11. Melinda Hekler. „Legjobban az üres teret szeretem”. Beszélgetés Eötvös Péter zeneszerzővel [“I like empty space the most ”. Conversation with composer Péter Eötvös] Kortárs 60, no. 12 (2016)

External links

Text partially adapted from Wikipedia