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Lilly, Teréz, György, and Móricz Stern in 1913

”During the first six years of my life, Hungary was one of the most important components of the Habsburg dynasty’s vast Austro-Hungarian Empire, but after World War I it became an independent national entity As a result of the subsequent upsurge in Hungarian nationalism, many Hungarians with Germanic surnames were encouraged to adopt Hungarian equivalents. My parents kept the family’s original surname, Stern, but my father decided that my sister and I should change it to facilitate our careers. He chose a new name at random: Solti—the name of a small Hungarian town. My first name, György, remained the same until I left Hungary, but then, as no one abroad could cope with the pronunciation of this strangely spelled name, it was changed to Georg in German-speaking countries and pronounced like George in English-speaking countries. . . .

“My father, Mórícz Stern, born in 1878, in Balatonfökajár, moved to Budapest as a young man, along with two of his brothers. He was a sweet man but utterly untalented at business, despite which, he kept trying all his life—first as a flour merchant, then as an insurance salesman, and finally as a real estate broker. . . . My mother, Teréz Rosenbaum, came from Ada, a village in the Bácska region of southern Hungary (now Croatia), between the Danube and the Tisza rivers. . . . My mother’s family had several extraordinary members, the most celebrated of whom was her second cousin László Moholy-Nagy, the painter, photographer, and cofounder of the Bauhaus. . . .

György, age 4, in 1916

“My mother was still in her midteens when she met and married my father, and only eighteen when my sister, Lilly, was born in 1904; my father was twenty-six. I appeared eight years later, on October 21, 1912. My birthplace was an apartment in Vérmezö Street in Buda. (Buda, on the west bank of the Danube, and Pest, on the east bank, were separate cities until 1872.) I didn’t live there for long, however. When I was two, World War I broke out; although my father was already thirty-six and considerably overweight, he volunteered to work in a military office in the town of Veszprém, northwest of Lake Balaton, and he took his family with him. . . . My earliest memories date from our years in Veszprém. . . .

“When I was six—the year we returned to Budapest from Veszprém, and the year I started school—my mother, who was very musical, noticed that I sang well and clearly, and she decided that I had a good ear . . . my mother devoted all her time and energy to my musical development and made up her mind that I would take lessons. . . .

György and Lilly in 1923

“I was about eight years old at the time [when] Lilly, my sister, who was sixteen, had begun to study singing, and my parents thought they might save a little money if I could accompany her; I think this was a major issue for them. (Lilly eventually had a minor career as a singer. Like our father, she had a nice voice but was not very musical, and after two years of singing in provincial Germany theaters, she buried her operatic ambitions and got married.) On the other hand, my mother truly believed that I had the makings of a musician. She even resisted the advice of one of her brothers to make me learn an ‘real’ profession, rather than music. In the vast majority of cases, his advice would have been correct. Only a tiny percentage of the children who take music lessons have the talent, ambition, and stamina to work ceaselessly, the toughness to survive the bad patches, and the sheer luck to succeed in a musical career. But I undoubtedly owe my life in music to my mother. . . .

György, age 22, in 1934

“On August 15, 1939, at the age of twenty-six, I said good-bye to my mother and sister, picked up a little suitcase containing a pair of shoes, some clean shirts and underpants, and my Harris tweed suit from London, and with my father took a tram to Budapest’s Western Railroad Station. My father was the mildest, sweetest man imaginable. He had never scolded me or denied me anything. I was the light of his life, and he cared more about me than about anything else in the world, just as I now feel about my own daughters. I loved him, too, but was not as devoted to him as he was to me. . . .

“When we got to the station, we stood on the platform, chatting, as the train arrived. Just as I was about to climb aboard, my father began to cry. I was very embarrassed. ‘Why are you crying?’ I asked him. ‘Look, can’t you see I’m only taking this one little suitcase? I’m coming back in ten days’ time!’ But it was as if he knew with certainty we would be parted forever.

“The sight of his tears and the harsh tone of my voice have haunted me ever since. I have never forgiven myself for my abruptness. I was never to see him again.”

Text excerpted from Memoirs by Sir Georg Solti.

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