Peter Eotvos, Evocative Modernist Composer and Conductor, Dies at 80

Peter Eotvos, a towering Hungarian composer and conductor who linked modernist traditions in 20th-century European music and whose multifaceted work was singularly evocative, died on Sunday at his home in Budapest. He was 80.

His wife, the librettist Maria Eotvosne Mezei, announced his death.

Mr. Eotvos (pronounced OAT-voesh) was a tireless advocate of contemporary music and composed in almost every conceivable genre. At the dawn of the 21st century, he found widespread acclaim as an opera composer. His final work in that genre, “Valuska,” premiered at the Hungarian State Opera in December 2023. Based on the novel “The Melancholy of Resistance,” by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, it was his first opera written to a Hungarian libretto. (Others are in a number of languages, including German, French and English.)

Like his German opera-composing contemporary Aribert Reimann, who also died this month, Mr. Eotvos was drawn to literary works both modern and classic. He adapted novels and plays by Anton Chekhov, Jean Genet, Gabriel García Márquez, Tony Kushner and Jon Fosse, the Norwegian author who was awarded last year’s Nobel Prize in Literature.

“His music may be rigorous, but his gentle, soft-spoken spirit gives his work its inimitable character and pathos,” the American opera director Yuval Sharon, who directed a 2016 production of Mr. Eotvos’s 1998 opera, “Tri Sestri,” in Vienna, said in a statement. Calling the work, which is based on Chekhov’s play “Three Sisters,” “unquestionably one of the great operas of our time,” Mr. Sharon said that it was only while working with Mr. Eotvos that he “realized how much of his emotional life is invested in the work.”

For the otherwise reserved Mr. Eotvos, music was his vehicle to express that inner life. “In everyday life I’m not a dramatic person at all,” he said in a 2020 documentary about him. “Perhaps this veiled dramatic trait can only come to the surface if it has a job to do.”

In the interview, he described how the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s flight into outer space in 1961 — the first for a human and “the first major event of my life” — inspired him to write the piano work “Kosmos” when he was 17. He would revisit the work at various stages in his life, including in the 2017 concert piece “Multiversum.”

“It put my whole life on a cosmic trajectory,” he said.

Long before he found renown as a composer in his own right, Mr. Eotvos was pivotal to the development of late-20th-century music. As a key player in the musical avant-garde, he championed and helped transmit the musical doctrines of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, figures who dominated postwar European music.

Throughout his career, Mr. Eotvos educated and supported young composers and conductors, including through the International Eotvos Institute, which he founded in 1991, and the Peter Eotvos Contemporary Music Foundation, founded in 2004. He taught at the Karlsruhe University of Music and the Musikhochschule Koln (now the Cologne University of Music), both in Germany. Having spent much of his life abroad, he returned to Hungary in 2004, the year the country joined the European Union.

“We have lost one of the greatest innovators of the Eastern European musical tradition,” the Hungarian film and theater director Kornel Mundruczo, who staged the premiere of Mr. Eotvos’s 2021 opera, “Sleepless,” said in a statement after the death.

“Peter’s music always spoke for itself without inhibitions,” he added. “His work — whether orchestral, opera or film music — was a means of communication for him.”

Peter Laszlo Eotvos was born on Jan. 2, 1944, in the Northern Transylvanian municipality of Szekelyudvarhely, Hungary, which is now Odorheiu Secuiesc, Romania. His father, Laszlo Eotvos, was a lawyer. His mother, Ilona Szucs, was a pianist and music teacher.

As a child growing up in the industrial city of Miskolc, Mr. Eotvos learned to play various instruments and began composing at the age of 5. At 14, he enrolled at the Academy of Music (today the Franz Liszt Academy of Music) in Budapest and studied with the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly. After graduating, he was music director of the Comedy Theater of Budapest and began scoring for films, which he continued to do for much of his career.

In 1965, he studied at the Cologne Musikhochschule on a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service. He joined the Stockhausen Ensemble in 1968 and remained a member for much of the next decade. In 1971, he also became a music technician at the Electronic Music Studio of WDR (West German Radio) in Cologne. Around that time, he and his second wife, the Taiwanese pianist Chen Pi-hsien, joined the Oeldorf Group, an avant-garde collective. Named for the village outside Cologne where it was based, the group specialized in live electronic music and was active throughout the 1970s.

In 1978, Mr. Eotvos conducted the inaugural concert of IRCAM, the influential institute founded by Mr. Boulez in Paris. In 1981, he led the world premiere of Mr. Stockhausen’s “Donnerstag aus Licht,” the first opera in that German composer’s seven-part cycle, at La Scala in Milan.

Engagements like those helped expand Mr. Eotvos’s career as a conductor; he was particularly sought after for contemporary music. He held positions with numerous orchestras, including the Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain (1978-1991), the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1985-1988), the Budapest Festival Orchestra (1992-1995) and the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra (1998-2001).

His survivors include two stepsons from his third marriage, to Mrs. Mezei, Peter and Daniel Timar; a daughter from his marriage to Pi-hsien Chen, Ann-yi Bingol; and two grandchildren. A son, Gyorgy, from his first marriage, to the actress Piroska Molnar, died in 1994.

Mr. Eotvos used avant-garde techniques in his music, but efforts to pigeonhole him always failed. He applied serial-music principles and incorporated electronic elements into his compositions, especially early in his career, but his music was also laced with lyricism and humor. In the documentary, he acknowledged that he was different from many of his contemporaries “who are essentially thinking in music, while I’m not.”

“I’m thinking in situations,” he said, “for which I find the soundworld.”

And while Hungary’s musical traditions influenced his musical language — he was among his country’s musical modernists, a continuum that included Bela Bartok, Gyorgy Ligeti and Kodaly — his stylistic, thematic and even linguistic range made him a thoroughly cosmopolitan composer.

When “Tri Sestri,” with a Russian libretto, premiered in 1998 in Lyon, France, it immediately established Mr. Eotvos as a leading voice in contemporary opera. In the quarter-century since, “Tri Sestri” has been performed throughout Europe and Russia, and even in Buenos Aires (though not in the United States), making it one of the most frequently produced contemporary operas.

Mr. Eotvos’s only major opera to make it to the United States is “Angels in America,” based on Mr. Kushner’s two-part, Pulitzer-Prize-winning play. It has an English libretto by Mrs. Mezei that helps distill Mr. Kushner’s seven hours of drama into 130 minutes of music. After the work’s American premiere, in Boston, in 2006, it was performed in Fort Worth, Los Angeles and New York.

Reviewing a 2017 performance in New York for The New York Times, Zachary Woolfe described the score as having a “troubled, trippy texture that can be suddenly charged with anxiety or grandeur without ever feeling clotted.”

In a 2004 Times article about the work’s world premiere, in Paris, Mr. Eotvos said, “I want my operas to have an individual style and sonority.” He added, “I need to change completely each time, to write perhaps only a few operas, but that they should be all different.”

The musical language he employed was unmistakably contemporary but also surprisingly direct and accessible, given modern opera’s reputation for difficulty. In a Times interview about “Senza Sangue” (2015), Mr. Eotvos explained his compositional approach for that work, a one-act opera conceived as a response to Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.”

“In this opera there are no avant-garde endeavors whatsoever,” he said, adding, “I’d like my work to be performable in 50 years, too.”

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