György Kurtág was born in Lugoj in the Banat region, Romania. In 1946, he began his studies at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, where he met his wife, Márta, and also György Ligeti, who became a close friend. His piano teacher at the academy was Pál Kadosa; he studied composition with Sándor Veress and Ferenc Farkas, and chamber music with Leó Weiner. He graduated in piano and chamber music in 1951 and received his degree in composition in 1955.
Following the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Kurtág’s time in Paris between 1957 and 1958 was of critical importance for him. Here, he studied with Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud. During this time however, Kurtag was suffering from a severe depression: 'I realized to the point of despair that nothing I had believed to constitute the world was true...'. Kurtág received psychological therapy from Marianne Stein – an encounter that revivified the composer and strongly stimulated his artistic development. During this time he also discovered the works of Anton Webern and the plays of Samuel Beckett. The String Quartet he composed in 1959 after his return to Budapest marks this crucial turning point; he refers to this piece as his Opus 1. He dedicated it to his therapist, Stein.
Between 1960 and 1968, he worked as répétiteur at the National Philharmonia in Budapest. In 1967, he was appointed professor of piano and later also of chamber music at the Franz Liszt Academy, where he taught until 1993.
Kurtág’s international reputation began to take hold with Messages of the Late Miss R.V. Troussova for soprano and chamber ensemble, which had its premiere in Paris in 1981. Since the early 1990s, he has worked abroad with increasing frequency: he was composer in residence at the Berlin Philharmonic (1993–95) and the Vienna Konzerthaus Society (1995). He then lived in the Netherlands (1996–98), again in Berlin (1998–99) and upon invitation by Ensemble InterContemporain, Cité de la Musique and Festival d’Automne, in Paris (1999–2001). György Kurtág and his wife have lived near Bordeaux since 2002.