Monday, March 7, 2016

An Interview with Edward Kilenyi, Jr. (1910-2000) - Part II

This is Part II of Bálint András Varga's interview with virtuoso pianist Edward Kilenyi Jr.  For Part I, please click here.

Concert poster for Kilenyi's performance with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra.  Courtesy of the Edward Kilenyi Archive at Flordia State University.
- You had memorable musical experiences from early on. Budapest boasted a flourishing musical life and you must have heard some great musicians.

- Emil von Sauer impressed me a great deal—I heard two of his recitals—and so did Ignaz Friedman.[1] Friedman’s concert in particular left an indelible mark in my memory. I recently listened to some of his records and found that my memory was correct. He was truly a great musician but rather a wayward pianist. He played the way he happened to be feeling. Something of a gypsy musician, let’s say, whose rendition of some pieces on his repertoire was marked by incomparable beauty. Carl Flesch, Emil Telmányi and Bronisław Huberman also gave concerts—Huberman, especially, was an unforgettable experience. Sadly, he represents a by-gone era today; whenever I talk of him in America, nobody seems interested. A pity, for he was a great master.

- What was Flesch like? He, too, is more of a historical figure today.

- He was rather dry and intellectual, but Dohnányi was fond of him. In fact, they were good friends and often appeared together. But whoever may have played with Dohnányi, was upstaged by him, you just did not notice him next to Dohnányi.

- I believe Stravinsky also concertized in Budapest in the 1920s.

- I was in America when Stravinsky played his Piano Concerto in Budapest, with Emil Telmányi conducting.[2] Telmányi related of a rehearsal where the bassoonist told Stravinsky that a high E in his part was unplayable. Stravinsky protested that the note had been no problem for the bassoonist in Paris, whereupon the Hungarian musician explained that the French were using a different brand of instrument. Stravinsky gave in and said: “All right, then play E flat.”

- Anything else about Dohnányi’s teaching?

- He changed his method in America. He was no longer as exacting and taught his pupils in the accepted sense of the word. In Budapest, of course, he had led a master-class.

I am grateful to Dohnányi for insisting that I take my degree. Having appeared with some success with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam and the Budapest Philharmonic, I was rather full of myself and thought I did not need one. True to form, though, he did not make it easy for me, or indeed for my colleagues in his master-class: Goldovsky, Ferenczy and me.[3] One Sunday evening, he invited us for dinner to his villa. He was in a good mood and was very friendly. When we took our leave, however, he said out of the blue: “Oh yes, you will have to play for your degree tomorrow morning.” It came as a surprise and we were all rather taken aback. We had to choose one of three major compositions—I opted for Brahms’s Handel-Variations.[4]

- When did you return to the United States?

- In 1939, after the outbreak of the war. I played my debut in 1940, with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra; I also appeared with the New York Philharmonic.

I was duly drafted into the army and served as a private for eight or nine months. Eventually, I was made a corporal and enroled in the military academy. I was subjected to three months of grueling training—not really something I had been prepared for. After graduation, I was deployed in Britain to begin with, then for four months in Paris, followed by Luxemburg, and finally Munich.

Meanwhile, I had been promoted to lieutenant, first lieutenant and had been captain for a week when I succeeded in locating Dohnányi at Neukirchen. As I was approaching his house—a very friendly American colonel was driving me in one of Hitler’s cars—I heard him play the piano from a distance. I did not have much time, for a general had invited me to dinner at Berchtesgaden. I opened the door to Dohnányi’s room and he rose from the piano in astonishment—that was the first time I had seen uncontrolled emotion on his face: “Edikém, you are in Europe?” We had not been in touch for several years. He did not even notice that I was wearing uniform. When he did, he asked: “What is your rank?” “I am a captain”. He then turned to the colonel and said: “Look, what a distinguished pupil I have! A captain of the US army!”

I had heard of his difficulties and as soon as I arrived in Munich, I made inquiries as to his whereabouts. There were many Hungarians in that area and news soon spread that I was looking for Dohnányi. Whoever had some information, came to see me—eventually I found him.

Kilenyi's 1953 recording of Brahms Handel Variations.  LP: Remington R-199-91.  
- I believe you also met Solti at the time.

- Actually, we knew each other ever since he was twelve years old. A friend of mine was spending his leave in Switzerland and he met Solti there. When Solti realized that I was entrusted with the denazification of musical life in Munich, he became very excited, sprang to his feet and asked my friend to let me know that he would very much like to conduct in Munich. That was no problem: all I had to do was write two lines and everything was arranged. Solti came to Munich and conducted Fidelio at the opera house. It was an instant success, in fact, that one performance started the ball rolling. After that, he never looked back; his career took off. He acknowledges it to this day and talks about it in his interviews.

