His hometown changed hands from Hungary to Romania. What he saw while under Communist rule before he went west no doubt shaped the peculiar tensions of his music, which often sounds like lessons learned through surviving persecution. In 1940, he studied piano with Magda Kardos and composition from Max Eisikovits, at Temesvár (Timisoara, Romania). He then moved to Budapest in 1946, enrolling in the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music, studying composition with Sándor Veress and Ferenc Farkas, as well as piano with Pál Kadosa and chamber music with Leó Weiner. These people remained proud Hungarians, though war had altered the international borders drastically. Kurtág officially became a Hungarian citizen in 1948. In the early part of the 1950s, he continued his studies of composition, chamber music, and piano. He was an outstanding student, winning the Erkl prize in 1954 and 1956. In 1957 - 1958 he went west for a one-year stay in Paris, studying with Marianne Stein and attending courses of Darius Milhaud and Olivier Messiaen.
Though the standard of living in democratic France was no doubt higher than communist Hungary, Kurtág returned home as repetiteur of soloists with the Hungarian National Philharmonia throughout most the 1960s. He was also professor at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music, Budapest, first of piano, then of chamber music. In 1971, he had his second appointment in the west. This time it was a one-year stay in West Berlin as grantee of the DAAD scholarship. His reputation began to gain more ground.
What little he had written demonstrated itself as the work of genius, beginning with the brief Quartetto per archi opus 1 from 1959. A perfect synthesis of Webern and Bartók, this work has an undistracted intelligence about it, a courage that intellectuals required to survive the tyranny of the Soviets. He did seem entirely at odds with the Communists, having written some works with anti-American sentiment, but this appeared exclusively before his visit to Paris in the 1950s. The 1960s and 1970s were been fairly uneventful, and his catalog continued to grow at a startlingly slow rate. However, what works he had written made a large impression.
After his retirement from the Liszt Academy in 1986, he lived in Germany and Austria. In 1987, one year after leaving Hungary, he immediately became a member of the Bayerische Akademie der Schönen Künste, Munich, as well as a member of the Akademie der Künste, Berlin. His works were getting more sought after, and he was relentlessly sought after as an instructor.
Living at a comparatively brisker, international pace, in 1993 he was awarded the Prix de Composition Musicale by the Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco, for his Grabstein für Stephan and Op. 27 No. 2 (Double Concerto); the Herder Prize by the Freiherr-vom-Stein Stiftung, Hamburg; and the Premio Feltrinelli by the Accademia dei Lincei, Rome. That same year, Kurtág was invited to stay in Berlin as composer in residence with the Berliner Philharmoniker for two years. This was followed by a residency with the Wiener Konzerthaus and, in 1998, the Kossuth Prize from the Hungarian states for his life's work.
Kurtág had carved his place in the Western world while still behind the Iron Curtain, emerging in the 1980s as an indisputably necessary voice.