Saturday, March 5, 2016

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

We are pleased to be able to print for the first time in English another essay omitted for reasons of space from Bálint András Varga's From Boulanger to Stockhausen (University of Rochester Press, 2013).  This interview will be split over two posts.  This week, Edward Kilenyi Jr. discusses musical life in early twentieth-century Budapest; next week includes reflections on his experiences in the United States.

Edward Kilenyi Sr. (1884-1968) was a Hungarian composer who spent most of his active life in the United States, settling there in 1908. His film music may not have survived, but his name has, thanks to his association with George Gershwin: he was Gershwin’s teacher in harmony, music theory and instrumentation. 

His son, the pianist Edward Kilenyi Jr, was born in Philadelphia in 1910; seventy-two years later, in May 1982, I interviewed him in Budapest. His command of Hungarian was highly impressive, thanks to the years he had spent in Hungary as a pupil of Ernő (Ernst von) Dohnányi as from 1922. 

Kilenyi’s life was truly exceptional; the effect his story made on me was heightened by his matter-of-fact, rather modest manner of relating it. 

I was wondering why his father had decided to send him to Budapest to continue his studies when he might just as well have stayed in the United States or gone to Paris, London or Vienna.

Edward Kilenyi Jr. (1910-2000).  Courtesy of the Edward Kilenyi Collection at University of Maryland.

- In those years, there was as yet no Juilliard, no Curtis, no Eastman.[1] Surely there must have been good teachers in America but we did not know where to look for them. The idea that I should study in Budapest came from Dohnányi. We met on his tour of the United States in 1921 and I was introduced to him. He listened to my playing (I was no child prodigy by any means, but had had some success by then at school concerts) and he was the first one to tell me that what I was doing was all wrong. I had a good piano teacher actually, a pupil of Leschetitzky, but Dohnányi disapproved of him.[2]

I have a vivid recollection of the occasion to this day. I played the Phantasie impromptu and he commented “You must not go overboard.” My tempo for the Adagio was too slow, for I did not really understand what Chopin meant. Neither did I find the right tempo for the following Andante. “You are playing a caricature of the music,” he warned me, and drew one in the air with his hand. I was just eleven years old, so he adapted his advice to my age.

I stayed one more year in New York—you cannot uproot yourself from one day to the next—so as to complete my studies at junior high school, where I was three years ahead of the others.

We moved to Budapest in 1922 and once again, Dohnányi auditioned me. I played for him the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in A Major, Op. 2. It starts with a very difficult arpeggio. My hands were cold, my fingers were stiff—I just could not bring it off. I tried again—in vain. Dohnányi knocked with his finger on my forehead: “You have to think first. Concentrate before you start playing!”

He placed me under the tutelage of Irén Senn and checked on my progress every two or there months.[3] Prof. Senn was an absolutely wonderful pedagogue of colossal energy; she was also extremely strict. I was made to practice four hours a day, playing one note every two seconds. I am not exaggerating.

- It taught you self-control and self-discipline.

- That’s right. Also, she wanted to see if I would hold on or give up. Dohnányi was very satisfied when he next heard me but commented that my playing was rather soulless. No wonder: the question of music had not come up at all.

I had by then started to take theory lessons—later on also chamber music—from Leó Weiner whom Dohnányi had recommended.[4] Weiner was very kind, but musically we did not get on very well.

- Did you study with Senn, Weiner and Dohnányi privately?

- Yes, but in accordance with the curriculum of the Academy.

- The goal being to be eventually admitted to Dohnányi’s class?

- He had no class by then. I was his private pupil between 1922 and 1925, but he never charged me anything. Dohnányi had had a class till early 1920, but then had to leave the Academy for political reasons.[5]

I had to learn everything by heart and had sufficient time to practice before showing a piece to Dohnányi. On one occasion, before leaving for a conducting tour of the United States, he wanted me to play Beethoven’s Sonata in E flat Major, Op, 31. “Of course,” I said. “Do you want the first movement?” “No, the whole piece!” I had a hard time of it... It had taken me a year and a half to master the work—and then, all of a sudden, it just burst out of me. I remember the look in Irén Senn’s eyes. What had happened? From one moment to the next, I was a different pianist. Things like that do happen with adolescents—after that, it all went swimmingly.

- What had kept you going? After all, the world you had landed in was fundamentally different from New York where you had grown up. And, as you said, music was initially neglected altogether. 