- When was this?

- In 1946.

- Bartók was no longer alive, but I believe you met him after his emigration.

- Yes, we conducted a long conversation in 1940. It has stayed with me as a very beautiful memory. He was in good health and great spirits. When I arrived, he greeted me by saying: “I could sue you for ten thousand dollars.” I suspected what he was referring to: I had recorded two of his Burlesques, before he had a chance to record the Quarrel movement. (A Bit Drunk had already been released with him at the piano).[5] I did not worry: I knew he was joking.

“Everybody wants to know here what I think of jazz”- he told me. “I replied that I had done something like that in 1911, in my Allegro barbaro.” What appeared in the newspaper was “Hungarian composer influenced by jazz.” They misrepresented his words.

We met at a musical soirée at the apartment of Ernő Rapée, who was making a career as a conductor in the United States.[6] Several young people were there to play for the guests, among them a talented 20-year-old violinist who performed a piece by Sarasate. Bartók turned to me: “He is all right, but what would he make of a Beethoven Sonata? His vibrato is far too strong.” I replied that I assumed Sarasate required one. “Perhaps. I suppose I am not in a mood for vibrato today.”

That was the only time I spent with Bartók. However, I was friends with Tibor Serly and he used to complain about his difficulties with Bartók.[7] The composer’s shyness stood in the way of establishing himself in American musical life. Serly told me how he had failed to convince Bartók to go up to a conductor after a performance he was satisfied with, to congratulate and thank him. Conductors were therefore led to believe that he was dissatisfied or indeed indifferent.

There was something else as well. In America, you have to take your time before things begin to happen. Dohnányi was in good health, he could afford to wait. Initially, he lived in straitened circumstances, but within a few years an aura was forming around him, and it was not too long before he was once again celebrated. If only Bartók had lived half a year longer… Of course, he witnessed the success of the Concerto for Orchestra at the first performance.

Kilenyi with a student at Florida State University, c. 1969.  Courtesy of the State Library and Archives of Florida.
- You first met Dohnányi in New York in 1921, then studied with him in Budapest and you ended up as colleagues at Florida State University at Tallahassee.

- Yes, that is destiny. Our studios were almost next door to each other.

- What were his last years like in Florida?

- He was happy and in the best of health. Sadly, by the time he made his last trip to New York, his manager, Schulhof, was dead. Schulhof had always looked after him and planned everything with care. Schulhof was no longer around—and Dohnányi was made to record in an unheated studio. No wonder he caught pneumonia. He recorded his last disc four days before he died. It ought not to have been released.

- To what extent do his records reflect his art?

- His recording of Mozart’s G Major Piano Concerto, K. 453 that he played on a tour of the Philharmonic, I think in 1926—that is Dohnányi at his best. The same is true of the records he made in Britain with Adrian Boult—for instance, the Variations on a Nursery Tune and the Piano Concerto No. 2. He also made two solo recordings with his own music—those really are representative of his piano playing. In some of those pieces, you have the impression that the music was being created during the performance. That he had not practiced and memorized those works but composed them on the spot.

Budapest, 1982


Bálint András Varga has spent more than forty years working for and with composers. His previous books include György Kurtág: Three Interviews and Ligeti Homages and Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers, published in the Eastman Studies in Music series by the University of Rochester Press.


[1] Emil v. Sauer (1862-1942) German pianist and composer, a pupil of Franz Liszt. Ignaz Friedman (1882-1948), the son of a Jewish itinerant musician in Poland, was a pianist and composer.
[2] Emil Telmányi (1892.1988) Hungarian violinist and conductor, a pupil of Jenő Hubay.
[3] György Ferenczy (1902-1983) Hungarian pianist. His first teacher was István Thomán, a pupil of Liszt. Subsequently he attended Dohnányi’s master-class and also studied chamber music with Leó Weiner.
[4] Johannes Brahms (1833-1896): Variationen über ein Thema von Händel, Op. 24 (1862)
[5] Bartók composed the Three Burlesques for piano in 1908-11.
[6] Ernő Rapée (1891-1945) was a Hungarian-born American pianist, composer and conductor. As conductor of the 77-strong orchestra of the Roxy Theater in New York, he engaged as his concert master and second conductor his fellow countryman Jenő Blau, who was to make a career as Eugene Ormandy.
[7] See the interview with György Sándor in Snippets.

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