“After two years at the Fodor School, I passed the entrance examinations [at the age of 12] for the Liszt Academy, where, for six years, I received the most significant part of my formal music education. The Liszt Academy is housed in a magnificent building, and its beautiful Art Nouveau concert hall has marvelous acoustics for solo recitals and chamber music performances. The training I received there was difficult and at times harsh, but those who survived the experience emerged as real musicians. The academy gave me a grounding in discipline and hard work that has sustained me throughout my life, and the lessons I learned there I now try to impress on young people. . . .
“My first piano teacher there was Arnold Székely . . . When I was fifteen or sixteen, Professor Székely caught pneumonia, and we pupils were told that during his absence his lessons would be given by Professor Bartók. Although Béla Bartók was a fine pianist and needed to teach in order to earn a living, the obvious question remains: Why was he teaching piano instead of composition? The answer is he believed that composition cannot be taught. He was absolutely right. One does have to learn the elements of composition, such as harmony, counterpoint, and form, but one can’t be taught how to compose anything worth hearing; one either does or does not have a talent for composing music.
“Bartók presented an austere, forbidding front to the world even in those years, when he was still in his mid-forties, his reputation was daunting. . . . We were fully aware that there was an authentic genius teaching at our academy.
“When I learned that I would have to play for him, I felt terribly fearful. Bartók kept our class separate from his own; we spent several hours with him twice a week . . . Seventy years have elapsed since then and I do not remember much about those sessions, but I do recall that at every lesson each pupil played parts of The Well-Tempered Clavier for Bartók. I also played some Debussy preludes for him. During one of the first lessons, I made a terrible faux pas: I sat down to play his Allegro barbaro for piano solo. When he saw me set the music on the stand, he became quite upset. ‘No, no, not that!’ he said. ‘I don’t want to hear that!’ It was stupid of me to have thought that he might have enjoyed hearing an immature pupil play one of his compositions, but my intentions had been good: I had wanted to show my love and respect for him.”
“I don’t remember the name of my first teacher at the Liszt Academy, but when, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, I won a prize in a piano competition promoted by a Budapest politician, one of the pieces I played was my own. My mother, convinced that I was a second Mozart, persuaded the politician to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf to the academy’s best-known composition teacher, Zoltán Kodály. . . .
“I don’t know how my mother had the courage to take me to a man of such prestige as Kodály, but there we were one day in his studio at the academy. Such was her naïveté in political matters that she didn’t realize that the politician who had written the letter she handed him was right-wing; Kodály was left-wing. ‘My son composes and has brought along some little pieces that he has written,’ she said. ‘Would you like to listen to them?’
“I am sure that the pieces were terrible, but Kodály listened patiently. ‘The boy certainly has talent,’ he told my mother, ‘but he must finish his education. Bring him back to me when he is eighteen, and we’ll discuss the matter again.’ This was a fair remark, but my mother was deeply offended: How had Kodály dared to turn down her little Mozart? Instead of following his advice, she took me immediately to Albert Siklós, the other principal composition professor at the academy; he listened to my pieces and accepted me as a pupil. . . .
“Composition exams were held twice a year; we were given blank music paper early in the morning and had to produce a certain type of composition by noon. Together, Siklós and Kodály looked at each student’s work and graded it . . . Kodály never gave the slightest indication that he recognized me. He always graded my work fairly, but he never said a word to me. I finished the course successfully and wrote a string quartet as a graduation piece, thereby ending my career as a composer. Kodály handed me my diploma, but not even then did he say a word to me.”
Solti later encountered Kodály on a few occasions, several years after Solti left the Academy. Their final encounter was in 1965 “when he attended some rehearsals and one of my performances of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron at Covent Garden. Afterward, he said the nicest things to me—what a marvelous musician I had become, and so on. I was as pleased as could be, because he was a shy man and not normally generous with compliments.”
“During my last two years at the academy, I studied composition with Ernö Dohnányi . . . the internationally celebrated pianist, conductor, and composer, who became the academy’s director a few years after I graduated. He was a brilliant man but not a good teacher.
“At first, I had a composition lesson with him once every two weeks. He would look at my work, play it through at the piano, mark it up, and discuss it with me; he was a phenomenal sight reader, and he could whip through whatever I had set down on paper, no matter how messy the scrawl. After a few months, however, he told me ‘Phone me whenever you’ve written something.’ This was a fatal pedagogical error: I worked less and less, and during the second year I didn’t have more than three lessons with him. His attitude toward teaching piano was the same: ‘Call me when you’ve prepared something,’ he would tell his disciples. And when he did give lessons, his method consisted of pushing the pupil away from the keyboard and playing the piece himself. . . .
“Dohnányi was a remarkable pianist. His Beethoven was very free but showed a fine sense of phrasing and form. A performance he gave of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata remains in my memory, not because of the wonderful interpretation, but because he got lost in the first movement’s tricky development section. In an amazing display of sangfroid, he improvised his way out of the problem. Others would have stood up and left the stage, but he went on.”
“Beginning at about the age of fourteen, and until graduation from the academy, [most of] the instrumentalists had to participate in the [chamber music] course. Presiding over it for many years was the composer Leo Weiner, who thus exercised an enormous influence on three generations of Hungarian musicians. . . .
“In his class, I played a vast amount of repertoire, from Mozart to Brahms. I cannot emphasize enough how grateful I am to him. He was a marvelous, natural musician, but also a complete professional with a broad and profound knowledge of the art of making music. He never spoke about technique, but, rather, about musical structure, freedom of phrasing, and about probing beyond the notes. He taught us to listen to one another when we played in an ensemble, however large or small, and to develop a sense of when to lead and when to follow—and why, and how. Knowing how to listen, knowing how to assess what is going on within the ensemble, and knowing how to pinpoint and fix what is wrong—these are a chamber musician’s basic skills and they are a conductor’s basic skills. I am not exaggerating when I say that whatever I have achieved as a musician I owe more to Leo Weiner than to anyone else.”
In November 1993 at Orchestra Hall, Music Director Laureate Sir Georg Solti paid tribute to the Liszt Academy and his teachers, performing and recording several works with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The release—entitled Mephisto Magic—included the following works:
LISZT Mephisto Waltz No. 1
LISZT Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2
BARTÓK Hungarian Sketches
WEINER Prince Csongor and the Goblins, Op. 10
BARTÓK Romanian Folk Dances
KODÁLY Háry János Suite, Op. 35a
For London Records, Michael Woolcock was the producer, Colin Moorfoot was the engineer, and Matthew Hutchinson was the tape editor.
Text excerpted from Memoirs by Sir Georg Solti.