The Hungarian Jewish Composers of WWII

By Péter Bársony

Written for the concert Hungary Torn, performed on May 2, 2013 at Carnegie Hall.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Liszt Music Academy had the highest ratio of Jewish students among all Hungarian universities. Between 1915 and 1919, almost half of all music students were Jewish. After the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919 and the enactment of Europe’s first anti-Jewish law, the so-called numerus clausus in 1920, many young Jews fled to the universities of Vienna, Prague, Paris, and, above all, Berlin and Leipzig. Following Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Hungarian Jewish musicians living, studying, and working in Germany returned to Hungary.

Although the directors of the Music Academy appeared to cooperate with the government, they in fact passively sabotaged the rules and regulations. Both Jenő Hubay and Ernő Dohnányi showed exemplary courage in opposing discrimination and persecution, which were rampant in Hungarian public life from the 1920’s on. It was Dohnányi who, in 1938, prevented the establishment of the Chamber of Musicians, a fascist organization whose goal was to banish Jews from the cultural life of the country. (In Germany the Reichmusikkammer had been formed as early as 1933 with Richard Strauss as president and Wilhelm Furtwängler as vice president.)

The mass deportation of Hungarian Jews started relatively late in the history of the Holocaust. This made it possible for a cultural rescue operation, unique in all of Europe, to continue until the German invasion of Hungary on March 19, 1944. The musical section of OMIKE (Hungarian Jewish Educational Association) provided the best Jewish musicians with opportunities to perform and earn money. OMIKE also set up a special music school for teachers and students who were denied a place elsewhere. They organized chamber and orchestral concerts as well as opera performances; the program books were printed a month before each event. Often the artists who were scheduled to play were drafted to labor service and had to be replaced, but there were so many outstanding musicians that the audience sometimes didn’t even notice the change. Artists such as Dezső Ernster, Janos Starker, Robert Gerle, Viktor Adler, and Annie Fischer performed in these concerts, and many non-Jewish artists participated as well, even though this was prohibited, out of solidarity with their colleagues.

Despite all the rescue efforts, hundreds of Hungarian musicians, including at least 22 composers, fell victim to the Nazis and their Hungarian allies. Their life and work was forgotten not only by the nation at large, but also by their immediate enviromnent, the majority of musicians, and music historians.

Ödön Pártos (Budapest, 1907–77, Tel-Aviv) was able to emigrate before the war. A violist and composer, he had studied with Hubay and Kodály and worked in Germany as a soloist and concertmaster from 1927 to 1933. In 1933 he was forced to move back to Hungary. Five years later, he emigrated to Palestine at the invitation of Bronislaw Huberman. He served as principal violist in the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra and taught at the Rubin Academy, becoming one of the pioneers of Israeli music. Yizkor – In Memoriam for Viola and Strings (1946) was written to commemorate those who had perished in the Holocaust.

László Weiner (Szombathely, 1916 –44, Lukov) also studied composition with Kodály. He was also a concert pianist. From 1940 he was regularly drafted for labor service. In 1942, he married the singer Vera Rózsa (1917– 2010); Kodály was a witness at the wedding. After his wedding, Weiner was called up again, and died in a labor camp on the Ukrainan front in the summer of 1944. The premiere of his Overture (1939) was conducted by Lajos Rajter. The work has not been played since the premiere. After the war, Vera Rózsa moved to London where she became a world-famous voice teacher; her students included Kiri Te Kanawa and Anne-Sofie von Otter.

Mihály Nádor (Temesvár, 1882–1944, unknown) studied in Munich. In 1901 he won the Beethovenhaus competition in Bonn with his string quartet. In 1917 he became a prisoner-of-war in Russia, from where he managed to escape. Although a great part of his rich oeuvre was in a lighter style—operetta, stage incidental music, chanson, film music, cabaret music—he continuously worked on his classical works even in the last years of his life. Early in 1944 he gave 14 packages of his works, including the Violin Concerto, to a friend for safekeeping. A few months later, in June 1944, he was killed at an unknown location. Nádor composed his one-movement Violin Concerto in 1903. In 1941 he added two more movements, and in 1942 he further revised the piece, giving it its final form in May 1942. This is the version which will receive its premiere tonight.

László Gyopár (Budapest, 1918–44, unknown) was a student of Zoltán Kodály and Leó Weiner at the Academy of Music in Budapest. The talented young musician tried to earn his living in war-time Budapest by giving music-theory and solfeggio lessons. Although he converted to Christianity with his parents, due to his Jewish descent he fell under the regulations of the anti-Jewish laws. He was drafted for labor service. In the summer of 1944 on the Russian front his health deteriorated, and he fell behind in the column during a retreat. He was shot to death by a Hungarian guard. He had entrusted his magnum opus, his Mass in D-minor (1942) to his friend and companion in labor service, composer Istvan Anhalt (1919–2012). Anhalt preserved the score and brought it to safety in Canada. In 1994, he arranged for the premiere of parts of the work with the help of composer András Szőllősy (1921–2007). The Credo movement has never been played in concert before.

Péter Bársony is a violist and a professor at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest.