Judit Varga laughs when asked what she’d do if ever the creative juices that have made her one of Europe’s most sought-after composers of what she calls “new music” suddenly dried up. “Then I’ll stop. If the world no longer has an ear for what I have to say, then I’ll concentrate on baking cakes. A nicely created birthday cake can be just as much of a piece of art as my compositions.”

And then she frowns. It is clear that the enormity of what she was saying has just hit her. “But I don’t think it will ever happen. I think I’d go crazy if I suddenly couldn’t compose!” She need not worry. At 43, Varga has already accomplished more than many artists have in a lifetime. She’s head of the composition department at Vienna’s University of Music and Performing Arts and composer of the 2022-23 season at Müpa, Budapest’s Palace of the Arts. She’s written an opera as well as scores of orchestral, ensemble, chamber, solo, film, and stage work and holds over 20 awards. Her compositions are regularly performed at prestigious venues international venues that include the Philharmonie de Paris, Vienna's Konzerthaus and Musikverein, and New York’s Juilliard School.

Judit Varga
© Szilvia Csibi | Müpa Budapest

But just minutes into the start of our conversation over cappuccinos at a café near Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace, Varga is discussing upcoming projects with the zest of an artist who has not only made her mark in the composing world but still has a lot more to say. Much of her focus is on upcoming projects in the 2022-23 season. First up is the “Evening with Composer Judit Varga” at Budapest’s Festival Theater on October 6th. It will include the world première Bending Space and Time, a short concerto grosso for trumpet, piano, and drums, backed up by the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra. The Béla Bartók National Concert Hall in Budapest is the venue for Varga’s stars buried deep that shares billing on April 28th with Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason’s Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra – two world premières, performed by the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg. Then, on May 13th, her Happy Birthday, Major Ludwig has its Hungarian première at the same concert hall, along with the world première performance of Fazıl Say’s Concerto for Two Trumpets and Orchestra with the Prague Symphony Orchestra.

Varga’s works defy definition beyond evoking deep emotion in the listener. But she says that Bending Space and Time is unique, the result of a voyage of self-discovery that is not yet complete. “It is different from the others I’ve recently written, simpler both in the means of expression and the musical language. I mostly use pitch and rhythm, with very little timbre and no playing techniques.”

She describes the piece as “back to the beginnings in some ways,” a voyage of self-discovery that began with the start of her slower professional period over the past four summer months. “I had long forgotten to be myself ...  to give of myself without thinking about whether what I’m doing is right or wrong, and this is what I’m looking for again. I am looking to peel away the impressions of my musical education and the world around me like the layers of an onion so that I can find my more authentic part.”

Interesting, I tell her. But then what’s the point of studying composition when she’s now looking to throw off what she’s learned in her search for her inner self? How does the structural meld with the intuitive? Varga laughs. “That’s way too simple. Part of composing is learning the handiwork. When I say that what I do is intuitive, that it's my gut feeling, it took a long time to develop that gut feeling. Everything that I learned as a student has now sunken into my gut. This is why I can depend on my gut feeling.”

Judit Varga
© Szilvia Csibi | Müpa Budapest

But not always. Different forces come into play when composing for films, Varga says. “First, you have the film or the script, and then the music. The most important thing for me when writing for film is to make sure that the images that I’ve received work better with my music than without it. So that’s my job here, and not to rely on my intuition to create a story or a universe, which is what I do with commissioned works.” Additional constraints are imposed by the German film industry, one, she says, is too limited for great orchestral works. “The director would scrap it were I to compose like John Williams. The music for the German film market has to be small and restrained and unobtrusive.”

She is reflective when talking about what it’s like to be among the relatively few successful women in a field dominated by men. With the arts generally considered egalitarian, it's a fact that outsiders would not necessarily see as a disadvantage in the 21st century. But Varga says there is still a ways to go, though much has changed since the days of Clara Schumann. “The big difference between then and now is that it's now allowed for a woman to make composition a career.” Yet, she says, gender and other biases continue to exist. “We are miles removed from it not mattering whether you are a man, a woman black, white, hetero or not hetero. Ageism and appearance also play a role, although my music is ageless and genderless and everything else ‘less’. It’s music pure and simple and I would defy anyone to make assumptions about the age, gender, or color of who wrote it just by listening to it.”

But bias is less of an issue for her now than it was at the start, a fact she attributes in part to her success and before that her move to Vienna, her present home. She started her composition studies 20 years ago at the Franz Liszt Music Academy in Budapest. “Back then, I heard often enough that I didn’t have a chance because I was a woman. I was never confronted with that kind of attitude in Vienna. On the contrary, I was at an advantage as a young woman. It was preferred or mandatory even back then to establish gender parity in the music world, to aim for a 50-50 quota.” She dismisses any suggestion, however, of that kind of positive bias giving her too much of an advantage. “They might have picked me over a man for a commissioned project at the beginning. But the commissions that followed came because they liked what I could do.”

Varga remains grateful for the boost in her career that Vienna gave her, and it’s her home, for now. But she lives in a different space when it comes to work, what she calls her “two mini-universes”. “One is my digital network. I spend a lot of time by myself and work alone as well. But I have contacts all over the world both privately and professionally, and this happens on the Internet, which means I could be anywhere. My other universe is Vienna’s University of Music and Performing Arts, where I teach. But this, too, is not really Vienna. It’s much more colorful and international, the teachers as well, but mostly the students. As far as Vienna goes, I could leave any time, as long as I have or find these kinds of spaces elsewhere.”

She shrugs when asked whether she composes for those who commissioned work or the audience that will hear it. “It’s the same really. If the public likes it, then the client will as well. But I’m working on being able to say that I compose first and foremost for myself.” An amateur painter, she compares her composing with putting color to paper. “If you lack talent or have nothing to say then you can cover it up with lots of the tools you’ve learned. But once you’ve reached the point where you know you can say something wonderful, then all you need are two colors and the stroke of a brush, and it’s done.

“And for this, you need courage.”


This article was sponsored by Wavemaker Hungary, on behalf of MÜPA.