- It took me about two months to become attuned to my new life in Budapest. I became transformed in those two months. Of course, I was just a child, and I think I may say that I was a well-behaved boy. And: however difficult it may have been to make any progress in my studies, the music held me captive.

- To put the record straight: you studied with Irén Senn and were supervised by Dohnányi. That was between 1922 and 1925. Did you then become Dohnányi’s pupil in 1925?

- Yes.

A portrait of Kilenyi by Eva Besnyo, c. 1930s.  Courtesy of J&J Lubrano Music Antiques.
- According to music encyclopaedias, you studied with him between 1927 and 1930—was that at the Academy?

- Yes, he had been reinstated by then.

- So you graduated from the Budapest Academy and received your diploma as pianist. 

- That’s right. I also studied chamber music with Imre Waldbauer and conducting with Ernő Unger.[6] He conducted my very first appearance with orchestra. As a matter of interest, Unger’s father, Mór Unger, had been my father’s first teacher.

- You studied at the Academy at a time when Bartók, Kodály, Weiner, Dohnányi were on the staff; the director was Jenő Hubay (1958-1937). You witnessed a golden age of the institution that established its international reputation.

- We were very much aware of their unique stature. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was relaxed. We were merry young men and women, some of us not above playing pranks.

Boris Goldovsky, who was also in Dohnányi’s master-class, was particularly naughty.[7] He had taken lessons in jiu-jitsu during the summer and decided to demonstrate his skills using me as his victim. We were waiting for Ernő Unger to turn up for his class when Goldovsky lifted me into the air. I was hanging upside down when our professor arrived. Goldovsky put me down and Unger, although he was rather a stiff man, pretended he had not seen anything,

- Can you tell me about Dohnányi’s classes in some detail?

- They were no classes in the accepted sense of the word. We went to his house in the Buda hills, all four of us, and took turns in playing. Dohnányi had exacting standards. He knew, of course, that it would take us two years before we could profit from his teaching. I had an advantage compared to the others, of course, because I had started earlier with him.

We would play a work from beginning to end, and Dohnányi would listen very intensively. He would then play the piece for us or correct minor details, such as embellishments: we tended to play them much too fast, a mistake he took very seriously. The third possibility was for him to explain certain details, in the most concise possible manner, in two sentences, perhaps.

Most importantly: he created an atmosphere that affected us all. Also, he was always very friendly and polite to his pupils.

- I seem to remember that he made some scathing comments on Jeanne-Marie Darré when he auditioned her.[8]

- I was there when Darré played for Dohnányi. He was just as polite to her as to anybody else. She had been recommended to him by Philipp…[9]

-…you mean Isidore Philipp? 

- Yes. I met him in later years.

Dohnányi had a Chickering piano whose keys were notoriously hard-going. With Jeanne-Marie’s technique (her fingers bending backwards) she was a non-starter. No wonder Dohnányi was not impressed. He had taught us to be able to play even on the top of a table, that is, to perform on any piano.
A concert poster of Edward Kilenyi.  Courtesy of the Edward Kilenyi Archive at Florida State University College of Music.
- Bartók was teaching at the same time as Dohnányi. Why would one learn from one rather than the other?

- Bartók would send his pupils to study with Dohnányi, because he was aware that Dohnányi could teach them things that lay outside his, Bartók’s, domain.

- Weren’t you worried that by studying with Dohnányi, you were losing something that Bartók might have given you?

- Bartók was a wonderful pianist, but his was a particular technique and a particular world and it differed from Dohnanyi’s world and Dohnányi’s playing.

- Apparently that was closer to you.

- Yes. It would never have occurred to me to change from one to the other. After all, I had started with Dohnányi.

- Nevertheless, you would have been aware of Bartók’s presence at the Academy.


- Very much so! I had, how shall I put it, a historic experience in attending the concert of November 19, 1923 that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the unification of Buda and Pest to form Budapest. The government had commissioned Dohnányi, Bartók and Kodály to write new works for the occasion. Dohnányi conducted and played the piano solo in Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy.[10] His own Festive Ouverture was an occasional piece. It was followed by Bartók’s Dance Suite. Dohnányi permitted me to attend the rehearsals. Difficult music; I have played the piano version prepared by Bartók himself. It was the first major work of his that I had ever heard. No wonder it sounded rather alien and was not much of a success at the premiere. Kodály’s Psalmus hungaricus, on the other hand, scored a resounding success.

- Doráti was playing the celesta part in Dance Suite.

- Luckily, I heard an interview with him on the radio the day before yesterday. I had been under the impression that I was the only person alive today who had been present at the world premiere—now I learned from him that he had also been there.

I had seen Bartók before but I was now able to observe him properly. I sensed immediately that he was somebody who inhabited a world all his own. His fiery eyes went straight through me.[11]

- How did Bartók behave at the rehearsals? After all, he was hearing something that obviously went against his intentions.

- He made a few comments but I suppose he was aware what he could expect, given the limited rehearsal time.[12]

- I believe it was for Václav Talich to achieve a breakthrough for Dance Suite two years after the premiere.[13]

- That’s right. The concert in Budapest ended with Berlioz’s Rákóczi March. All in all, it was a very suitable program for that festive occasion.

to be continued...


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] Edward Kilenyi was wrong: the "Institute of Musical Art" that was to become the "Juilliard Foundation" in 1920, had been established in 1905. The Eastman School of Music was founded in 1921. The Curtis Institute followed suit in 1924.
[2] Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915) was a Polish pianist and composer.
[3] Irén Senn (1883-1957) was a well-known piano teacher in the first half of the twentieth century, a professor at the Budapest Academy of Music between 1920 and 1937. Her piano primer has retained its popularity to this day.
[4] Leó Weiner (1885-1960) was a Hungarian composer and a highly significant professor of music theory, composition, and especially chamber music. His pupils included Georg Solti, Géza Anda, György Kurtág and others.
[5] Dohnányi, Bartók, and Kodály had been members of the "Music Directorate" of the Hungarian Republic of Councils in 1919. After the fall of that communist experiment, those who had played a role in it either emigrated, or had to resign.
[6] Imre Waldbauer (1892-1953) Hungarian violinist, founder of the string quartet named after him. The ensemble debuted in 1910 with the world premieres of the first string quartets of Bartók and Kodály. Ernő Unger (1900-1968) was a Hungarian composer and conductor. He taught conducting at the Academy between 1922 and 1950. Unger is credited with the Hungarian premiere of Cosí fan tutte (1923).
[7] Boris Goldovsky (1908-2001) was a Russian conductor and pianist. He studied with Arthur Schnabel in Berlin and Dohnányi in Budapest in 1924. He moved to the United States in 1930 and studied conducting with Fritz Reiner at the Curtis Institute. He made his career as an opera producer, conductor and broadcaster.
[8] Jeanne-Marie Darré (1905-1999) French pianist. She appeared a great deal in Budapest, the posters advertising her as a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. It never failed to make a great impression—certainly on me…
[9] Isidore Philipp (1863-1958) born in Budapest, taken to France as a child, Philipp was a pianist and renowned teacher. His pupils included Aaron Copland, Soulima Stravinsky, and Beveridge Webster.
[10] Composed in 1852 for piano and orchestra, the Hungarian Fantasy was premiered at Pest on June 1, 1853. Hans von Bülow was the soloist, Ferenc Erkel conducted.
[11] In his Preface to a selection of Bartók’s correspondence published in English, the British composer Michael Tippett recalled the one time he had seen Bartók. "He came with his second wife to England just before the last war and played with her, for the BBC, the Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion. After the concert he was dawdling by the piano and our eyes accidentally met as I watched him from among the seats. I remember the sense of being for a second the object of an acute spiritual vision, which seemed to look at once right inside me from right inside himself. I am certain he had no consciousness of the extreme subjective impression this moment made on me, and which I can recall to this day with eidetic accuracy. But I am also certain I saw something of the real Bartók, if only by intimation" (Béla Bartók Letters. Collected, Selected, Edited and Annotated by János Demény. Budapest: Corvina Press, 1971, 9).
[12] Bartók commented on the world premiere: “My Dance Suite was so badly performed that it could not achieve any significant success. In spite of its simplicity there are a few difficult places, and our Philharmonic musicians were not sufficiently adult for them. Rehearsal time was, as usual, much too short, so the performance sounded like sight-reading, and a poor one at that” (Quoted in György Kroó: A Guide to Bartók. Budapest: Corvina Press, 1971, 116).
[13] Václav Talich (1883-1961) Czech conductor. He led a performance of the Dance Suite at the ISCM Festival in Prague in 1925, with his Czech Philharmonic Orchestra—an interpretation that demonstrated the exceptional qualities of the composition.

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